ZAKANY/BEREMEND, Hungary (Reuters) - Hungary declared its southern border with Croatia closed to migrants on Friday, diverting them into tiny Slovenia in a measure of Europe’s disjointed response to the flow of people reaching its shores in flight from war and poverty.
With autumn winds and rain whipping the Balkans, a last train drew up at the border, and some 2,000 migrants disembarked for the short, muddy walk past razor wire into Hungary as a midnight cut-off point expired.
Hungary has erected a steel fence almost the length of its southern frontier, declaring it is duty-bound to secure the borders of the European Union from mainly Muslim migrants threatening, it says, the prosperity, security and “Christian values” of Europe.
A month ago, the right-wing government of Hungary’s fiercely anti-immigration prime minister, Viktor Orban, shut down the migrant route across its frontier with Serbia, slamming the door on hundreds of thousands of Middle Eastern, African and Asian migrants, many of them refugees from war in Syria, streaming across the Balkan peninsula.
They were diverted into Croatia, from where they entered Hungary, crossing in recent weeks at a rate of 5,000 to 8,000 per day en route to Austria and Germany, the preferred destinations of most.
With that route now sealed, too, Croatia said it had a plan in place to send them to Slovenia from midnight, in agreement with its fellow former Yugoslav republic.
Both Croatia and Slovenia indicated they would not restrict the flow so long as Austria and Germany kept their doors open.
But the scale threatens to test the resources of Slovenia, an Alpine state of two million people, and of Croatia and Serbia if a backlog builds, with weather conditions deteriorating fast.
Confirming “operational talks” with Croatia, Slovenia said it would convene its national security council on Saturday.
“If Germany closes its border or restricts border crossings, then Slovenia will act accordingly,” Slovenian Foreign Minister Karl Erjavec told a news conference.
“But so far there are no indications or information that Germany is to change its policy.”
The EU has agreed a deal – resisted by some of its members in eastern Europe, including Hungary – to share out 120,000 refugees, only a small proportion of the 700,000 or so people expected to reach Europe this year.
At a summit in Brussels, the bloc offered Turkey a possible three billion euros ($3.4 billion) in aid and the prospect of easier travel visas and “re-energized” talks on joining the bloc if it will help stem the flow of migrants across its territory.
But Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto said this fell short of Budapest’s demands, which include formation of a common force to protect the borders of Greece, where many arrive by boat and dinghy across the Aegean from Turkey before heading north through Macedonia and Serbia.
Migrants would be able to submit asylum requests at two so-called ‘transit zones’ to be set up on the border with Croatia.
A similar system in place on Hungary’s border with Serbia has seen asylum requests summarily rejected, slowing the flow of migrants to a trickle and drawing fire from the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) and human rights groups, who say refugees are being denied their right to protection under international conventions.
Those who try to breach the fence are rounded up, put on trial and in almost all cases expelled.
Rain-soaked and exhausted, thousands trudged through mud across the Zakany frontier from Croatia into Hungary on Friday, past razor wire and a field of conifer trees grown for Christmas.
“We are the last refugees,” said Khodarsus, a 35-year-old teacher and father of two young children. “Winter is coming, so we will together arrive in Germany before that, Inshallah.”
At another crossing, Baransjko Petrovo Selo in Croatia, a Croatian police officer hurried the migrants from buses, tossing luggage to the ground.
“Quickly, hurry, hurry, unless you want to travel even more,” the officer shouted.
Izaat, a 23-year-old Iraqi from Baghdad, was relieved but anxious. “Our trip was difficult because it was cold and rain was falling,” he said. “I’m worried what will happen with the other people arriving after us.”
Additional reporting by Krisztina Than in Budapest, Marja Novak in Ljubljana and Igor Ilic in Zagreb; Writing by Matt Robinson; Editing by Toni Reinhold