(Budapest) –The European Union and Western Balkans countries meeting on October 25, 2015, should focus on alleviating the suffering of migrants and asylum seekers stranded at various European borders, Human Rights Watch said today.

Cascading border closures, beginning with Hungary closing its border with Serbia on September 15, and then its border with Croatia on October 16, and the lack of coordination among authorities, have trapped people in miserable conditions.

Thousands of asylum seekers and migrants wait on the Serbian side of the border to enter Croatia on October 23, 2015.

© 2015 Marko Drobnjakovic

“The degrading treatment of fleeing people at Europe’s borders is shameful and should end immediately,” said Lydia Gall, Eastern Europe and Balkans researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Unless EU member states start working together to address the refugee crisis, people will die at Europe’s borders this winter.”

Hungary’s border closures with Croatia and Serbia rerouted the flow of asylum seekers and migrants from Croatia into Slovenia in their efforts to reach Western Europe.

On October 18, approximately 1,400 asylum seekers and migrants were stuck for 24 hours between the Croatian and Slovenian border-crossing points. A train let them off at about 1 a.m. in Trnovce, Croatia, and they walked to the nearby Slovenian border. Slovenian authorities turned them away, saying that the registration center in Srebisce ob Dravi, on Slovenia’s side of the border, which can accommodate 300 people, was full.

Croatian authorities refused to let them back into Croatia. Entire families, including young children, the elderly, and people with disabilities, suffered through the night and next day in almost freezing cold and constant rain, with no shelter. Food, water, and clothing only arrived at about 3 p.m., when volunteer organizations got access to the area.

On October 19, Croatian police ordered at least two groups of approximately 500 people each to walk from the Serbian-Croatian border to the Opatovac transit camp, about 15 kilometers away. Once they arrived, poor planning and coordination resulted in needless suffering, Human Rights Watch said.

“They [police] made us walk for six hours,” said Alaa, a 16-year-old boy from Syria. “Approximately 300 meters from the camp, they made us all sit down on the wet road where we waited for nearly three hours to get into the camp.”

Two men, interviewed separately, said Croatian police beat people during the long walk. “Foroud,” a 30-year-old from Iran, said, “Seven to 10 police officers beat me and others with their sticks…. There was no reason for it…. They hit me on my shoulder, my knees and my feet…”

Allegations of excessive use of force by police should be thoroughly investigated by Croatian authorities, Human Rights Watch said.

On the Slovenian side of the border, lengthy procedures at Srebisce ob Dravi and other registration centers contributed to the delays, Human Rights Watch said. On October 20, it took five police officers at the Srebisce ob Dravi registration center approximately 14 hours to register about 260 asylum seekers and migrants, finishing at about 4 a.m. on October 21. Transfers to an official reception facility did not begin, however, until about 1 p.m. In the meantime, people were accommodated in makeshift tent facilities, often lacking adequate numbers of cots, heaters, and toilets.

Families are frequently separated at the borders. Human Rights Watch spoke to several asylum seekers and migrants who said they had been separated from wives, children, siblings, and parents in the chaos of crossing borders, boarding buses, or entering registration or reception facilities. They did not know when or where they would see their loved ones again.

Bachar, 24, from Afghanistan, said that he had been separated from his pregnant wife on October 17, on the Croatian-Serbian border. He said he had been standing on one side of the border, his wife on the other, and that Croatian police did not listen to their pleas not to separate them. Bachar did not know where his wife was and had been unable to contact her.

Similarly, on October 19, a Syrian man in his 40s said that he had been separated from his wife amid the chaos in the space between Croatian and Slovenian border crossings, and had no idea where she was. Alaa, mentioned above, said that he was separated from his brother, aunts, and cousin on October 19 at the Serbian-Croatian border before the long walk to the Opatovac camp and that he did not know where his relatives were.

Slovenian police pulled Ahmed, an Iraqi boy about 10 years old, through gaps in the fence along the Croatian and Slovenian border the night before he spoke to Human Rights Watch on October 21. His mother had been left on the Croatian side. Slovenian police took him to the reception center in Sentilj, where Slovenian media reported that he was finally reunited with his mother.

Separation from family members leaves children, women, and people with disabilities especially vulnerable, and the authorities should take steps to avoid separating families, Human Rights Watch said. When it happens, authorities and international organizations should work diligently to trace missing family members and reunite them as soon as possible.

Since October 16, at least 50,410 asylum seekers and migrants have crossed into Slovenia. Initially, Slovenia said it would only take as many as Austria would accept, capping capacity at 2,500 a day.

However, on October 22 alone, 12,000 people entered Slovenia, prompting the government to request assistance through the EU Civil Protection Mechanism. This mechanism allows for the coordinated distribution of material aid – for example tents, mattresses, and food – from participating countries to the requesting country to assist victims of natural or man-made disasters. Macedonia and Serbia have already received assistance through the mechanism. Croatia should also request this assistance.

While all countries have the sovereign right to control their borders, the EU and international law require that border enforcement measures respect fundamental rights, including the right to seek asylum, and ensure humane treatment. The EU Charter of Fundamental Rights affirms that “human dignity is inviolable” and must be respected and protected.

The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, to which the EU and all its member states are parties, except Finland, Ireland, and The Netherlands, requires states to take “all necessary measures to ensure the protection and safety of persons with disabilities in situations of risk,” including humanitarian emergencies. All the EU member states are also parties to the Convention of the Rights of the Child, which obliges states to ensure that unaccompanied and accompanied children alike “receive appropriate protection and humanitarian assistance in the enjoyment of applicable rights.”

“Stranding people at closed borders won’t work as a deterrent, and will only make a difficult situation worse,” Gall said. “Instead of playing a game of hot potato with fleeing human beings, EU and Western Balkan countries should use the upcoming meeting to agree on viable solutions to avoid a deadly winter at Europe’s borders.”