Croatia closes its border, but migrants keep coming anyway

GlobalPost
Migrants walk through cornfields in between Serbia and Croatia on their way to Western Europe. 
Richard Hall

SERBIA-CROATIA BORDER — Refugees and migrants continued to stream over the border from Serbia to Croatia on Friday, despite the Croatian government closing most crossings between the two countries.

The closure of seven of the eight crossings was supposed to stop the flow of migrants into the country, which has increased dramatically since Hungary shut its own border with Serbia on Wednesday. But it seemed to have little impact.

Buses packed with people hoping to enter Croatia began to arrive in the morning near the Serbian border town of Sid. In the afternoon, they came every 20 minutes. People disembarked from the buses half a mile away from the official border crossing, and in a repeat of the last few days, walked the rest of the way through a cornfield and into Croatia.

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In the blazing heat, entire families dragged their belongings along a dirt track that runs through the field. Mothers and fathers carried children on their backs, stooping and sweating with no protection from the sun. At the other side of the field lay a graveyard, where Serbian police directed the migrants around the official border posts. 

“Is there help on the other side?” asked a Syrian woman, traveling with her three young children. “How far is it to walk?”

Croatia’s failure to stem the flow of migrants raises questions about the effectiveness of border closures as a measure to tackle the crisis. Croatia, like many other European countries, has struggled to come up with a coherent response to the influx.

The Croatian prime minister, Zoran Milanović, said Friday that his country “will not become a migrant hotspot.”

“We cannot register and accommodate these people any longer. They will get food, water and medical help, and then they can move on,” he said at a news conference.

In the two days following Hungary’s border closure, more than 10,000 migrants crossed into Croatia. At times, the police have struggled to handle such large numbers. Clashes broke out between migrants and police on Thursday after hundreds of people were held at a train station in Tovarnik, just over the border in Croatia. 

But no amount of warnings or closures has stopped the refugees, who are coming from all over Syria, Afghanistan and some African nations. Many of today’s travelers came from Deir ez-Zor, in eastern Syria, and the capital Damascus. 

As the day wore on, arrivals increased at the border. At a halfway way point between Croatia and Serbia, a mobile clinic run by Doctors Without Borders was providing travelers with treatment. One elderly man struggled to breathe as he lay on the ground, attended by medical staff.

Alberto Martinez Polis, medical activity manager for the aid organization, said they had seen 180 patients since arriving at the site on Thursday.

“These people are strong people, as you can see. They have been walking for kilometers and kilometers. But we see complaints that arise because of the journey such as sun burns, sprains, sore bodies.”

Sitting under a tree to catch his breath, 23-year-old Ahmed, from the Syrian city of Idlib, spoke about where he hoped to end up.

“Maybe Germany, maybe England, maybe Belgium. I hope to complete my studies. I studied law in Syria for three years, I didn't finish because of the war. My dream is to be a lawyer,” he said.

More from GlobalPost: Refugees race through a maze of European borders as doors close and rules change

Ahmed set off from Idlib, a rebel-held city in northern Syria, 11 days ago. He traveled by boat from Turkey to Greece, worked his way up through Macedonia and Serbia to the no-man’s land between Croatia and Serbia.

Asked where he planned to go next, he shrugged and said “I don’t know.” Like many others, his plans change by the day as Europe’s borders open and close. A common response to that question is a simple: “We will see.”