BREZICE, Slovenia—A day ahead of a European summit on the migrant crisis, Slovenian officials staggered to cope and tempers flared Saturday at an overcrowded refugee center as thousands more asylum-seekers poured into the tiny Alpine nation.
European nations have been criticized for being slow to react as hundreds of thousands of people seeking safety pour in through Greece and Italy. But a draft plan submitted to countries coming to the Brussels summit by European Commission President Jean Claude Juncker was already drawing strong opposition.
Croatian Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic said the EU plan urges countries not to “wave” asylum-seekers across their borders without consulting with their neighbors.
“That is impossible, whoever wrote this does not understand how things work and must have just woken up from a months-long sleep,” he said Saturday.
On the ground across the Balkans, the biggest problems have emerged when the torrent of refugees is bottlenecked at one border or another. And the numbers of those crossing the seas from Turkey into Greece have surged of late, driven on by a fear of cold weather, cold water and more European border closures.
Milanovic said the only solution that would bring the migrant influx under control lies at the border between Turkey and Greece, where the refugees first enter the 28-nation EU.
“Everything else is a waste of time,” he said, adding that EU rules which say refugees should stay in the country where they first enter the bloc are “not realistic.”
Since Hungary closed its border with Croatia to migrants on Oct. 17, pressure has been building elsewhere, as asylum-seekers traveling through the Balkans have pressed on instead through Croatia and Slovenia toward Austria, Germany and other Western European nations.
At the Brezice camp near the border with Croatia, Slovenian police used pepper spray Saturday to break up a scuffle when a quarrel between two groups of migrants escalated into a fight.
Slovenian police estimated Saturday that some 13,000 people had entered the country in the last 24 hours, and the atmosphere at the camp has been increasingly tense as migrants wait for buses west to Austria.
Packed behind metal barriers, guarded by riot police and armored vehicles, crowds at Brezice chanted “I need to go!” and called for more water.
In all, authorities say 58,000 refugees have entered Slovenia just in the last week.
The leaders of Austria, Bulgaria, Croatia, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Romania and Slovenia have been invited to the Brussels summit Sunday along with two non-members of the EU, Macedonia and Serbia.
Slovenia’s prime minister, Miro Cerar, on Friday called for common EU action and more effective protection of the bloc’s external borders, saying the flood of refugees is “too much” for his small country of 2 million.
Amnesty International’s Slovenia branch warned of a humanitarian disaster unless EU countries come up with a plan at the summit to tackle the migrant crisis. It said families are still often forced to sleep outside in the open.
Leaders “must not walk away from another meeting without a feasible plan on how to protect the needs and rights of the refugees,” the group said.
Although the temperatures are not yet below freezing, it’s been tough going, said Habibi Ullah, a 19-year-old who had walked from Croatia into Slovenia and was waiting in a muddy field for transport to the Brezice camp.
“It took me 40 days to come here. Was very hard and difficult,” the Afghan said in broken English. “Hardest is the cold weather. We stay (outside) in cold weather. Not for me but families and children — so hard for them.”
At the Croatian border with Serbia, tensions have eased since authorities have become better organized. In the last 24 hours, some 7,000 people came into a camp in Berkasovo in western Serbia, including 3,000 overnight, Niklas Stoerup Agerup, a field officer with the U.N. refugee agency, said Saturday.
“But the border has been continuously open, with small breaks, meaning that there has been a continuous outflow of people as well as an inflow, and the buses have been driving all night,” he said.
Farther along the route, Austrian authorities said at least 6,000 more asylum-seekers were expected to reach a registration camp in the town of Spielfeld on the border with Slovenia. Police spokesman Fritz Grundnig told the dpa news agency 3,000 people were already in the camp as of Saturday morning and were being housed in heated tents.
The flow of buses to take the people on to Vienna to board trains for their final destinations has been slow and many refugees have been waiting for days. Hundreds of taxis swarmed through the area to pick up those who could afford the 400 euro ($440) fare to the Austrian capital.