New refugee path through Balkans swamps tiny Slovenia

Slovenia says it is overwhelmed with refugee flow from Croatia and appeals to EU for help, even as Europe begins to eye Turkey for a larger solution.

Dado Ruvic/Reuters
Migrants are reflected in a puddle as they walk along a road after crossing the border with Serbia in Babska, Croatia October 19, 2015. The Balkans struggled with a growing backlog of migrants on Monday after Hungary sealed its southern border and Slovenia tried to impose a limit, leaving thousands stranded on cold, wet borders where tempers frayed. More than 10,000 were stranded in Serbia, the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) said, with more on the way but nowhere to go.

The flow of refugees into Europe lurched back into motion this week, after Croatia reopened its border with Serbia allowing thousands to renew their journeys toward Germany and Scandinavia. But tiny Slovenia, the current junction between Central Europe and the Balkans after Hungary sealed its borders, is calling for help from the European Union to deal with the tide of humanity now reaching its territory.

Since Hungary closed its border with Croatia Friday, the Croatian-Serbian border has been a bottleneck in the crush of refugees fleeing northward. The Croatian government had largely shut its border to attempt to control the number of people crossing the country.

But current conditions now have the UN refugee agency calling the situation "awful and hellish." At the village of Berkasovo in Serbia, "thousands stood for almost 24 hours in remote, rain-lashed fields of knee-deep mud, unable to move forward or back as Serbian buses continued to deliver new arrivals," reported the Irish Times.

With the situation devolving quickly in Serbia, Croatia reopened its border on Monday to alleviate the suffering, wrote the Associated Press. "It's apparent that this is no solution, so we will let them through. We will send them toward Slovenia," Croatian Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic said.

But as increasing numbers of refugees reach Slovenia, including 8,000 Monday, the government in Ljubljana is warning that it can handle no more than 2,500 arrivals per day. The country is already host to some 8,300 asylum seekers, reports Agence France-Presse.

The government announced that "the inflow of migrants over the last three days has exceeded all manageable possibilities," and in response it was rushing legislation to allow the military to aid efforts to manage the refugees. Under current law, the army can only provide technical and logistical support.

Ljubljana also pleaded for greater support from Brussels, saying it was "delusional" for larger European countries to think that Slovenia, one of the bloc's smallest, could handle the flow of refugees.

"Slovenia calls on the European Union states and institutions to engage actively in dealing with this disproportionate weight for our state.... European solidarity is being challenged," the government said in a statement.

But the refugee crisis might ultimately be resolved not in Brussels or the Balkans, but rather in Turkey, where the vast majority of Syrian refugees still reside. Some 2 million Syrians now live in Turkey, which has been largely dealing with the problem on its own. Over the weekend, German Chancellor Angela Merkel met with Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu to discuss how Europe might support Turkey, which could in turn reduce the flow of refugees turning toward Europe, writes The New York Times.

“No country can shoulder the refugee burden alone,” Ms. Merkel said at a news conference with Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu of Turkey in Istanbul on Sunday. “The job has to be shared.”

For weeks, a deal in principle between Europe and Turkey has been discussed: it would include almost three billion euros, or about $3.4 billion, to help Turkey deal with nearly 2.2 million refugees, mostly from Syria, who now live in Turkey. At the news conference, Merkel and Mr. Davutoglu said no agreement had been finalized and that the details were still being worked out. ...

Mr. Davutoglu said: “Our priority is to prevent illegal immigration and reduce the number of people crossing our borders. In that respect, we have had very fruitful discussions with the E.U.”

The trade-off for Turkey would appear to be to give new life to the country's EU bid. Though Turkey has been an official candidate for EU accession since 1987 (then as part of the European Economic Community, the EU predecessor), its bid has long languished due to opposition from many within the bloc, including Germany. The EU has not yet implemented visa-free travel, a typical benefit given to candidates, for Turkey, in large part due to fears of unfettered migration into Europe. The moderate Islamist government of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has also been accused of violating basic EU tenets of free speech and open society.

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