Thousands of people trying to reach the heart of Europe surged across Serbia's border into Croatia on Monday after authorities eased restrictions that had left them stranded for days in ankle-deep mud and rain.
The miserable wave of humanity left behind a field scattered with soaked blankets, mud-caked clothing and water-logged tents as they headed for Slovenia, the next obstacle to their quest to reach richer European Union nations via the Balkans.
Monday's surprise move allowed an estimated 3,000 more migrants to enter Croatia bound for its small Alpine neighbour, which also has been struggling to slow the flow of humanity across its frontiers — and faced another wave of trekkers seeking to reach Austria and Germany to the north.
"Without any announcement, the borders opened. When the borders opened, everybody rushed," said Melita Sunjic, a spokeswoman for the U.N. refugee agency, who was stationed at the Serb-Croat border.
Many had discarded their mud-soaked socks and walked only in sandals or slippers through the ankle-deep muck in a driving rain, frigid winds and fog. Some who had lost limbs during the civil war in Syria were aided by friends pushing their wheelchairs down a country lane that, since Saturday, had been blocked by Croat police.
Now the officers stood aside to permit asylum-seekers by the thousands to walk toward buses for transport north — where they would become Slovenia's problem.
Croatia's prime minister, Zoran Milanovic, said his country had hoped to minimize the flow of people following Hungary's decision to seal its border with Croatia, but conditions on the poorly sheltered Serb side of the border had quickly grown unbearable.
"It's apparent that this is no solution, so we will let them through. We will send them toward Slovenia," Milanovic said.
Aid workers handed out blue rain ponchos and bags of food to travellers, many of them slipping in the mud as they walked across the border. Officials on the Croat side planned to bus the newcomers either to a Croat refugee camp or — far more likely, given asylum seekers' reluctance to stop before reaching their desired destinations — to the Slovenian border.
Slovenia's Interior Ministry said some 5,000 people had reached its borders Monday, and most were allowed to enter, with at least 900 reaching Austria by the evening. Slovenia had vowed to let in no more than 2,500 migrants per day.
Slovenian President Borut Pahor insisted his country would accept only as many travellers as could be funneled directly on to Austria. He said Slovenia was determined not to be left holding the bag should Austria or Germany suddenly stop accepting refugee applicants.
"As long as Austria will control the flow of refugees, we will have to do the same on the Slovenian-Croatian border," Pahor said.
An empty field near the Serbian border town of Berkasovo was littered with discarded belongings in an illustration of just how desperately those who had been stuck there wanted to cross into Croatia. Only hours before, its rows of tents had been packed with people fleeing war and poverty in the Middle East, Asia and Africa. Now only a few hundred remained. Dozens could be seen in the distance walking into Croatia, many carrying children on their backs.
Left behind in the scramble were stuffed toys, a milk bottle, a child's rubber boot, crayons scattered in the mud and soaked blankets. Cleaning crews could be seen collecting the scattered belongings with shovels in hopes of clearing the boggy field in time for the next migrant wave coming north from Macedonia.
One of the last to cross into Croatia on Monday was a 28-year-old Syrian who had lost a leg in that country's civil war and was being pushed by friends in a mud-caked wheelchair. The group stared, eyes vacant with exhaustion, at nearby Croat cornfields as the man, who gave only his first name, Less, lit a cigarette with shaking hands.
"We have no more money, no jacket, no food," he said, pleading to be permitted to reach Germany without further delays.
Officials in Serbia, Slovenia and Croatia all accused each other of making a bad situation worse.
Slovenia accused the Croats of breaking an agreement to limit the number of migrants crossing into its territory to 2,500 per day. Croatian officials insisted no such deal could be enforced because they lacked legal powers to confine travellers to Croat emergency shelters, which remain less than half full.
When the day's first train carrying an estimated 1,800 people stopped near Slovenia shortly after midnight, they found their path blocked in both directions by rival deployments of Croat and Slovene police, each arguing the trekkers must seek shelter in the other country.
This created a no-man's land on the border, where many were forced to spend the night in the open in the bitter cold and pelting rain. Some piled up soggy tree branches for fires.
"It's completely unacceptable," said Slovene Interior Minister Vesna Gyorkos Znidar, who accused Croatia of seeking to dump "an unlimited number of immigrants" on Slovenia rather than make an effort to them into staying at Croatian shelters.
But Croatia retorted that it, too, was being unfairly burdened by unrelenting flows from Serbia, where U.N. officials estimate another 10,000 asylum seekers — more than double the summer's typical flow — are currently travelling north to Croatia.
Before the Croat authorities lifted the border restrictions on Monday, parents desperate to get their children out of the cold and rain could be seen handing them over the security barriers to police. Many others fed up with waiting in the rain tried to outflank police positions, walking through muddy orchards and cornfields.
"We are in cold weather and the place is not good," said Farouk al-Hatib, a Syrian who was waiting to cross from Serbia. "Our message for the governments is to take into consideration our suffering."
Croatian government leaders argue that it's pointless, if not impossible, to stop people who overwhelmingly express determination to reach wealthier nations in Western Europe, chiefly Germany.
"The Republic of Croatia has asked these refugees to stay at our reception centres until their status is resolved, but they all refuse," said Matija Posavec, governor of Medjimurje, Croatia's northernmost county bordering Slovenia. "They could have stayed on board the train. They could have stayed at the reception centres, but none of them really want that. ... They just want to pass."
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