Slovenia and Croatia on Thursday began playing a reverse tug-of-war with economic migrants, with Ljubljana saying it would return them to its neighbour in a move strongly opposed by Zagreb.
Slovenian police announced on Wednesday that they would return those considered to be “clearly economic migrants and not refugees” to Croatia if they had entered the country from there, the STA news agency reported.
Slovenia will continue receiving legitimate refugees from countries plagued by wars, the police added.
Croatian Interior Minister Ranko Ostojic, however, called the plan “unacceptable” on Thursday.
Meanwhile, Croatia, Serbia and Macedonia also started restricting access to the Balkan route, which under new measures is only open to Syrians, Iraqis and Afghans.
All four countries are a part of the Balkan migration route, with Greece as the starting point. But unlike Slovenia and Greece, the three transit states between are not a part of the EU border-free Schengen zone.
“Macedonia, Serbia and Croatia are now stopping all who cannot identify themselves as refugees coming from these three countries affected by violence,” Melita Sunjic, a spokeswoman for the UN refugee agency UNHCR told dpa.
The authorities started implementing the new system overnight Thursday. It is a part of a joint effort to reduce the number of asylum seekers streaming into the European Union.
There was concern in transit nations such as Serbia that a decision by Germany and other destination countries in the west may cause a massive backlog of stranded migrants and refugees.
“We cannot allow anyone to enter the country who will not be able to continue,” Serbian Welfare Minister Aleksandar Vulin said Thursday, explaining the new rules.
“They are only transiting Serbia and that is how it will be in the future,” he told state RTS TV.
“Though the number [of economic migrants] is not big relative to the total number of refugees, we want to prevent the threat of a big return wave of economic migrants,” Ostojic said in Croatia, warning that unrestricted movement could leave Croatia “buried.”
Hundreds of thousands of people pass through the Balkan route, sailing from Turkey to the Greek Aegean islands, then crossing the mainland, Macedonia, Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia and Austria.
Many of them are fleeing violence in the Middle East, but others are also economic migrants from Asian and African countries trying to reach wealthy western Europe nations.
The tougher controls over migrants crossing central Balkan countries were agreed to in the aftermath of the Paris terrorist attacks last week.