Hungary has closed off a railway track used by tens of thousands of refugees to enter the European Union on foot, launching a crackdown promised by the right-wing government to tackle Europe’s worst refugee crisis in two decades.
Dozens of helmeted police officers, some on horses, took up position on Monday across the track that traverses the border and has been used for months by refugees, many of them Syrian, to enter the EU from Serbia. A helicopter circled overhead.
Refugees were directed to an official pedestrian border crossing around a kilometre away, where hundreds began queuing, the Reuters news agency reported.
Police let small groups through a metal gate in a fence that Hungary has almost finished building along the length of its southern frontier, the EU’s external border. They boarded buses the other side.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, one of Europe’s fiercest opponents of the influx of refugees, said many would face deportation under the new rules, after Hungary in July declared its impoverished neighbour Serbia a ‘safe country’ for refugees.
“In such a case, if someone is a refugee, we will ask them whether they have submitted an asylum request in Serbia,” Orban was quoted as telling private broadcaster TV2. “If they had not done so, given that Serbia is a safe country, they will be rejected.”
Earlier, Orban told hundreds of police bound for the Serbian border they had to “defend Hungary and Europe”.
“You have to defend the country’s borders while at the same time you have to protect our way of life. You are the defenders of our culture, our way of life and our sovereignty,” he said .
Hungary’s closing of the crossing came as Austria and Slovakia joined Germany in re-introducing border checks, putting even more pressure on EU ministers meeting in Brussels to form a new strategy to handle Europe’s refugee crisis.
German Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel defended the new checks on Monday, saying they were not designed to keep those fleeing violence in their homeland out of Germany but were aimed at producing a more orderly flow of people.
Gabriel stressed that “everyone who applies for asylum on German soil is allowed to stay here until a decision is reached. We are not changing that,” he wrote to members of his centre-left Social Democratic party on Monday.
Earlier Gabriel said one million people may arrive in Germany seeking refugee status this year, up from the record 800,000 arrivals the government had earlier predicted.
Germany on Sunday reintroduced identity checks on people travelling within the passport-free Schengen zone, essentially reversing its open-door policy for Syrians.
Al Jazeera’s Jacky Rowland, reporting from Brussels, said Germany’s decision had set a “precedent” for others to follow.
“Until now people have been able to travel without having to show any documents as long as they were coming from another EU country,” Rowland said.
“Freedom of movement is one of the principles that has been at the heart of the European Union and its a privilege that is particularly valued by the more recent members of the EU in Eastern Europe.”
Slovakia’s interior ministry also announced on Monday that it had renewed checks on its borders with Hungary and Austria. It said that more than 200 extra officers had been deployed at border crossings.
Austria has also said it would introduce checks on its border with Hungary but Austrian police spokesperson Gerald Pangl said no order had yet been received to pursue border checks in the area, the Associated Press news agency reported.
The Czech Republic boosted its presence along its border with Austria but did not yet reintroduce border checks.
With the Schengen system of unfettered travel through much of the continent under increasing pressure, interior ministers from the EU’s 28 nations opened emergency talks, trying to narrow a yawning divide over how to share responsibility for the thousands of refugees arriving daily.
“If we don’t find a solution, then this chaos will be the result,” said Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn of Luxembourg, which holds the EU presidency.
Rowland said Eastern European were not receptive to French and German proposals on how to allocate the 160,000 refugees that had arrived into the EU.
“Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic and Slovakia, are dead against…leaders and ministers from those countries have been expressing themselves rather unequivocally,” Rowland said.
The arrival of around 500,000 peoples so far this year has taken the EU by surprise. Germany, which has taken in by far the most of any EU nation, warned those figures would swell further.