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Croatia buses out refugees as Europe struggles with influx

Refugee crisis escalates as security forces use tear gas against migrants attempting to enter Slovenia
A man sleeps on the ground with his child in a village in Harmica, Croatia, a small border crossing point to Rigonce, Slovenia, on 18 September 2015 (AFP)

Overwhelmed Croatia on Friday began bussing hundreds of migrants to its border with Hungary, ratcheting up tensions in Europe's refugee crisis as a string of countries closed their frontiers.

With Croatia claiming it had reached saturation point after more than 17,000 people had arrived on its soil in the previous two days, it began channelling the flow towards Hungary, which has vowed to "defend its borders" from the influx.

Hours earlier, Hungary had started building an anti-migrant fence along part of the border with Croatia, sparking a diplomatic row between the neighbours as Budapest accused Zagreb of inciting refugees to break Hungary's draconian new border laws. Earlier this week, the UN human rights chief suggested that Hungary's policies were apparently guided by "xenophobic and anti-Muslim views".

With no let-up in the flow of people desperate to find shelter in Europe from war and misery, and with thousands stranded by border closures and increasing controls, new figures showed the European Union had received almost a quarter of a million asylum requests in the three months to June. 

As the body of another Syrian child was washed up on a Turkish beach, the International Organisation for Migration said that nearly 474,000 people had so far this year braved perilous trips across the Mediterranean to reach Europe.

The four-year-old girl, who has yet to be identified, was found near the town of Cesme after a boat carrying 15 Syrians to the Greek island of Chios sank, the Anatolia news agency said.

Harrowing pictures of three-year-old Syrian Aylan Kurdi, who drowned earlier this month as his family tried to reach the Greek island of Kos, caused global dismay and seemed to briefly galvanise a European response to the biggest refugee crisis the continent has faced since World War II.

But with eastern EU members fiercely resisting plans to take a share of the new arrivals, and Hungary this week sealing its southern border with Serbia, thousands of refugees have tried to open a new route to northern Europe through Croatia and Slovenia. 

But after two days of letting people in, Croatia on Friday announced it was unable to cope. It closed seven of the eight crossings along its eastern border with Serbia and bussed some people to the Hungarian frontier.

According to the New York Times, President Tomislav Nikolic of Serbia on Friday said it was “absurd” that Serbia respected the standards of Europe more than EU members. He said EU nations were “almost out of control - without receiving any criticism, advice, or order from Brussels”.

What choice do we have?

"As of today we will start applying new methods," Croatian Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic said as Zagreb began dispatching dozens of buses to the frontier. "What other choice do we have?" 

“Don’t come here anymore," Interior Minister Ranko Ostojic said in a statement directed at the migrants and refugees. "This is not the road to Europe.”

Croatian Foreign Minister Vesna Pusic later said that Zagreb and Budapest had agreed to allow "vulnerable migrants" to cross into Hungary.

An AFP correspondent in the Hungarian border village of Beremend said that by late afternoon around 20 buses, each carrying around 60 migrants, had been allowed to cross the frontier. Another 30 buses were waiting to cross in the evening.

"Norway, I want to go to Norway," one woman, feeding her baby with a bottle, could be heard telling a police officer as she stepped into Hungary. 

To the north, Slovenia also announced it was suspending rail links with Croatia until the end of the day as migrants began massing on its southern border.

At Harmica, a village on Croatian side of the frontier, buses were arriving every hour, bringing more and more people as Slovenian police watched from the other side of a fence, some peering through binoculars into the surrounding cornfields. 

"I just want to cross the border," said a young Syrian student wearing a black Iron Maiden T-shirt.

Tear gas in Slovenia

Later on Friday, Slovenian police used tear gas late to disperse a group of migrants on its border as the country's government said it was considering opening safe corridors for refugees to pass through the tiny Alpine country.

The incident happened at the Harmica border crossing as several hundred migrants demanded to be allowed to enter Slovenia.

After over an hour of tension, riot police used tear gas to stop migrants, some with children, who were pushing against a police cordon at a bridge on the border.

The clash happened just hours after Slovenia's Prime Minister Miro Cerar announced that his country might consider the creation of safe corridors for refugees wanting to reach northern Europe if they continue arriving in large numbers.

"If the pressure of refugees [on the borders] becomes too strong, Slovenia will certainly discuss ... possible so-called corridors with all the countries that might be concerned," Cerar said in a statement after a meeting of the country's National Security Council.

"New refugees continuously arrive so it is very hard to have exact figures," Slovenian police spokeswoman Alenka Drenek told AFP regarding the numbers that might be involved.

'Refugee parking lot'

With fears growing in eastern Europe that it will be left to carry the can for the chaotic situation, a top EU official vowed not to leave the region in the lurch. 

"You are not a parking lot for refugees, you are also victims of the situation, and we won't leave you," EU Enlargement Commissioner Johannes Hahn told the Macedonian parliament.

Luxembourg's Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn said the EU was preparing a "substantial" aid package for Turkey to help it meet the cost of hosting around two million Syrian refugees currently there, although he added that this was not about trying to "buy Turkey off for blocking the route to those who want to come to Europe".

Adrian Edwards, spokesman for the UN refugee agency, said that chaos was filling the vacuum left by the "absence of a coherent and united response," saying two key EU meetings next week were "crucially important". 

"These occasions may be the last opportunity for a positive, united and coherent European response to this crisis. Time is running out," he warned.

Official figures showed the EU received 213,000 asylum applications between April and June, up 85 percent from the same period in 2014.

Germany had the highest number - more than a third of the total - while Hungary received the most applications relative to its population size, the Eurostat agency said.

But for one Syrian family, there was good news as Pope Francis put them up in a Vatican apartment, aides revealed on Friday.

The Christian family is the first of two that the Catholic leader has promised to help after he called on every parish in Europe to put up at least one family.

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