Commodities: EU Plan to Stem Flow Threatens to Throw Migrants Into Limbo

By Valentina Pop 
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SPIELFELD, AUSTRIA–Politicians, police and aid workers on the main migrant trail into Europe cast doubts on a plan to be discussed Sunday by 10 European leaders on how to stem the influx to Germany and Scandinavia.

The plan, put together by European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, seeks to slow the passage on the safe corridor that has formed through central and Eastern Europe toward Austria and Germany by increasing border surveillance, properly registering migrants and stopping bus and train transfers to the next border without the consent of the neighboring country.

Croatian Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic, who is expected to attend the meeting in Brussels on Sunday, called the plan “frivolous and unrealistic.” Speaking to NovaTv on Saturday, Mr. Milanovic said his country will refuse to become a collection center for refugees if other countries close their borders.

Austria has been struggling over the past few days to redirect its relief efforts toward its southern border with Slovenia after Hungary completed a border-fence system last week that triggered a redirecting of the migrant trail from Serbia to Croatia and Slovenia.

Spielfeld, a customs point on the Austrian border to Slovenia, repurposed into a migrant dispatching area managed by the Austrian army, had seen over 10,000 people arrive in 24 hours on Thursday. The previous day, thousands of people broke through the security barrier and started walking on the highway, exasperated with the slow pace of being boarded onto buses and driven north, toward the German border.

On Saturday, over 4,000 people were waiting at Spielfeld to be transferred, cramming into metal crowd control fences and booing as soldiers pushed them back. A vehicle with loudspeakers constantly repeated a message in English, German and Arabic: “Please step back, there are women and children, don’t push.”

“Tensions are running high because these people have long weeks of travel behind them and they feel they are so close to Germany, they don’t want to wait any longer,” said Fritz Grundnig, a spokesman for the regional police in Steiermark.

Mr. Grundnig said the Juncker plan wouldn’t work if countries stopped allowing people to pass through. “Closing the borders is no solution, it would only shift the burden on the next country.”

Neither is it realistic to expect everyone to be registered and have their fingerprints introduced into the EU-wide Eurodac database for asylum seekers. “It would take an hour per person to take their fingerprints, biometric data and picture,” Mr. Grundnig said.

“So what we do is, we give them a paper saying they crossed illegally and that they have eight days to register with local authorities. But we know they don’t stay.”

A handful of people were returned to Slovenia as translators discovered they were lying about their identity and showing fake documents, he said.

Transport was slow, he said, because buses are dispatched only when an overnight shelter up north says it can accommodate another 20 to 50 people. Hundreds of taxis were parked nearby, waiting for wealthier refugees who can afford the EUR400 ($440) to EUR500 ride to Vienna.

Meanwhile, a new heated tent was erected Saturday for people to use at night. The day before, 2,000 people spent the night in the existing tents, but several hundred stayed out in the open, lighting campfires to warm themselves.

One of the families that had spent the night out in the open, in temperatures little above freezing point, said they refused to go to the heated tents for fear of losing their spot in the line for the bus.

“I will get a heart attack if they close the border and don’t let us go further,” said Kefa Halil, a 38-year old hairdresser from Afrin, a town in northwestern Syria. Ms. Halil was part of a 16-strong group, including her husband and two children, who were headed for Norway, where they have relatives.

Humanitarian workers witnessing the determination of the people to keep going doubt they can be persuaded against continuing their journey to Germany and Scandinavian countries.

“They know that if a mass of people gets up and leaves, there is nothing to stop them. Police cannot use force against them, they are civilians, there are women and children among them,” said Edith Pfeiffer, head of the regional Caritas branch, a Christian aid group providing translators and managing the distribution of food and clothes together with the Red Cross. She said the translators were trying to explain that Germany may not be the paradise they dream of, but few believe that and just want to keep going. “Only about 5% want to stay in Austria,” Ms. Pfeiffer said.

Write to Valentina Pop at valentina.pop-wsj.com