TOVARNIK, Croatia —Refugees carved a new pathway through Europe on Wednesday, with hundreds walking through cornfields to reach welcoming Croatia even as others faced tear gas and water cannons from Hungarian police determined to turn them away.
The contrasting scenes along the Serbian border highlighted both the make-or-break resolve of the asylum seekers — many fleeing conflict in Syria and Iraq — and the growing friction within Europe in the absence of a coordinated policy for the unprecedented influx.
“We hit a stone and we flow around it,” said Arazak Dubal, 28, a computer programmer from Damascus who had been on the road for 18 days.
He and his three companions had reached Belgrade only to discover on the Web app Whatsap and Facebook that the Hungarian border had closed.
“So I went to Google Maps, and here we are,” said Dubal, huffing in the hot afternoon as he humped it across the farm fields.
But even as Croatia opened to the refugee tide, the country’s leaders had sharp words over the reasons it shifted it their direction.
“Barbed wire in Europe in the 21st century is not an answer, it’s a threat,” complained Croatia’s prime minister, Zoran Milanovic, in a direct jab at the blockades by neighboring Hungary.
He told lawmakers in Zagreb that Croatia would “accept and direct” the migrants to transit the country — comments that are likely to ripple through the social media networks used by the refugees and increase the march toward Croatia.
The river of migrants already was swelling by the hour.
More than 600 migrants walked through fields and along small roads to cross from Serbia into Croatia, a European Union member, where officials set up posts to register names and details. Most traveled by bus from Macedonia; others pulled up in taxis before crossing the border on foot and receive a polite reception from authorities.
“We’re the first today,” said the Syrian refugee Dubal. “They’ll be thousands tomorrow.”
Afterward they were taken by bus to a refugee processing camp outside the capital, Zagreb, where they would be officially registered.
What happens to them after Zagreb is uncertain.
Croatian officials say they will likely allow the migrants to continue their journeys by bus and train to Slovenia, Austria, Germany and beyond — but Zagreb said it was only the first day at the leading edge of the mass migration and they were scrabbling to coordinate their response with fellow European Union countries.
“We will walk all the way to Germany if we have to,” said Mohammad, 28, who worked in a mobile phone store in Aleppo.
“Shop is gone, house is gone, some of family is gone,” he said. “So I will walk.”
Like many in the migrant stream, he declined to give his last name out of fear of reprisals against family back home.
About 80 miles to the northeast — along Serbia’s frontier with Hungary — the route was slammed shut.
Just steps from Hungary, thousands of people spent the night in the wet grass on the Serbian side of the border. Hours later, hundreds tried to punch through the cordon of razor wire and riot police. But they ran headlong into security forces who unleashed tear gas and pepper spray to drive them back or encircle those who made it across.
“Open the door!” some of the refugees yelled as they hurled water bottles and other debris at riot police. Nearby, some children screamed for their missing parents.
Water cannons also sprayed crowds on the Serbian side, forcing refugees to flee back to a squalid squatters’ camp that took root just after Hungary closed the border on Tuesday.
No major injuries were reported, but some refugees were treated by Serbian authorities for respiratory problems from the tear gas and at least one migrant had a leg injury, the Associated Press reported.
“We fled wars and violence and did not expect such brutality and inhumane treatment in Europe,” said Amir Hassan, who was drenched from a water cannon and tried to wash tear gas from his eyes, according to AP.
“Shame on you Hungarians!” he shouted, pointing toward the Hungarian police.
But it was a clear sign that Hungary was standing firm on its pledge to block the refugee tide.
Hungary on Wednesday also began prosecuting migrants who tried to sneak across its frontier. At least 174 people have been detained since the border was sealed Tuesday.
Serbian officials, meanwhile, warned the European Union that their cash-strapped country could not host large numbers of destitute travelers — many seeking ultimate haven under the generous social programs of countries such as Germany and Sweden.
Hungary’s move was condemned by neighboring countries, humanitarian organizations and migrants, who staged spontaneous demonstrations along the newly erected fence.
Yet Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and his government made good on their promise to take a hard line, insisting that refugees who had escaped Syria’s civil war, for example, were safe once they had reached Turkey or Jordan and did not need to march through Hungary on their way to wealthy, welcoming nations such as Germany.
But the refugees keep coming — and dying along the way.
At least 22 migrants were reported drowned Tuesday in the Aegean Sea after their 65-foot boat capsized as they were trying to reach the Greek island of Kos. Among the dead were four children.
The Turkish coast guard said 249 people were rescued in that incident, just two days after 34 refugees drowned in a similar sinking.
Greek maritime officials said Wednesday that crews had rescued at least 773 people in 19 separate operations in the past 24 hours in the waters separating Greek islands from the Turkish coast. Hundreds more managed to reach the islands.
Migrants chanted “Save us from drowning” at Istanbul’s main bus station as they demanded transport to the border crossing near Greece and Bulgaria, about 100 miles to the northwest, possibly opening up other new routes through the Balkans, the Reuters news agency reported.
Speaking to reporters, German Chancellor Angela Merkel defended her country’s open-door policy for refugees, saying Germany had shown its “friendly face” to the world.
Merkel also said Germany acted properly when it began to enforce immigration controls at its border with Austria, which led to huge traffic snarls and canceled trains in Austria.
At Vienna’s central railway station, where many were stranded, dismayed refugees learned that trains to Germany had been suspended. Hundreds of people spent the night outside the station — some taking shelter under bridges.
“We don’t understand. What is going on?” moaned Hassan, a 43-year-old Syrian, who had taken to the road with his family. “We are Syrians and have valid papers. . . . Now we’ve been told that there is no train to Germany, but there was no space in the camps.”
He also declined to give his last name for fear of reprisals against his family back home.
A record 156,000 migrants entered the European Union in August, the bloc’s border agency, Frontex, said Tuesday. That brought the total for the year to more than 500,000, with many arriving by sea in Greece and Italy.
Last year, 280,000 migrants crossed into the E.U., the agency said.
Souad Mekhennet in Vienna, Gergo Saling and Jodi Hilton in Horgos, Serbia, and Brian Murphy in Washington contributed to this report.