UN warns European unity at risk as borders close to refugees

Europe’s biggest refugee crisis in 70 years atomised into a chaotic series of border confrontations and diplomatic disputes this weekend, as crowds of refugees were blocked from passing through a number of crossings in central Europe, prompting the UN to warn that the concept of European unity was at risk.

Hungary sent armoured vehicles to its border with Croatia, while Slovenian police sealed several crossings after Croatia attempted to offload tens of thousands of refugees who are using it as an alternative entry point to the European Union.

Croatian policemen accompanying hundreds of migrants into Hungary were disarmed by their Hungarian counterparts and turned away, while Slovenian police used pepper spray to ward off hundreds, mostly Syrians and Afghans, trying to cross to reach the countries of northern Europe.

The chaos had been sparked by Hungary’s decision to shut off its southern border with Serbia, blocking a well-trodden refugee railroad that has brought more than 170,000 refugees into the EU since the start of the year.

In response, refugees flooded instead into Croatia, which immediately tried to move them back into Hungary and Slovenia, prompting quasi-military manoeuvres from its neighbours.

Croatia’s prime minister, Zoran Milanovic, called Hungary’s actions “incomprehensible”, given that no refugee wanted to stay in Hungary, and said the situation was “the ugliest thing I have seen in Croatia since the [Balkans] war”. He also refused to seal Croatia’s border, because “even if that were possible under the constitution – and it is not – it means killing people”.

In response, Hungary’s foreign minister, Péter Szijjártó, said Croatia had “lied in the face” of Hungary. He argued that Croatia had failed to show adequate solidarity with Hungary by sending refugees across their border, just days after the same refugees had rushed into Croatia after being blocked from crossing the Hungarian-Serbian border.

The UN warned that failure to agree on a united response to the crisis endangered the concept of European unity. Peter Sutherland, the UN’s special representative on international migration, said: “If there is no agreement to share refugees between the countries of the European Union, it risks undermining the very essence of the European project.”

Sutherland was also surprised at how central and eastern European countries were undermining some of the EU’s key values so soon after joining its membership. “It’s amazing that this is the reaction of central and eastern Europe to the whole concept of solidarity, having only just joined,” Sutherland said.

In Harmica, where some refugees had been waiting for more than a day to cross the Croatian border into Slovenia, one Syrian expressed frustration at Europe’s inability to react in a more organised way to a problem that he argued would not go away.

“Europe has the right to do this,” said Maher Dahy, 23, waving at the crowds gathered on a bridge that connects the countryside of Croatia with that of Slovenia. “But be careful what you wish for. Look how people are behaving. They can’t be controlled.”

Dahy said Europe should accept the inevitable. “Why make us do all this trip?” asked Dahy, a software developer. “Give people visas so they can come on the plane. If you don’t, people will keep coming. We are running from a war, and nothing will stop us.”

Even among the refugees, the bitterness and divisiveness of European politicians seemed to be rubbing off on the migrants themselves. Zayn Sabsabi, a 17-year-old from Damascus who said his father was killed by sniper fire, argued that the presence of refugees from other countries was harming the Syrians’ cause.

“Why did these people come?” Sabsabi asked, waving at a group of Afghans who fled the Taliban. “If Syria was like Afghanistan is now, I would never have tried to escape. They are the problem.”

Regardless of their nationality, the start of autumn is likely to mean more lives lost at sea, as desperate boatloads risk ever more stormy seas in a bid to reach Greece before winter waves cut off the passage entirely.

Those who have made it to the Turkish coast already are unlikely to want to wait there for months, because few have food, shelter or much money to pay for either.

“The weather will change from the mid to end of October, the large-scale crossings will be over for this year. But I am very worried about the casualties that we will see in the meantime,” said Franck Düvell, from the University of Oxford’s migration observatory.

“With the weather worsening, becoming less predictable, more agitated, we will probably first see an increase of casualties before the numbers of those crossing decrease.”

The number of deaths at sea has already risen, said Leonard Doyle of the International Organisation for Migration. “We are anticipating that there are going to be a lot more deaths, we are already getting eight a day.”

Even people who have made it across the Mediterranean are at risk from the cold, though, as they face a long trek to countries like Germany that they hope to make home.

“The winter weather will also have an impact on those trying to move north, those already on the route. We have seen these people sleep rough: if that continues for another couple of weeks, it will have a severe impact on their health and we may see people dying on the road,” said Düvell.

Patrick Kingsley in Harmica and Emma Graham-Harrison in Munich