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Eager To Leave Croatian Camp, Migrants Await Registration


The small Balkan nation of Croatia became a new transit point last month for nearly 100,000 refugees and migrants trying to reach Northern Europe. Now Hungary is fencing off its border with Croatia to stop the flow of people. Joanna Kakissis sends us this report from Croatia.

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: Under gunmetal clouds, in the rain, Shalal Ghulijan and his 3-year-old son crouched in a cemetery at a border crossing into Croatia. The Syrian Kurd fled fled Islamic State, crossing the sea and three countries to get this far.

SHALAL GHULIJAN: And now we are here from this morning and stay because the police promise us the bus will come in. There is no bus, no food.

KAKISSIS: It was just over a week ago that thousands waited here. The Croatians were overwhelmed, says Rafal Kostrzynski of the United Nations Refugee Agency

RAFAL KOSTRYZYNSKI: They just couldn't transfer them without them being registered first. They couldn't transfer them to Hungary, so they set up this camp.

KAKISSIS: The camp is outside the village of Opatovac. I met Kostrzynski here. He says the camp was chaotic at first and that the people sent here protested.

KOSTRYZYNSKI: Because basically they didn't know why they ended up here, and they thought that this was sort of a detention center. And they wanted to be released immediately because they were afraid. They didn't know their future. They were afraid that something might happen to them.

KAKISSIS: But Croatia does not want to become another Hungary, throwing people into detention camps, says Helena Biocic. She's the deputy spokesperson for the Croatian police.

HELENA BIOCIC: (Through interpreter) No, we didn't expect so many people. We had to work hard to get ready for them. And now we are ready.

KAKISSIS: Biocic says the police try to get people out of the camp in three or four hours and on a bus to the train station near the town of Tovarnik.

Ahmad al-Jamali, a middle-aged accountant from Damascus, Syria, is wearing a knit hat he got at the camp. He is elated to leave Croatia so quickly. He actually tries to hug a police officer leading him to a train.

AHMAD AL-JAMALI: We are thanks, very, very, very thanks, to the Croatian police because they very, very good.

KAKISSIS: I barely have time to ask al-Jamali where he wants to end up.

Nice to meet you. Good luck.

JAMALI: Switzerland.

KAKISSIS: Switzerland, good luck (laughter).

But that kind of speedy exit out of Croatia may not last. Hungary is fencing up the border with barbed wire, something that Croatian Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic ridiculed in a BBC interview.


ZORAN MILANOVIC: So far, we noticed that they put some barbed wire, which apart from being nasty, is inefficient. If Hungary wishes to roll more rolls of the barbed wire, so be it. People are always able to circumvent it, to pass it over, to put some blanket on it. They will not stop them.

KAKISSIS: Back in Tovarnik, it's dark, and a young Afghan mother and her two little girls are the last to board the train. It's taking hundreds of people to a town at the Hungarian border. As the train pulls away, some of the Croatian police officers wave. On this night, the border is open. For NPR News, I'm Joanna Kakissis in Tovarnik, Croatia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Joanna Kakissis is a foreign correspondent based in Kyiv, Ukraine, where she reports poignant stories of a conflict that has upended millions of lives, affected global energy and food supplies and pitted NATO against Russia.