Croatia - Syria - European Union

Croatians, remembering their own refugee experience, help Syrians

A sing welcoming refugees in Brussels
A sing welcoming refugees in Brussels Reuters/Eric Vidal

Thousands of migrants poured into Croatia this week, quickly overwhelming the authorities, who warned the country had limited capacity to cope with an expected influx of 20,000 over the next two weeks. But many Croatians, many of them refugees themselves during the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s, have proved willing to help.

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Croatia has been preparing for the influx for a couple of weeks already.

Alarm bells there started ringing after Hungary erected a fence to block refugees coming from Serbia two months ago, followed by even stricter border controls.

The refugee flow changed decisively after a violent confrontation between the refugees and the Hungarian border police on Thursday.

“The refugees tried to enter Hungary by force,” says Jota Etchevarria of Doctors Without Borders, who was at that scene. “They were pressing and pressing, and they advanced a few metres but then they were fired upon by the police and sent back with some violence.

“Then they started to demonstrate on the Serbian side, singing songs and chanting slogans, and then the Hungarian police shot gas capsules and some 100 people were wounded.".

Many of the refugees stuck at the border between Hungary and Serbia are now heading to Croatia.

“We first thought that we would deliver aid to Serbia but since yesterday we are delivering all we had collected so far to the refugee camps near Osijek, where 400 or 500 refugees currently are,” says Nikolina Svalina, of the Centre for Peace Non-Violence and Human Rights in Osijek, a town in the east of Croatia that is the first to be hit by the new wave of refugees.

“All of our officials are saying that the country is prepared,” she says. “But we see that things are getting out of control because they didn’t expect so many people at one time.”

The situation is chaotic because of a lack of police officers to register all the new arrivals, according to Svalina.

“Apparently it is also too much for them. They will have to do something very very fast,” she says.

Croatians in general “treat the refugees with dignity,” says Svalina. “Because many of us, including myself, were once refugees, so we have the experience of having to leave our homes and not knowing if we are able to come back. This part of Croatia was affected by war, the majority of us had to flee our homes and we were accepted in Germany or in other parts of Croatia, so we want to give back this hospitality that we once received.”

The refugees are trying to go to the European Union's Schengen Area. But to reach that, they have to cross Slovenia.

“Slovenia says they will not open this corridor for the refugees to pass, they are going to stick to the EU laws and regulations strictly,” says Svalina. But “refugees are not willing to stay here in Croatia, they want to go to Germany, to Sweden, to Nordic countries.”

All eyes are now on Slovenia, which may be the next scene of confrontation between Schengen borderguards and Syrian refugees.

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