Migrants heading to the Balkans

  • 20/10/2015
A child cries as migrants scuffle with policemen to cross the border with Slovenia near Trnovec, Croatia (Reuters)
A child cries as migrants scuffle with policemen to cross the border with Slovenia near Trnovec, Croatia (Reuters)

By Bojan Kavcic and Frank Zeller

Thousands of migrants have kept streaming into the Balkans, where tighter border controls caused bottlenecks, as the German government braced for an anniversary rally of the xenophobic PEGIDA movement, accusing it of spewing "hate and poison".

The unprecedented refugee wave into Europe has seen asylum seekers - mostly fleeing war in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan - travelling via Turkey, Greece and through the western Balkans, hoping to seek safe haven in Germany and other EU states.

A new surge entered Macedonia from Greece at the weekend, with 10,000 crossing in just 24 hours, police said.

But tensions have built further along the migrant trail after Hungary shut its borders with razor wire, diverting the flow west to Slovenia, which in turn also limited arrivals.

On Monday, Slovenia refused to let in more than 1000 migrants arriving from Croatia, saying a daily quota had been reached.

The move stoked fears of a new human bottleneck, as a train carrying 1800 people arrived overnight on the Croatian side of the border, but only 500 of the "most vulnerable", mostly women and children, were allowed to cross, police said.

Long lines also formed on the Serbia-Croatia border, where hundreds spent the night in rain and freezing temperatures.

The goal for many of the migrants has been the EU's biggest economy, Germany, which expects to take in around one million refugees this year, and where Chancellor Angela Merkel's open-door policy has sparked a dangerous backlash.

Two days after a man with a neo-Nazi background stabbed a pro-refugee politician in the neck, badly wounding her, Germany's anti-refugee PEGIDA movement was planning a mass rally to mark its first anniversary.

Police expect thousands to join the march of the "Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the Occident" in Dresden in the former communist East, as well as a large antifascist counter-protests.

The movement had all but vanished after pictures surfaced in January showing its co-founder Lutz Bachmann sporting a Hitler moustache, but it has made a comeback since September, when Merkel opened the doors to a surge of asylum seekers.

Anti-foreigner sentiment motivated a bloody attack in the western city of Cologne on Saturday when a man used a hunting knife to stab independent mayoral candidate Henriette Reker, 58, who is active in helping refugees.

Reker, who was seriously wounded in the neck, went on to win Sunday's election with an absolute majority.

The migrant influx has boosted support for populist right-wing parties in other European countries, including Austria.

A Swiss populist party known for its virulent campaigns against immigration, the EU and Islam won a record number of seats in parliamentary elections on Sunday.

In Germany, Merkel has faced a dip in opinion polls and a rebellion in her own conservative ranks, especially in the southern state of Bavaria, the main gateway for migrants.

Merkel, hoping for Turkey's help in slowing the migrant influx, held talks with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Istanbul.

The EU wants Turkey to tighten border security and house more refugees in return for billions in financial help, visa liberalisation for Turkish citizens and an acceleration of its stuttering drive for EU membership.

But Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu on Monday said his country would not host migrants permanently to appease the European Union.

"We cannot accept an understanding like 'give us the money and they stay in Turkey'," he said in a television interview. "Turkey is not a concentration camp."