The Croatian government is moving refugees out of the country with startling efficiency

GlobalPost
A girl steps down from a bus at the Croatia-Hungary border. The bus of migrants and refugees was brought from Tovarnik, in eastern Croatia. The passengers disembarked on the Croatian side, before getting on buses on the Hungarian side and heading to Austria. 
Richard Hall

CROATIA-HUNGARY BORDER — When the dozen or so buses arrived at the border between Croatia and Hungary on Saturday, many of the passengers on board didn’t know where they were.

“What is this border?” asked one man as he stepped off the bus. “Is this Hungary?”

The migrants and refugees had come from the Croatian town of Tovarnik, on the border with Serbia. Some of them had been stuck there with no shelter for two days waiting for a train or bus to go west. They were tired and hungry, but glad to be heading in the right direction.

The passengers disembarked on the Croatian side of the border, walked 50 meters to the no-man’s land between the two crossings, before boarding another bus headed deeper into Hungary. Stepping down from each bus as it arrived was a Croatian police officer to oversee the transfer.

This orderly scene, on a bright and humid September day in the middle of a wide expanse of cornfields, stood in stark contrast to a growing row between the two European neighbors, and splits within Europe as a whole, over how to deal with the biggest mass movement of people since World War II.

Changing routes

In the past week, Croatia has become a key transit point in the flow of migrants to Western Europe. Before Wednesday last week, migrants had taken a route through Serbia to Hungary. But when Hungary closed its border, Croatia became the main land route for migrants.

Croatia says more than 20,000 migrants have arrived since Wednesday. After trying, albeit briefly, to halt the flow at its border, it adopted a different approach: if it couldn’t keep the migrants out, it would move them on.

The Croatian government is now facilitating the movement of refugees and migrants from its eastern border to the borders of Hungary and Slovenia with startling efficiency.

More from GlobalPost: Refugees race for the borders as doors close and rules change 

In Beli Manastir, a town close to the border with Hungary, a welcome center of tents and portable toilets set up by UNHCR and the Red Cross to deal with incoming refugees was empty on Saturday.

“We were told to expect thousands from Tovarnik, but today just one family has arrived,” said a volunteer.

Later on, it became clear that they had all been bussed to the Hungarian border, along with the hundreds who had been in the town the day before.

Refugees and migrants wait to cross the border from Croatia into Hungary.

The Croatian Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic, on a visit to the empty center earlier in the day, said his country is unable to cope with the influx, and will “force” Hungary to take the refugees.

"There has not been an agreement with Hungary," Milanovic said on Saturday. "We forced them, by sending people up there. And we'll keep doing it," he said.

This approach hasn’t gone down well. Hungary accused Croatia of "violating its sovereignty" by sending buses and trains packed with migrants over their joint border.

Hungary said some 8,000 had arrived from Croatia on Friday, with more on their way. Most were sent to reception centers near Hungary's border with Austria, which in turn said about 7,500 had entered.

More from GlobalPost: Croatia closes its border, but migrants keep coming 

On Saturday, the buses arriving at the Croatia-Hungary border were told they would be taken to the Austrian border. They were not registered, in accordance with normal procedure — to do so would mean that they might be sent back to Hungary, as a European treaty states that refugees they must be settled in the country in which they first arrived.

“We are just letting them through now, we have given up registering them,” said a Croatian border policeman. “We are now sending them on to where they want to go."

Both Croatia and Hungary, it seems, are happy to give migrants and refugees passage rather than have them settle in their country.

Europe’s incoherent and occasionally chaotic approach to the refugee crisis has exacerbated the suffering of a vast number of people who are fleeing war in their own countries. Over the last week, a number of refugees have suffered beatings at the hands of Hungarian riot police and been penned in by Croatian police in the blazing sun.

More from GlobalPost: Chaos in Croatia as police struggle to deal with refugees

“They beat us. They do a lot to us,” said Majid, a Syrian from Damascus who had tried and failed to cross the Serbia-Hungary border before traveling to Tavornik.

He told GlobalPost on Friday: “Now I think I prefer to go back to my country and die over there. It’s better, at least I die in my home.”

EU interior ministers will meet on Sept. 22 to discuss a plan to relocate 120,000 refugees across the 28-member bloc. The plan has already been passed by the European parliament, but the compulsory quotas are fiercely opposed by Hungary and Slovakia, among others.  

It is unclear how much of an impact the plan will have on the situation, given that more than 350,000 migrants were detected at the EU's borders in January-August 2015, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), and many more came in undetected.

Going west

What is clear, however, is that the current arrangement of shunting refugees from pillar to post is unsustainable. Countries at the receiving end of this wave of migration, such as Slovenia, Austria and Germany, are already reacting to the influx by introducing tighter controls on their borders.

Already at the border between Croatia and Slovenia a bottleneck is forming. The routes into Western Europe are closing fast, and it appears that the countries where the migrants would end up are woefully unprepared for such an eventuality.

Hungary, which has closed off its border with Serbia, completed a 41-kilometer fence on Friday to stop migrants coming into the country. It has been rumored that the buses that came to its border from Croatia on Saturday were among the last to be allowed to pass.

Those who crossed into Hungary on Saturday may turn out to be the lucky ones. With the completion of its barbed wire fence, and the mobilization of its military to the border to deal with migrants trying to cross, it seems unlikely it the Hungarian government will continue to allow Croatia to “force” it to accept refugees.

While the buses waited at the border on Saturday, passengers spilled out onto the side of the road to drink water and breathe the fresh air. Most came from Iraq and Syria: the cities of Damascus, Baghdad, Qamishli, Idlib. Some asked for information about what lay over the border, where they were going next.

Yunus, from Hassakah province in northeast Syria, didn’t know where he was going or what lay ahead.

“All I know is that I’m going in the right direction,” he said. When told he would likely be going on to the Austrian border he replied: “That is good news.”

He said he had waited along with perhaps 2,000 others in Tovarnik for transport further west.

The questions they asked about the road ahead revealed just how precarious their journeys were, and how a decision made in Budapest or Belgrade can affect the rest of their life.

Those coming behind them, traveling by boat across the Mediterranean at this very moment, may be fleeing equally miserable and dangerous circumstances, but without a unified solution across the continent, they may arrive to a very different Europe than the one they imagined.