Thousands of Refugees Cross the Border into Croatia
Around 3,000 refugees broke through a police checkpoint on the border of Berkasovo-Bapska and entered Croatia on Tuesday. Croatian police did not intervene and, in some cases, actually helped migrants to climb out of the mud.
Many spent the night out in the open with only blankets or plastic sheeting to protect themselves and their children from the driving rain. Croatian police eventually stopped the flow of people through the bypass route over nearby fields, but only after hundreds had already entered Croatia.
Croatia's Prime Minister said he had had a change of heart and that barring the migrants was "no solution".
Serbia and Croatia have forged a rare agreement to improve the journey of migrants in Europe, providing train services across their borders to ease travel through the Western Balkans. The first train service transporting migrants directly from Serbia into Croatia began on Tuesday, allowing men, women and children to bypass an isolated border crossing where migrants were frequently stalled. The arrangement was part of an agreement between the two nations that would have been unthinkable in their recent past. The train journey began fewer than five miles from the spot where the first fighting broke out in Yugoslavia in 1991 between Serbs and Croats, eventually escalating into war and resulting in the loss of more than 100,000 lives. The arrangement was also an unusual effort by European countries to work together to address a humanitarian crisis that continues to deepen, with thousands still arriving every day even as temperatures are starting to drop.
Interior Ministry spokeswoman Vesna Mitric said that five trains packed with asylum-seekers have already arrived in Slovenia from Croatia and more are expected overnight. She says 1,000 other migrants arrived on buses, so a total of 15,000 people will have entered the country by the end of the day.
Hungary has already proved that it can largely insulate itself from the refugee crisis by deploying razor wire and threatening lengthy prison sentences for anyone who dares cross it but the country’s moves have shifted the burden of the refugee crisis to its neighbors — and are now tempting leaders in those nations to build their own fences. The U.N. refugee agency said Monday that a record 218,394 people crossed the Mediterranean to reach European shores in October and as the numbers rise, officials in countries across central and southeastern Europe are eyeing one another nervously, fearing that a sudden closure of any one border could unleash a domino effect across the region that would leave tens of thousands of people stranded and angry, far from their intended destinations.
Croatian Interior Minister Ranko Ostojic, who has coordinated his country’s response as more than 300,000 people have crossed through the small coastal nation since mid-September — including 8,400 on Sunday alone said, “The result will be chaos and violence. You really think you can stop these people without shooting? You’d have to build a wall around Europe if you really wanted to stop these kinds of flows.”
Rather than try to impede the movement of migrants, Croatia has sought to speed it up by arranging trains to ferry people from the Serbian border in the east to the Slovenian border in the west. But the country’s right-wing opposition, which is a slight favorite to win national elections Sunday, has proposed a different solution: a fence.
Igor Tabak, a Croatian security analyst said, “Everyone is afraid of the moment when Germany decides it has had enough. The closure of borders would not only undermine the principle of free movement at the heart of Europe’s post-Cold War identity, but it could also be deeply destabilizing in the Balkans, where countries that were in conflict with one another less than a generation ago are being forced to cooperate on the biggest challenge to confront the European Union in decades."
Pressure Grows to Close Europe's Borders
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392,191 migrants and refugees have entered Croatia since the beginning of the crisis with 3,669 crossing the border overnight.
Security measures throughout Croatia have been elevated to a higher level following recent terrorist attacks in Paris but little has changed at the temporary refugee reception centre in Slavonski Brod. Migrants are being registered and photographed as usual before being transported to Slovenia. "Since the opening of the camp, safety has been at a very high level. The transfer of migrants and the camp itself are controlled by a large number of police officers. Asked whether Croatian citizens are safe, the Minister said, "There is always the danger of potential terrorist threats, since Croatia is a member of the antiterrorist coalition. All security systems are at the highest level, primarily to protect foreign embassies, but also in order to prevent any security incidents."
The Minister declined to comment on the announcement by Macedonia that it is ready to erect a wire fence across its borders. "I can only say that wires will not solve this issue. The solution is at the source, at the Greek-Turkish border. Greece should take measures to ensure that this mass influx of refugees stops". He added that the problem should be solved with a common EU policy. Asked what would cause Croatia to build its own border fence, the Minister said "there is no need to talk about that. We are controlling the situation, protecting our national security".
German Chancellor Angela Merkel called for "equitable distribution" of migrants in Europe and warned that Paris attacks must not be brought in connection with "numerous innocent refugees". She reiterated the German position, saying that she expects a fair distribution of refugees in Europe. "We have to act at the external borders of the European Union", she added.
Before that, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker defended the European policy of refugee quotas which has been contested by Poland after the attack in Paris. "The refugees are fleeing from people like these who carried out the attacks, so there is no reason to change European policy towards refugees", Juncker told reporters, which was interpreted as a direct response to Poland.
Konrad Szymanski, future Head of the Ministry for European Affairs in the new Polish conservative government said, "The decisions of the European Council on the resettlement of refugees and migrants to all EU countries, which we have criticized, continue to have the force of EU law. But, after the tragic events in Paris, we do not consider them politically feasible".
The world watched in horror as Paris was attacked by members of ISIS, leaving over 120 people dead and hundreds more injured. At exactly the same time, 2,500 miles away, ISIS was murdering Yezidi men, women and children in the Iraqi town of Sinjar, scene of the infamous Sinjar massacre just 15 months earlier. Yezidis are one of the ancient peoples of Mesopotamia and estimates put the global number at around 700,000, with the vast majority living in Northern Iraq. Their faith combines elements of Christianity, Judaism, Zoroastrianism and Islam but ISIS considers them as ‘unworthy and unclean’, so called 'mushrikiin' and on this basis, attacked them in their homes in and around the Sinjar mountains, killing the men and the elderly and abducting thousands of women and children. The women and young girls were sold as sex slaves or gifted to ISIS commanders, while the boys were sent to camps and forced to convert to Islam. Those who refused or resisted were killed.
By removing the entire Yezidi population from their homeland and harming the women and girls both physically and mentally through sexual violence, ISIL ensured that they would not be able to go back to their communities. By forcing the boys to change their religion and become fighters, they aim to annihilate their religious identity and traditions and destroy the existence of the Yezidi people. The recent campaign by the Kurdish Peshmerga to retake Sinjar may have helped to alleviate the suffering but thousands of Yezidis remain in refugee camps in Iraq, where the future looks bleak.
Fleeing from ISIS
A woman and a teenage girl freeze to death in Bulgaria
A girl in her mid-teens and a woman in her 30s, had crossed the border to Bulgaria with a group of refugees and had been sleeping outdoors. The women were part of a group of 19 migrants, including 11 children, found Saturday by border police near the southeastern town of Malko Tarnovo.
'Two women have died - one younger and another middle-aged.' announced the Interior Minister Rumyana Bachvarova. 'Our border guards made every effort to help them, carrying them in their arms to try to warm them up, but it happened because of the cold.'
The weather conditions were extremely harsh with high winds, some 12 inches of snow and freezing temperatures. All of the children, aged between four and 16, were taken to hospital with frostbite.
This is the second report from Bulgaria this winter of migrants succumbing to cold, after the frozen bodies of two men were found in a mountainous area at Bulgaria's border with Serbia in January. As refugees continue to flow from Greece through the Balkans on their way to western Europe, aid workers have sounded alarms over inadequate shelter from the current freezing temperatures and snowy conditions, particularly for children. In January, almost 62,200 migrants and refugees entered Europe through Greece, most of them from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq, the International Organization for Migration said. Close to a third of them were unaccompanied minors.
A woman’s fight for the Yezidis
By Paul Iddon 14/12/2015
Dr Nemam of the Joint Help for Kurdistan with Yezidi children at camp Bajed Kandal camp near Duhok.
ERBIL, Kurdistan Region—Not far from the city of Duhok sits two refugee camps: Bajed Kandal Camp No. 1 and No. 2. Originally built to temporarily host Kurdish refugees from Syria the camps have since become home to many Yezidis who fled onslaughts by the Islamic State (ISIS) in the Shingal region.
Dr. Nemam Ghafouri works for a coalition of charity organizations named Joint Help for Kurdistan linked to the Swedish Specialist Hospital in Erbil and she has been helping these people since the ISIS invasion of their homes last year. Doctors from her agency have volunteered their professional services and their own finances to make life better for the people of Camp No. 2 until they can one day return to Shingal and rebuild their lives there.
Entering the camp you see a small cluster of portacabins. These are where her team operates from. Nemam told me they can only count on two doctors at any given time. And the doctors who were working there had not received a salary in over two months and were simply sustaining themselves on their own savings. The pharmacy portacabin has basic medicines but doubtfully enough to cope long-term without regular replenishment. Aside from that and two makeshift clinics to give regular check-ups to the camp’s community there is little else.
Camp Bajed Kandal No. 2 has been hosting approximately 6,500 displaced Yezidis since the summer of 2014 and has been doing so on shoestring resources. The UNHCR agency had initially provided basic tents for the camp which proved, in the long-term, to be wholly inadequate. Nemam showed me photos from last year of the camp and its UNHCR tents flooded. The lives of children and the elderly would have been at risk had it not been for the presence of her team. As if that wasn’t bad enough the same agency made no preparations for the following year and the camps residents had to go through the very same trauma the following winter. “It’s like they were surprised that winter had come!” Nemam, aghast, remarked.
As I arrived they were working on alleviating the impact of a third flood. The camp is on uneven ground and the water floods even the clinic and pharmacy cabins. With heavy rains the water runs like a giant stream right through the camp. Bulldozers are now digging a large drain to hopefully lessen the effects of any future floods.
There are a lot of children there. They are very friendly and enthusiastically welcome visitors and members of Dr. Nemam’s team alike. Shilan Atroshi, who works for the organization as a nurse is a local celebrity here.
A small school has been built on the edge of the camp to give the younger children some basic semblance of an elementary education. Dr. Nemam and her crew buy enough bananas to hand out to the pupils whenever they can. “It’s not much,” she admits, “but it is something they have to, and do, look forward to.”
The school works on a rotary basis. Some children come in the morning and others in the afternoon since the school does not have the resources to host everyone for a full school day. However, seeing it firsthand one cannot but salute it as a highly commendable effort.
Dr. Nemam’s team also organized the construction of a bakery last year given how unreliable, and often dangerous, trucking such food into the camp had been. It was an ambitious project which cost approximately $80,000 half of which went to the machinery needed to produce the nourishment and the rest to the actual building, materials and the bakers.
“But it hasn’t produced any bread since last August 1,” Nemam said as she showed me the dormant building. “This bakery can provide bread to both camps, that’s about 15,000 people, daily for just $25,000. But we haven’t had the sufficient funds to make this possible ever since.”
It’s depressing to see such a project, which could guarantee the residents of both camps a daily supply of fresh bread, come to a halt. “You should have seen in the window the excited look on the children’s faces when we got started,” she nostalgically recalled to me the opening of the bakery.
There is some bread still being made in the camp. But it is made by the refugees themselves and is quite a slow and labour intensive process. Certainly nothing compared to having an efficient and productive bakery.
A number of the friendly children who greeted us with smiles and handshakes in Bajed are orphans thanks to ISIS. One nine-year-old is a girl named Gole. Her story is heartbreaking. Gole’s mother passed away a few years earlier and her father—the sole breadwinner of the family—decided to stay in Shingal and fight ISIS. He fought them for well over a year, sure that the terrorist group would be defeated. But sadly, he was killed by ISIS shortly before the November liberation of Shingal by the Peshmerga.
Another one is the Khodeda family. These three children too lost their parents to ISIS and have since been cared for by their grandparents and uncle (who is 14) and the generous support of Shilan the nurse. Their grandmother couldn’t help bursting into tears when recalling the extended family she lost to ISIS’s genocidal campaign against her people.
The elderly are coping with the pain and sorrow every day, but as Shilan said, the children are still waiting to reunite with their parents. “I don’t think it has occurred to them yet that their parents are actually gone for good, it’s like they think they are simply sitting put and waiting for the day when they will come back.”
IDOMENI, Greece (AP) — At least 25 people drowned off the Turkish coast while trying to reach Greece on Sunday, while Macedonian authorities imposed further restrictions on refugees trying to cross the Greek border.
The Turkish coast guard launched a search-and-rescue mission for other migrants believed to be missing from the accident, the state-run Anadolu Agency reported, and rescued 15 off the Aegean Sea resort of Didim, it added. The dead included three children, according to private Dogan news agency.
Meanwhile, Greek police officials said Macedonian authorities are only allowing those from cities they consider to be affected by war to cross the Idomeni border crossing from Greece. That means people from cities such as Aleppo in Syria, for example, can enter, but those from the Syrian capital of Damascus or the Iraqi capital of Baghdad are being stopped.
The two officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to speak on the record.
A U.N. refugee agency official in Macedonia confirmed the new restrictions, and criticized the decision.
"This is not all right," said Ljubinka Brasnarska, UNHCR senior external relations assistant in Macedonia, told the AP. "Everybody from Syria who came needs international protection. This decision could be taken only by other competent international bodies, not by border authorities," she said, adding she couldn't explain the latest move.
Macedonian police said the checks and profiling of refugees wanting to cross "are carried out by mixed teams of police officers from all countries of the (Balkan) route."
"Iraq and Syria are considered unsafe countries, but if one of the countries on the route introduces new restrictions (we) will be forced to consider the possibility to (apply) them also on the Macedonian-Greek border, including the ban on the entry of migrants from certain areas," police said in a statement.
Police said there were more than 1,000 people, mostly Syrians and Iraqis, currently stuck on the Macedonian-Serbian border.
"We do not know for what reason they have not been granted to transit through Serbia," it said.
The developments come a day before a summit between the European Union and Turkey to discuss the crisis, which has seen more than 1 million people reach Europe last year.
Nearly all refugees and other migrants who enter the EU have been doing so by taking small inflatable dinghies from the Turkish coast to the nearby Greek islands. With thousands of kilometers of coastline, Greece says it cannot staunch the flow unless Turkey stops the boats from leaving its shores.
Athens has also criticized Europe for not sticking to agreements to take in refugees in a relocation scheme that never really got off the ground.
"While Idomeni is closed for refugees and the flows from the islands, from the Turkish shores to the islands, remain, it must be perfectly clear that the immediate start of a reliable process of relocation of refugees from our country to other countries of the European Union is a matter of complete urgency," Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras said Sunday during a speech to his party.
"And this is exactly what we will seek in the summit on Monday. Not just the wording that this is urgent, but that it will begin immediately and with a large number," Tsipras said.
While thousands arrive in Greece's main port of Piraeus from the islands, about 13,000-14,000 people remain stranded in Idomeni, with more arriving each day. The refugee camp has overflowed, with thousands pitching tents among the railway tracks and in adjacent fields.
The rate at which refugees are being allowed to cross had already been reduced to a trickle, with sometimes only a few dozen, or even nobody, being allowed to cross. Greek police said 240 people crossed between 6 a.m. Saturday and the same time Sunday morning.
The camp is beginning to take on a form of semi-permanence, with people realizing they will be spending at the very least several days in the fields. As morning broke, women swept the earth outside their tents with makeshift brooms made of twigs and leaves. Men stomped on branches pulled off trees nearby to use as firewood for small campfires to boil tea and cook.
Firewood is one of the main materials in short supply, and a large truck delivery Sunday night was quickly mobbed by hundreds of people in a mad scramble. Men and boys clambered up the sides of the truck, chucking logs to those below, while others climbed over each other to get into the back of the truck, hauling out as much as they could carry.
Throughout Sunday morning, dozens of local Greeks arrived in cars packed with clothes and food donations to distribute to the refugees. Many were mobbed as they arrived at the first tents, with men, women and children scrambling to receive whatever handouts they could.
The sheer numbers have overwhelmed Greek authorities. Massive queues of hundreds of people form from early in the morning, with people waiting for hours for a lunch-time sandwich.
While Greek officials have tried to discourage more people from arriving, and no longer allow buses to drive to the Idomeni border, hundreds continue to arrive each day, walking more than 15 kilometers (10 miles) from a nearby gas station where the United Nations refugee agency has set up large tents.
"We have been here five days, or six. Who remembers the days anymore," said Narjes al Shalaby, 27, from Damascus in Syria, travelling with her mother and two daughters, 5-year-old Maria and 10-year-old Bara'a. Her husband and third daughter are already in Germany.
"All we do here is sleep, wake up, sleep. We get hungry, we wait in the queue for two hours for a sandwich, we come back, we sleep some more," said Narjes, who worries about her daughters.
"She's grown up sooner that she should have," she says of Maria, who is sleeping in the back of the family's small tent. "She's aged."
Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Konstantin Testorides in Skopje, Macedonia and Costas Kantouris in Thessaloniki, Greece, contributed to this report.
25 migrants drown off Turkey, few allowed into Macedonia
By ELENA BECATOROS