Tiny Slovenia tries to stem massive migrant surge across Balkans, but more havoc likely

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Stanko Kovac felt only sympathy for the thousands of migrants who flow chest-deep across freezing rivers to reach Slovenia from Croatia, trudging day and night by his house right at the border. That is, until they started trampling his crops and scaring his cattle and chicken.

"They are poor people forced to flee violence, it is a tragedy," Kovac said by a barn in his sleepy hillside village. "But we can no longer stand the sight. Slovenia is choking under the surge."

The Slovenian farmer's message reflects the general mood in the tiny Alpine state of just over 2 million people, confronted with Europe's worst migrant crisis since World War II. The largely Catholic nation fears it could be overwhelmed by mostly Muslim refugees if neighboring Austria and Germany further west decide to stop the massive flow from the Balkans.

With the European Union estimating that 3 million more migrants will arrive in Europe over the next year, the patience of Slovenians, traditionally known for tolerance, is wearing thin. Their government announced Tuesday that a fence will be put up to control the flow, although not completely to stop it.

Although Slovenia insists it is not shutting down its borders for migrants — like neighboring Hungary did this summer — the curbing of the surge that has seen some 170,000 enter Slovenia since mid-October is bound to trigger a ripple effect down the so-called Balkan migrant corridor that also includes Turkey, Greece, Macedonia, Serbia and Croatia.

With winter approaching, no country along the route wants to be stuck with tens of thousands of restless migrants on its territory.

Slovenian Prime Minister Miro Cerar said that if the EU does not find a solution for the migrant crisis soon — by which he means stopping people from entering Greece from Turkey — Slovenia's borders "will have to be defended with wires, policemen and soldiers."

"It is easy to say that the repression is not a solution, but what is to be done when they enter your house one after another?" he said. "No European country will allow such a situation. There are some limits."

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has been under increased domestic pressure to reconsider her welcoming policy for migrants and reduce the arrivals. Germany, which is expected to take up to 1.5 million people by the new year, has already tightened its refugee policy by saying that Afghans should not seek asylum and that only Syrians have a chance.

With both Germany and Austria reconsidering their free-flow policies, the worst-case scenario of tens of thousands of migrants, many with young children, stranded in the Balkans in a brutal winter looks more and more likely.

"If Austria or Germany shut their borders, more than 100,000 migrants would be stuck in Slovenia in few weeks," Cerar said. "We can't allow the humanitarian catastrophe to happen on our territory."

But analysts warn that shutting down borders would only trigger more havoc in the Balkans, the main European escape route from war and poverty in the Middle East, Asia and Africa.

"The closure of the borders in not a solution, it only passes the problem to another country," said Charlie Wood, an American humanitarian worker looking to help migrants in their journey across Slovenia. "If Slovenia closes its border, Croatia will close its border and then Serbia will do the same ... and so on. That does not stop babies from dying in cold."

Slovenian refugee camps once planned to handle a few hundred people a day. Now they struggle to provide shelter and food for an average of 6,000 a day. The Slovenian government has warned that the figure could soon reach 30,000 a day as the onset of cold weather has not stopped the surge.

Last week, thousands of people crammed into a refugee camp at Sentilj on the border with Austria, many angry about the speed of their transit and hurling insults at machine-gun-toting Slovenian policemen patrolling outside a wire fence with sanitary masks over their faces.

"We haven't eaten or had water for over 12 hours," said Fahim Nusri from Syria, who had to spend a night in the camp in cold and foggy weather together with his wife and two small children before they were allowed into Austria. "Me and my wife are not a problem, but what about our children?"

When Hungary closed its border with Croatia in mid-October, thousands turned to Slovenia instead, many of them marching through cold rivers, desperate to continue their journey westward before the weather gets even colder.

All of them went past Kovac's village house, leaving piles of garbage and pieces of clothing on the field next to it.

"We had to call the army to disinfect the street and our houses," the villager said. "They are desperate people, but enough is enough."

Croatia and Slovenia later negotiated a deal to transport migrants and refugees across their border in trains, which led to a more orderly transit. But, with Slovenia now placing barriers, the chaotic surge could resume.

"If someone thinks that border fences will stop our march, they are really wrong," said Mohammed Sharif, a student from Damascus, as he tried to keep warm by a bonfire in the Sentilj camp. "It will just make our trip more dangerous and deadly, but we have nowhere to return. Our country and our homes are destroyed and we are in Europe to stay."