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Surge Of Migrants Hits Bottleneck In Slovenia

A group of migrants is stopped by Slovenian police after crossing from Croatia on Wednesday. Slovenia has agreed to handle 2,500 migrants a day, but much larger numbers are entering the country as migrants move north in Europe before winter weather sets in.
Darko Bandic
A group of migrants is stopped by Slovenian police after crossing from Croatia on Wednesday. Slovenia has agreed to handle 2,500 migrants a day, but much larger numbers are entering the country as migrants move north in Europe before winter weather sets in.

Each night, after dark, trains have been pulling into a Croatian rail yard, littered with rusted old locomotives, near the Slovenia border.

They're not listed on any train timetables or schedules. That's because their passengers are migrants and refugees, many fleeing conflict in the Middle East. One recent train was carrying about 1,500 people.

"Nine hours!" passengers shout through open windows, describing their long slow ride across Croatia. They hang out of the train windows, accepting water bottles from Red Cross volunteers, and asking them: Which country are we in now? Which border do we cross next?

"My wife is pregnant! And I don't know where she is!" says one passenger, Bachar Khan, from Afghanistan.

He says he got separated from his family in the chaos of crossing borders. He's worried about his wife. He doesn't know if she got on the train ahead of his, or the one after — or any train at all.

"My wife doesn't use a mobile phone. I lost my whole family, but when I speak with police, they fight with you!" Khan says, describing brusque treatment by Croatian police. "Is all of Europe the same as this? I don't want Europe then!"

"Go back! Now move forward! Stay there!" police bark orders at the crowd.

Racing The Winter Weather

The migrants sit on the train for more than an hour at the station in Cakovec, Croatia, while workers replace the Croatian locomotive with a Slovenian one. Then they roll across the border and into Slovenia, and board buses toward a camp just outside the town of Sredisce ob Dravi.

Orders come in a mix of English, Croatian and Slovenian. Many of the passengers are tired and confused. Tempers are fraying. The Slovenian police are in riot gear. The army is on its way.

Such scenes are playing out across the Balkan region, as migrants and refugees rush to reach northern Europe before winter sets in. Many fear countries will tighten their borders, leaving them stranded.

The tiny country of Slovenia, population 2 million, has become the latest bottleneck.

It initially said it could handle only 2,500 migrant arrivals per day, but three times that many have been coming in daily. Authorities have now abandoned attempts to limit the flow over the southern border with Croatia and are concentrating instead on moving them north toward Austria and Germany.

Playing Hot Potato With Migrants

Human rights groups say authorities are not providing adequate food, shelter and sanitation for travelers. And by pushing them northward, these countries are playing a game of hot potato with human beings, says Lydia Gall, a researcher for Human Rights Watch.

"One EU member state shunts and dumps the responsibility for these people on another state, rather than having a coordinated European Union approach," Gall says. "And these people — [migrants and refugees] — are the ones taking the brunt of that."

Late into the night, the migrants carry their children and belongings from train to bus to a detention camp inside Slovenia, where they're kept behind metal fences, under police guard.

Still, travelers are getting what many say is their first hot meal in days, after crossing Serbia and Croatia — partly on foot, all of it in freezing rain. There have been several cases of hypothermia.

"[The journey was] very difficult! And very cold," says Julie Mekdad, 22. "My sister is very sick. Because in Croatia, it's so cold."

Mekdad left Damascus 10 days ago, with her sister and baby, when the Syrian war — now in its fifth year — finally landed on their doorstep.

Many of the Syrians traversing the Balkans this week say they had hoped to wait out the war. They didn't want to walk to Europe — certainly not at the start of winter. But violence has flared in recent weeks back home, they say.

"Russian airplanes began to come — and American [ones] — and they are shooting civilians," says Alaa Maso, 16, from Aleppo. "Everybody is killing civilians. Nobody kills terrorists."

Maso left Aleppo two weeks ago. He's traveling with his older brother, age 23. Both used to compete in triathlons in Syria.

"I am swimmer, and [there's] no safety there — no reason to continue our sport," he says. "No championships of the country, nothing."

The brothers hope to find safety — in a town with an Olympic-sized swimming pool, in Germany or Holland. Then they hope to send for their parents, and rescue them from the war in Syria.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Lauren Frayer covers India for NPR News. In June 2018, she opened a new NPR bureau in India's biggest city, its financial center, and the heart of Bollywood—Mumbai.

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