Perhaps as soon as late October and certainly by the end of November, the season will shift in the Balkans, and winter weather will complicate and even endanger migrants’ arduous journeys into the heart of Western Europe.
OPATOVAC, Croatia — The migrants coming into Europe through the Western Balkans in recent months have been resourceful and adaptable enough to slip around unfriendly police, raging rivers, hostile borders and razor-wire fences. But there is one thing they cannot evade, and that is the looming winter.
Perhaps as soon as late October and certainly by the end of November, the season will shift in the Balkans. Finger-numbing rain will descend into snow and freezing winds, complicating and even endangering the arduous journeys starting from Syria and other war-torn nations into the heart of Western Europe.
An unofficial humanitarian corridor, which had been operating for more than a month with the unacknowledged cooperation of the nations involved, had kept asylum-seekers steadily moving through the region, and the summer’s squalid backups at blocked borders had nearly vanished.
But the situation was thrown into flux again with the announcement by Hungary on Friday that it intended to close its border with Croatia.
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As long as the migrants kept moving, the countries along the route were able to deal with the number of migrants passing through, refugee officials and aid workers said. And as long as there was a steady flow, the opportunity for tragedy from the impending cold was lessened.
But with fall winds carrying the first hints of frost, and the situation along the borders unresolved, the migrants, aid workers and government officials are anxiously looking ahead. If the numbers increase drastically or, worse, if the border closings expand, there would be an almost immediate backup that would quickly repopulate border camps within a week — some of them open-air, others mostly comprising unheated tents.
“For now, it is OK,” said Uros Jovanovic, manager of a new processing center being set up in a former psychiatric hospital near the Serbo-Croatian border. “But in 20 days or so, it is going to be very cold here.”
The looming threats have kept migrants on the move, hurrying from border to border to try to reach their destinations — most often Germany and Sweden.
“I am scared; everybody is scared,” said Ali Lolo, 35, a clothing-store manager from Damascus, Syria, who waited with his family last week beneath a weather-rippled tarp at the encampment here, where only a few tents are heated. “We are worried they will close the border, but we are also worried about winter. We must get where we are going before the snows fall.”
In previous years, the flow of migrants into Europe slowed to a trickle as winter approached, largely because the Mediterranean becomes especially treacherous in cold months. But with more migrants avoiding the once-popular sea route from Libya to southern Italy in exchange for a shorter, but still potentially dangerous, sea crossing from Turkey to the nearest Greek islands, the numbers flowing into Europe continue in the thousands, with a record 5,800 registered in just one day this month on Serbia’s border with Macedonia.
“The fear of borders closing and winter approaching is just making for a rush, rush, rush,” said Mette Petersen, regional spokesman for the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.
Governments throughout the region are struggling to find unused buildings, such as military barracks or schools, that can be quickly converted into heated housing for migrants, should the path forward become blocked. And aid workers are also trying to assemble a stockpile of blankets, heavy coats and winterized tents, just in case the worst happens.
Hungary completed a 108-mile razor-wire fence along its Serbian border last month, after a free-for-all this summer that saw squalid encampments sprout across the region. The migrants then simply shifted their path through neighboring Croatia.
On Sunday, trains were carrying migrants through Croatia and dropping them off at its northwest border with Slovenia. From there, they were being bused to the Austrian border.
About 3,300 migrants have entered Slovenia that way since Hungary closed its border at midnight Friday. About 2,000 had entered Austria by evening Sunday.
Migration officials warned it may be a matter of days until the system collapses under the strain.
“We are facing huge demands from Croatia and severe limitations from Austria,” said Bostjan Sefic, a senior official at the Slovenian Interior Ministry.
On the Serbian-Croatian border, scuffles erupted Sunday as hundreds of irritated migrants faced a cordon of Croatian policemen preventing them from entry.
“If we would accept 5,000 migrants per day that would mean 35,000 would be in Slovenia in 10 days,” Sefic said, taking into account those who leave for Austria. “That would be unacceptable.”
Slovenia said Sunday it won’t allow entry to about 1,800 migrants on a train from Croatia after more than 2,000 people have already entered in one day. Some 5,000 other migrants will have to spend a cold night in a camp in Opatovac, eastern Croatia, before they can head toward Slovenia.