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Border closings are leaving desperate migrants trapped in the Balkans

September 17, 2015

Refugees arrive in CroatiaRefugees arrive in Croatia
Refugees rest on a railway in Croatia's Tovarnik municipality as they wait for a train to go to Zagreb after crossing the border from Serbia's border town Sid after Hungarian authorities closed their border on September 17, 2015. Photograph by Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

This article is published in partnership with Time.com. The original version can be found here.

By Rebecca Collard @rebeccacollard

In a small Serbian town, three young Iraqis wait at a bus stop next to a small park.

“We are going to Croatia,” says Alaa Kamal, who hails from Baghdad. Over the summer, this park in the center of Kanijza, which is just a few kilometers from the Hungarian border, served as a gathering point for refugees attempting to cross the frontier. Groups would meet here and set off on foot toward Hungary. Now the park is mostly empty.

Kamal and his friends tried to cross into Hungary on Monday night around 11 pm, using the railway tracks near the Hungarian town of Rozske, but found the way already blocked.

“We heard it will close on Tuesday,” says Kamal. Their hopes were dashed. “The women were crying.”

Hungary has sealed its frontier with Serbia, using a 110-mile long fence lined with layers of razor wire and units of army and police. Now hundreds of migrants—mostly Syrians, Iraqis, Afghanis and Pakistanis—wait at the Horgos border crossing in Serbia, hoping to be let in. Today, clashes erupted there between the refugees, who threw rocks and burning tires, and police who lobbed tear gas and sprayed water cannons on the crowd.

At one point a rumor spread that Hungary had opened the gates. Parents grabbed their children and belongings and ran to the front, only to be met with more tear gas. “What is happening? Is it open or what?” asks one man as he ran away from the tear gas carrying a toddler.

By evening refugees begin leaving the Horgos border crossing. Busses arrived to take people to a camp in Kanijza. From there, they are told, they will be able to take the bus on to Croatia. Dozens boarded free busses provided by Serbian authorities, others got in taxis. Some stayed behind.

“My group left about an hour ago,” says Nour a woman from Damascus. “I have a baby…And I don’t know anything about this road.”

Thousands of Syrians have taken the journey through Hungary, reporting back to family and friends about the best routes and the potential dangers. But this route through Croatia is new and uncharted. Nour says her group will go ahead and if it’s safe, she will follow with her child.

This land has known war before. Already, people are posting on social media warning of the dangers of minefields on the Serbian-Croatian border.

“No, no, now Hungary is closed,” Michel Nawfal, from Syria, tells his friend standing a few hundred yards from the border. They discuss their plans. The only option left is Croatia, and the two say the Serbia police told them they would able to reach the border. “They gave us a map,” he says.

“This reminds me now of Syria,” his friend says, laying on the ground near where the clashes took place earlier.

“He thought the road to Europe would be made of flowers,” says Nawfal. “Now he discovers the road.”

Nawfal says they are less worried about landmines and more concerned that Slovenia may close its border. While Croatia has said it will allow free passage of refugees through its territory, Slovenia is promising an approach more similar to that of Hungary, tightening its frontier.

“The border with Croatia is… a Schengen external border,” Slovenian Police Commissioner Marjan Fank, told AFP, “and for that reason, under strong police control.”

If that happens, and Hungary reinforces its border with Croatia, the refugees will again be trapped.

“They don’t know what they doing,” says Robert Valdec, a Croatian journalist, of his government, after watching the scene at the border today. “It’s just a competition in political correctness.”

Croatia is a member of the European Union, but it has one of the weakest economies in the EU, and it may be trying to garner favor with Germany.

And while the country may be prepared for the few thousands currently stuck in Serbia, it has no way of being ready for the thousands and thousands more who will come every day if refugees spread the word about a safe route through Croatia.