Croatia says migrants can 'pass through,' but urges them to 'go on'

With more than 15,400 migrants arriving in just three days, Croatian Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic declared that his nation of 4.2 million could no longer cope and asylum seekers could not stay.

Marko Drobnjakovic/AP
People walk past corn fields as they move towards Serbia's border with Croatia close to the town of Sid, Serbia, Friday, Sept. 18, 2015. Croatia has begun transporting migrants across the border to Hungary after the Croatian prime minister said his nation has been overwhelmed by 14,000 migrants in the last two days.

Across southeast Europe, nations closed borders, blocked bridges, shut down trains and built new razor-wire fences Friday in a rush to block tens of thousands seeking safety in Western Europe from crossing their territories.

The rapid-fire, often contradictory border decisions came as each nation tried to shift the burden of handling the huge influx onto their neighbors, leaving asylum-seekers even more angry, confused and desperate.

Croatia declared it was overwhelmed and began busing migrants in convoys back to Hungary and closing its border crossings with Serbia. Slovenia shut down rail service to Croatia and was sending migrants back there, while Hungary began building yet another new razor-wire border fence, this time on its Croatian border.

After Croatia blocked off a bridge from Serbia, leaving scores of people stranded for hours in the hot sun, Serbian authorities just transported them to another area where they could enter Croatia illegally.

With more than 15,400 migrants arriving in just three days, Croatian Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic declared that his nation of 4.2 million could no longer cope and asylum seekers could not stay.

"What else can we do?" Milanovic said at a news conference. "You are welcome in Croatia and you can pass through Croatia. But go on. Not because we don't like you, but because this is not your final destination."

Nineteen Croatian buses carried migrants across the border Friday to Beremend, Hungary, where they were put on Hungarian buses to go to registration points.

Hungary's foreign minister, Peter Szijjarto, called the Croatian prime minister's handing of the migrant crisis "pathetic," the MTI news agency reported.

Later, at a news conference in Belgrade, Szijjarto criticized Croatia for "pushing the masses into committing criminal acts" by forcing them to enter Hungary.

"Hypocrisy rules in Europe today. No one is saying honestly how big a challenge this is. This will not end soon," Szijjarto said. "This is migration of people which cannot stop. In Europe's vicinity there are over 20 million people who are potential migrants.

Huge numbers have surged into Croatia since Wednesday, after Hungary erected a barbed wire-fence on its border with Serbia and took other tough measures to stop migrants, including spraying crowds at the border with tear gas and water cannons and arresting hundreds trying to cross in illegally.

Croatia represents a longer and more difficult route to the wealthier nations of the European Union, but those fleeing violence in their homelands, such as Syrians and Iraqis, had little choice.

Croatia closed seven of its eight border crossings with Serbia after chaotic scenes at the border Thursday where dozens of migrants were trampled in the rush to get seats on a bus or train.

Most migrants don't want to stay in Croatia — only one woman with children has requested asylum since the influx started, the country's foreign minister said.

The U.N. refugee agency warned Friday of a "buildup" of migrants in Serbia as its neighbors tightened their borders.

"The crisis is growing and being pushed from one country to another," said Adrian Edwards of UNHCR. "You aren't going to solve these problems by closing borders."

The human misery was evident in Croatian towns like Beli Manastir, near the border with Hungary. Migrants slept on streets, on train tracks and at a local gas station. People scrambled to board local buses without knowing where they were going.

Hundreds of others were stranded Friday on a large Danube River bridge in the Serbian town of Bezdan after Croatian authorities closed all but one border crossing. A large truck lifted barriers onto the bridge. The group, which included many women and children, stood in a no man's land in the middle in the scorching heat for hours with little water or food.

Finally Serbian authorities began busing them 120 kilometers (75 miles) to the south, near the Serbian town of Sid, so they could enter Croatia illegally through unguarded cornfields.

Some from Croatia made their way north to Slovenia. Around 100 people were being held Friday at a makeshift processing center in the border town of Berizce.

But Slovenia, which has stopped all rail traffic with Croatia, has also been returning other migrants to Croatia. Slovenian police have intercepted dozens of migrants who tried to cross through the forests overnight.

Hungary, meanwhile, started building another razor-wire fence, this time along its border with Croatia.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban said the first phase of the 41-kilometer (25-mile) barrier on the Croatian border will be completed by Friday night, with coils of razor wire laid down before the actual fence goes up. In addition, he said 1,800 soldiers and 800 police were being sent to the Croatian border to keep out the migrants.

Orban also lashed out at those in the West who have criticized his handling of the migrant crisis.

"The critical voices from there are not calming down," Orban said, adding that European politics and media are governed by a "suicidal liberalism" that "puts our way of life at risk."

At Turkey's border with Greece and Bulgaria, hundreds of migrants were stopped Friday by Turkish law enforcement on a highway near the city of Edirne, causing a massive traffic jam. Hundreds more were camping out at a mosque in Istanbul, prevented from leaving to go to the border area by police.

Humanitarian groups appealed for a more unified response. A spokesman for the United Nations refugee agency, Babar Baloch, said countries cannot cope individually.

"What's missing is a collective EU action," he said. "Countries have been trying to deal with it on their own and then at some stage they say they can't. So they need to do it together."

UNHCR says more than 442,440 people have crossed the Mediterranean Sea to Europe this year and 2,921 have died trying. The International Organization for Migration puts those figures at 473,887 and 2,812.

The Vatican, meanwhile, took one Syrian refugee family in the tiny Roman Catholic city-state, as promised by Pope Francis. The family belongs to the Melkite Greek Catholic Church, an Eastern rite church, and is waiting on an asylum application decision from Italy.

Kirka reported from Zagreb, Croatia; Associated Press writers Dusan Stojanovic in Batina, Croatia; Jovana Gec in Belgrade, Serbia; and Vanessa Gera and Pablo Gorondi in Budapest, Hungary, contributed to this story.

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