Out of the Frying Pan: Croatia and the refugee crisis

Henry Brown is a War Studies (Single Honours) student at King’s College London, currently in his second year of study. His particular interests are the political and social crises afflicting the Middle East as well as the complex relationship this region maintains with Europe. It is his aspiration upon completing his studies to become a frontline journalist in either the Middle East or North Africa.

In scenes of desperation not witnessed in Europe since the brutal disintegration of Yugoslavia, the refugee crisis has begun to overtake the lacklustre decision making of the European Union. While Angela Merkel continues to preach an undaunted message of hope for those thousands struggling to find passage to Germany, the countries standing in the path of the refugee flows have been engaged, by both word and deed, in what David Miliband has aptly termed ‘a beggar my neighbour race to the bottom.’[1] Rather than viewing the crisis through a humanitarian lens, these states have elected to treat those attempting to cross their borders as a naked threat to their internal stability while simultaneously seizing the opportunity to lash out at Merkel, the EU and each other.

Caught somewhere in the middle of this melee is the Republic of Croatia or the ‘EU’s newest basket case’, according to The Economist.[2] Since the end of the Yugoslav War in 1995, Croatia has had a fairly dismal recent history – its economy has been in continuous recession since 2008 and many of the countries’ professionals have preferred to immigrate to more financially secure locations in Western Europe while corruption and organised crime remain a concern for the fledgling republic.[3] This being the case, the refugee crisis could hardly come at a worse time for the ruling Social Democratic Party under Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic particularly after Hungary’s callous move on 15th September to seal the border and deploy its army to repel the migrants.

With the crisis thrust directly into its hands, Croatia’s Interior Minister Ranko Ostojic stated the following day that his government did possess a plan to cope with a large influx of refugees[4] as they pivoted towards Croatia’s border with Serbia. Within 48 hours, however, 11,000 people had crossed the border and the government lost its nerve – sealing 7 of the 8 border crossings and leaving thousands stranded at the crossing point of Tovarnik[5]. At the same time a curious incident unfolded near the Croatian-Hungarian border as Hungarian authorities detained 1,000 refugees on a train from Croatia escorted by 40 police officers. A vitriolic exchange followed with Hungary accusing the Croats of ‘intentional, intentional, participation in human smuggling’ and dismissed as lies Zagreb’s claim that that the action was in accordance with a bilateral agreement on refugee policy.[6]

Whatever the motive, Prime Minister Milanovic confirmed last Friday the refusal of his government for the country to become a haven for refugees, commenting: ‘We have a heart but we also have a brain.’[7] Instead Croatia’s policy for those 51,000 refugees who have been able to cross the border has been to attempt to transfer them to Reception camps near Zagreb and from there to the Slovenian border and access to the Schengen Zone.[8] Given the fragile state of their economy and their relatively limited state resources, this policy could certainly be interpreted as a well-meaning attempt at a compromise.

This has not been Serbia’s reading of the situation and consequently the two states are now engaged in a theatrical display of their historic enmity. The partial closure of the border last week was met with vehement protestations by Belgrade, pointing to the considerable economic damage this is likely to cause Serbia. Minister Ostojic replied on Monday that the border would remain closed as long as Serbia continued to direct refugees exclusively to the Croatian border.[9] In response, Serbia accused Croatia of an incompetent asylum policy, banned imports of Croatian goods and threatened legal action. Milanovic shot back contemptuously that ‘The eagle doesn’t hunt a fly. We are the eagle’.[10] Notwithstanding this bluster, on Wednesday the Croatian authorities refused all border passage to vehicles with a Serbian number plate. Serbia then retorted with rhetoric darkly reminiscent of the shrill nationalism of Milosevic’s regime: comparing Croatia’s actions against its citizens to that of the Croatian fascists of the Second World War.[11]

It would seem that Milanovic would prefer to cast the border crisis as aggressive maneuvering by their neighbor, even commenting that ‘Serbia could stop this today if it wants to.’[12] Whether or not Serbia views this crisis as an opportunity to slight Croatia, the refugees themselves have little choice in seeking to enter the Schengen Zone via Croatia as they are funneled in by 110 miles of Hungary’s border fence – now bristling with soldiers and police.[13] Yet since this crisis has taken the initiative out of Milanovic’s hands, his actions in apportioning blame to his neighbors may simply be a shallow attempt at demonstrating his leadership in stormy waters. Perhaps with the same intention, the Croatian President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović has lashed out at Merkel – claiming her actions in opening the door to the refugees before re-imposing limited border restrictions have caused ‘chaos’.[14]

Amid the nationalist mudslinging, the refugees themselves are rendered an inert and highly tiresome baggage to be dragged from one closing door to another by increasingly exasperated hosts. With the Schengen Zone so close, however, their resolve remains unbroken. Not for the first time in the Balkans, thousands of the dispossessed with their backs to a remorseless conflict push themselves northward; to a place of greater safety.

[1] L. Dearden, ‘Refugee crisis: Hungary accuses Croatia of ‘violating international law’ as tensions continue to rise over chaos in the Balkans’, The Independent, September 19th 2015, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/refugee-crisis-hungary-accuses-croatia-of-violating-international-law-as-tensions-continue-to-rise-10508888.html (Accessed 24/09/2015)

[2] ‘A mighty mess’, The Economist, July 26th 2014, http://www.economist.com/news/europe/21608758-croatia-eus-newest-basket-case-mighty-mess (Accessed 24/09/2015)

[3] Ibid.

[4] ‘Refugees in Croatia to Be Sheltered in Reception Camps Near Zagreb’, Independent.mk, September 16 2015, http://www.independent.mk/articles/22099/Refugees+in+Croatia+to+Be+Sheltered+in+Reception+Camps+Near+Zagreb#sthash.9S2HKgDw.dpuf (Accessed 24/09/15)

[5] M. Holehouse, ‘Refugee crisis: Croatia seals border crossings with Serbia’, The Daily Telegraph, September 18th 2015, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/hungary/11873012/Refugee-crisis-Hungary-declares-victory-in-border-strategy-as-migrants-head-to-Croatia-instead.html (Accessed 24/09/2015)

[6] ‘Human smuggling’? Hungary stops train with 1,000 asylum seekers escorted by 40 Croatian police’, Russia Today, September 18th 2015, http://www.rt.com/news/315906-hungary-train-arrest-migrants/, (Accessed 25/09/2015)

[7] A. Connelly and C. Stevenson, ‘Refugee crisis: Croatia PM warns Europe ‘we cannot accommodate these people any longer’, September 18th 2015, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/refugee-crisis-croatia-pm-warns-europe-we-cannot-accommodate-these-people-any-longer-10508538.html, (Accessed 25/09/2015)

[8] 4 ‘Refugees in Croatia to Be Sheltered in Reception Camps Near Zagreb’, Independent.mk, September 16 2015, http://www.independent.mk/articles/22099/Refugees+in+Croatia+to+Be+Sheltered+in+Reception+Camps+Near+Zagreb#sthash.9S2HKgDw.dpuf (Accessed 24/09/15)

[9] S. Shroeder, ‘Refugee crisis prompts tensions to rise between Croatia and Serbia’, Mashable UK, September 24th 2015, http://mashable.com/2015/09/24/croatia-serbia-refugee-crisis/#SVhlDaHWcaqp, (Accessed 25/09/2015)

[10] S. Vukojcic, ‘Refugee crisis triggers meltdown between Serbia and Croatia’, EurActive, September 23rd 2015, http://www.euractiv.com/sections/global-europe/refugee-crisis-triggers-meltdown-between-serbia-and-croatia-317875, (Accessed 25/09/2015)

[11] S. Shroeder, ‘Refugee crisis prompts tensions to rise between Croatia and Serbia’, Mashable UK, September 24th 2015, http://mashable.com/2015/09/24/croatia-serbia-refugee-crisis/#SVhlDaHWcaqp, (Accessed 25/09/2015)

[12] Ibid.

[13] R. Myers, ‘Hungary’s armoured vehicles sent to the border after Croatia sends bus-loads of refugees and migrants’, The Daily Mirror, September 20th 2015, http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/world-news/hungary-sends-tanks-secure-croatia-6477601, (Accessed 25/09/2015)

[14] J. Huggler, ‘Croatia president blames Angela Merkel for refugee crisis’, The Daily Telegraph, September 22nd 2015, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/germany/angela-merkel/11883426/Croatia-president-blames-Angela-Merkel-for-refugee-crisis.html, (Accessed 25/09/2015)

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