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Refugees enter Croatia from Serbia after Hungary blocks border
The biggest mass-migration Europe has seen since the second world war has entered a new stage, as refugees who found their route blocked at Serbia's border with Hungary moved in large numbers towards Croatia, which has said it is "ready to accept and direct" people.
For months, over 170,000 mainly Syrian refugees travelling north from Greece have used Hungary as a thoroughfare to the safety of northern and western Europe. But on Tuesday their path was finally blocked by Hungary, which finished fortifying a border fence, enacted new laws criminalising the act of crossing it, and began rejecting asylum applications from people who arrived at the border after midnight on Tuesday morning.
Faced with this new obstacle, refugees stuck in Serbia began to head westwards to the Croatian border, circumventing Europe's collective attempt to use border closures to stop them. Much of the Serbo-Croatian border follows the path of the river Danube, so Syrians headed instead for the town of Sid, a Serbian border town a few kilometres from a region of Croatia that is accessible by land.
Ibrahim, a 26-year-old hairdresser from Hama in Syria, was turned back from the Hungarian border early on Wednesday. He was part of a large group taking a bus back to the Serbian capital of Belgrade with the intention of then making for Sid. Others said they would head to another Serbian town, Novi Sad, and then make for Sid. "There are lots of people thinking of going through Croatia or Romania," said Ibrahim. "When you're coming from a war, you'll go by any route, any country."
Migrants and refugees who make it to Croatia will be hoping to reach Slovenia, which is part of Europe's Schengen zone of border-free travel, and beyond to Austria and Germany.
Croatia's prime minister, Zoran Milanovi, criticised Hungary's decision to seal its border with Serbia and promised that Croatia would not do the same.
"We are ready to accept and direct those people," he said, adding that migrants and asylum seekers "will be able to pass through Croatia and we are working intensively to enable that".
Referring to Hungary's fence, Milanovi said "barbed wire in Europe in the 21st century is not an answer, it's a threat".
Ranko Ostoji, Croatia's interior minister, said 277 people had entered so far, and Zagreb had prepared an emergency plan in the case of an influx of thousands of refugees. "The government will quickly activate that emergency plan if need be," Ostoji said.
Croatian de-mining experts have been sent to there border area where migrants are crossing from Serbia, called in by police concerned at the threat posed by minefields left over from Croatia's 1991-95 war.
"Police have contacted us and we sent a team to the border area in eastern Croatia," an official at the Croatian Demining Centre told Reuters. Eastern Croatia saw fighting during the war as Croatia split from federal Yugoslavia.
Serbia earlier responded to Hungary's crackdown with a warning that it could not become the dumping ground - or, as its foreign minister put it, "a collection centre" - for Europe's refugees.
Hungary also announced plans to seal its border with Romania, a move denounced as "not a fair gesture" by the foreign ministry in Bucharest.
Police said only 367 migrants crossed illegally into Hungary on Tuesday, of whom 316 will be prosecuted for damaging the barbed-wire fence on the border, and 51 people for illegally entering the country.
Meanwhile Austria has introduced security checks along its border with Hungary, a measure it said could be extended to those with Slovenia, Italy and Slovakia if needed.
On Tuesday, the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, defended her decision to open German borders to unregistered refugees, only to introduce controls on Sunday, saying the impulse was right and had shown Germany's "friendly, beautiful face" to the world.
She rejected claims that her decision had made Europe's refugee crisis worse by encouraging others to head for Germany, and called for a special EU refugee summit to discuss it response to the crisis.
[Source: By Patrick Kingsley in Horgo and agencies, The Guardian, London, 16Sep15]
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