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Migrant Crisis Sparks Balkan Border Battles As EU Buckles Under Overwhelming Refugee Flow

When last we checked in on Europe’s worsening migrant crisis, Brussels had just approved a plan which aims to settle some 120,000 asylum seekers by way of a mandatory quota system. Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Romania were opposed which, as WSJ noted, “sets the stage for intensified friction within the bloc over the contentious issue.”

To be sure, calling the crisis a “contentious issue” is something of an understatement. The massive people flows stemming from Syria’s protracted civil war threaten to tear the EU apart just months after fraught negotiations with Greece over the country’s third bailout program very nearly ended in the conclusive debunking of the euro indissolubility thesis. 

The Balkans have become the frontlines of the crisis as refugees make their way north to the German “promised land” where cold beer and Merkel selfie photo ops beckon. Unfortunately (if you’re a fleeing migrant), Serbia, Croatia, and especially Hungary aren’t excited about being used as a kind of migrant superhighway and once the number of refugees streaming across its southern border became too much to bear, Hungary built a 100-mile razor wire fence. Of course when you’re fleeing bullets, barrel bombs, and sword-wielding jihadists, a 12 foot high fence isn’t much of a deterrent and so some refugees attempted to test Hungarian premier Viktor Orban’s resolve by demanding to be let through. Here’s what happened next:

Thankfully (because otherwise the situation could have quickly escalated from water cannons to actual cannons) there are other ways to get to Germany, and once it became clear that Hungary was fully prepared to turn its border with Serbia into a warm April night in Baltimore in order to defend Europe’s “Christian heritage” (to quote Orban), refugees simply rerouted through Croatia. Serbia has facilitated this noting that it simply does not have the resources to accommodate the migrants and even if it did, they do not want to settle in Serbia in the first place. Once Slovenia said it wouldn’t be a part of a migrant "corridor" to Germany, the stage was set for migrants to zigzag from Hungary’s border with Serbia into Croatia, and then back into Hungary.

Predictably, the border control situation is getting tense in the Balkans and now, diplomatic relations in the region are deteriorating rapidly. Here’s AFP with more:

Croatia sought to ease tensions with its former foe Serbia Friday after the EU's powerful executive intervened in a bitter row sparked by Europe's worst refugee crisis in decades.

 

Both countries -- former enemies in the 1990s war following the breakup of Yugoslavia -- have been embroiled in tit-for-tat restrictions caused by the human exodus washing through the Balkans.

 

Croatia closed all but one of its border crossings with Serbia and blamed Belgrade for diverting an unrelenting flow of migrants towards its frontier.

 

In Brussels, the European Commission said it was "urgently seeking clarifications" from Croatia, prompting Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic to announce he planned to remove border restrictions with Serbia shortly.

 

"I'm holding intensive talks with my colleagues to remove today or tomorrow the measures that we had to introduce," Milanovic told reporters.

 

Official figures showed some 55,000 refugees had entered Croatia over nine days, including nearly 8,500 just on Thursday.

 

The huge influx started when Hungary sealed its border with Serbia to prevent refugees from using the country as a thoroughfare to western Europe.

 

The closure prompted the migrants to divert their route through Croatia instead, which was quickly overwhelmed.

Zagreb now buses a large majority of the migrants straight to the border with Hungary, and Prime Minister Viktor Orban said Friday Budapest eventually planned to seal its border with Croatia too.

 

"The influx of migrants is not going to abate... We want to stop people crossing," Orban told reporters in Vienna after a meeting aimed at smoothing over differences with Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann.

 

"Introducing the border protection to Serbia has met expectations. Our duty is to make it happen on the Hungarian-Croatian border as well," he said.

On Friday evening, Croatia relented (via ABC):

Serbia's prime minister, speaking after an emergency government session, says Serbia will "absolutely" lift its embargo on Croatian goods.

 

Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic made the comments Friday night to Croatian state TV after Croatia decided to reopen its main cargo border crossing with Serbia. The two Balkan neighbors had feuded for a week over how to handle an enormous surge of migrants crossing their territories, and the closure of the border was costing each dearly.

 

Vucic said "the decision of Croatian government is good."

 

Croatian Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic said he lifted the border blockade but warned he could reinstate it if Serbia keeps on busing migrants to the Croatian border instead of sending some of them to Hungary.

But it's not entirely clear why Milanovic thinks "sending some of them to Hungary" is an option. Indeed, Viktor Orban has now moved to fence off its border not only with Serbia, but also with Croatia and, notably, with fellow Schengen passport-free travel zone member Slovenia. Here's WSJ:

Hungary’s prime minister on Friday defended his country’s contentious efforts to fence off its border with Croatia, insisting it has an obligation to stem the tide of migrants in order to protect the European Union’s cherished document-free travel zone.

 

The migrant crisis has raised hackles among countries that share borders and sparked warnings that the bloc may not be able to hold on to it its cornerstone policy of free travel, known as the Schengen agreement.

 

Hungary is a member of the Schengen zone, as are most EU countries; fellow EU member Croatia isn’t.

 

Budapest has taken the toughest stance in the EU in its dealings with refugees. Depicting himself as a protector of the free travel policy, Mr. Orban insisted he was legally mandated to make sure that migrants didn’t get through so that other borders—particularly with Austria—wouldn’t have to be closed.

 

The crisis has sparked a domino effect of border closures, mutual finger pointing and efforts to pass on the burden of the migrant flow, with Hungary emerging as a focal point.

 

The fence with Croatia is an extension of one already finished along Hungary’s border with non-EU member Serbia. It is designed to reduce the influx of people, now hitting 8,000 to 10,000 people a day, most coming via Croatia in the hopes of reaching Western Europe.

 

Croatian Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic has said the fence “is something that needs to be torn down.”

 

Croatia has given up on fingerprinting or registering migrants, and buses them to its border with Hungary, which then transports them to places close to the Austrian border. They can cross on foot or after a short train ride.

 

Austria has complained that it is overwhelmed, and its relationship with Hungary has soured in recent weeks. Mr. Faymann has harshly criticized Budapest for what he said was Hungary’s mistreatment of migrants.

 

Hungary is also in the process of extending it on its border with EU member Romania, which is also outside the Schengen zone.

 

Another neighbor, Slovenia, has been methodical in letting in only those in who register, resulting in much lower migrant entries there. Hungary is preparing to erect a temporary fence “which could be dismantled in a day” on its border with Slovenia, but only if Slovenia—a Schengen member—agrees to that, Mr. Orban said.

So there you have it. Schengen is officially a thing of the past and the fingerpointing in the Balkans is escalating quickly. 

Needless to say, none of this bodes well for the hundreds of thousands of people fleeing the war-torn Middle East for Western Europe. Even if most EU governments publicly support the effort to relocate Syrian refugees, the increasingly contentious situation in the Balkans may well serve to negatively influence public opinion. That is, if heart-wrenching images of drowned toddlers increasingly give way to pictures of young Arab men scaling border fences and hurling rocks at riot police, European voters may begin to reassess their accommodative position. That, combined with the fact that Brussels has now commited to forcing recalcitrant countries to settle migrants against their will, sets the stage for what could turn out to be a dangerous bout of scapegoating xenophobia. We've warned on this repeatedly and this is one instance where we certainly hope we do not get the opportunity to say "we told you so."