By Bojan KAVCIC
Kostel , Slovenia (AFP) May 27, 2016
In Slovenia's southeastern Bela Krajina region, where the crystal-clear Kolpa river marks the border with Croatia, a forlorn barbed wire fence reminds locals of the migrants that never came.
Instead of keeping refugees out, the barrier cutting through lush forests and gently swaying fields all along this pristine waterway is now chasing away tourists.
Its razor-sharp coil has also become a lethal trap for wildlife.
Last December, soldiers had rushed to erect the fence on the European Union's external Schengen border, as hundreds of thousands of migrants trekked along the Balkans in their quest to reach wealthy bloc members.
The aim was to channel the influx towards official frontier checkpoints and stop migrants from entering Slovenia illegally via the so-called green border.
But the 166-kilometre (103-mile) barrier -- more than half the length of the Kolpa river -- has proved much ado about nothing, say disgruntled locals in the pretty village of Kostel.
"The migration flow was over 100 kilometres away from here. We haven't seen a single migrant but they (the army) occupied us with this fence anyway," Martin Lindic, the owner of a canoeing camp on the river, told AFP.
He said his business had suffered as a result.
"People are calling to book and, the first thing they ask me about is the fence."
Although the Balkan migrant trail is now closed after countries shut their borders earlier this year, the barrier is still in place.
The government of Prime Minister Miro Cerar said recently its removal "depends of the development of the migrant crisis".
- 'Not right' -
Every summer, more than 100,000 tourists -- mostly Slovenians but also others -- flock to the tranquil Kolpa valley and explore its natural beauty by paddling down the river in canoes or kayaks.
Because of the hard-to-access natural terrain on both sides of the Kolpa, the fence was mostly erected in areas where access to the river is easiest. But these are also the main spots for tourists.
Some places, like the well-known fish restaurant Madronic, were completely surrounded by the fence.
Others, such as the Vinica camp, find themselves cut off from the river.
"The fence surprises us... It's totally pointless," said tourist Emil, who has been coming here for years with his family.
Ahead of the tourist season, Slovenian authorities announced the barbed wire fence would be swapped with a "friendlier" mesh version in tourist areas.
But by the beginning of April, merely 10 kilometres of barrier had been replaced.
"This is not right, in this region there have never been any similar obstacles dividing Slovenians from Croats," observed Stanko Nikolic, an 85-year-old doctor who came to the Kolpa 50 years ago as a tourist and never left.
"As a doctor I've always been travelling from one side to the other," he told AFP.
- 'Slaughter of animals' -
The fence has also proven dangerous to wildlife, standing in the way of animals that frequently migrate across the border in search of food or for the mating season.
At least 10 deer have died because of the barbed wire since it was installed, according to the Slovenian Hunter's Association.
Wildlife protection organisations warn the figure is much higher.
The fence "is definitely a big obstacle since animals can't use the paths they've been using for thousands of years," said Cvetko Skok, the head of the Banja Loka hunters' community near the Kolpa river.
In addition, many animals that manage to break free after getting caught in the sharp barrier later die from the injuries sustained.
"The damage for game is certainly big," Skok said.
On the Croatian side, Luka Oman from wildlife protection group Animals' Friends agrees, and says that the "absurd" fence is any case no barrier to a determined migrant wanting to cross.
"The fence is only a problem for animals. It is not an obstacle for men at all," Oman told AFP.
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