20th Mar 2018

Fortress Europe reinforced in Hungary and Austria

  • The border fence near the villahe of Kelebia. Hungary created a bottleneck along its Serbian border after blocking it off completely (Photo: Freedom House)

Buses in Serbia are reportedly preparing to take refugees to the Croatian border after Hungary completely sealed its border on Tuesday (15 September) with a razor-wire fence.

Several buses were due to leave Presevo - in the far south of Serbia - heading for the border town of Sid, Serbian media reported on Wednesday (16 September).

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Hungary created a bottleneck for hundreds of migrants stranded in no-man’s land along its border with Serbia, after blocking off its border completely, declaring a state of emergency and processing migrants under tough new rules that the European Commission is scrutinising to ensure are in line with EU law.

Budapest also announced the construction of a new fence along the Romanian border, while Austria reintroduced border controls along its south-eastern borders.

Once again chaotic scenes ensued at the entry point to the EU, ahead of Hungary's complete border closure with Serbia. Monday saw a record 9,380 asylum seekers crossing into Hungary in a desperate last attempt to step on EU soil.

By Tuesday hundreds of migrants were stranded and as tensions rose, they blocked the main highway connecting Serbia and Hungary, chanting, "Open the border!" Some refugees began a hunger strike, demanding to be let through.

Migrants who managed to cross into Hungary at new registration points on Tuesday were dealt with under a new border regime the country introduced.

Hungary ruled on 16 asylum claims, rejecting all, arguing that Serbia is a safe country, and refugees should request protection there.

Gyorgy Bakondi, security advisor to prime minister Viktor Orban, said in a press conference that 174 people had been caught trying to cross illegally through Hungary’s 175 kilometer-long fence with Serbia and would face criminal prosecution.

Rejected asylum-seekers were also expelled from the passport free Schengen zone for a year, even though they have the right to appeal the decision in a Hungarian court, Hungarian media reported.

Besides the fast-track screening, new measures include sending asylum-seekers automatically back to third countries that Hungary deems safe and allowing prolonged detention of asylum-seekers.

The contentious measures were criticized by the United Nations refugees agency earlier this summer, warning that they could have "devastating implications for thousands of people seeking safety in Hungary."

The UNHCR also said that criminalising people for crossing the frontier illegally could be in violation of the 1951 Refugee Convention, and questioned whether Serbia should be considered a safe third country where refugees can receive the necessary support.

Antonio Guterres, UN high commissioner for refugees, said in Brussels on Tuesday that Hungary's measures need to be checked by the EU institutions. "My problem is not [with the] legality, it is with the substance. The access to protection should be granted to everyone who asks for it in Europe," he said.

The European Commission said it is looking into the new measures to check that they are in line with EU rules.

"We are currently making an initial assessment of the new Hungarian law and we have asked a certain number of clarifications from the Hungarian authorities," Natasha Bertaud, EU commission spokesperson said.

EU migration commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos will travel to Hungary on Wednesday evening.

Borders blocked

Serbia's foreign minister expressed outrage at Hungary's move. Ivica Dacic said that Serbia finds it "unacceptable" that Hungary would send migrants back, while more and more are arriving from Macedonia and Greece.

"This is not only a Hungarian and Serbian problem. This is a problem for the whole of Europe. Europe has to find a solution fast before the situation escalates even further," Serbian minister on migration issues, Aleksandar Vulin, told press at the border.

Hungary has also announced on Tuesday that due to the diverting routes of people-smugglers, it will extend the border fence along the Romanian border.

Hungary's foreign minister Peter Szijjarto said the fence would run from where the borders of Hungary, Serbia and Romania meet to the Maros River, a distance of 25 kilometers.

The foreign ministry in Bucharest said that it considers the notion of building a fence between two EU members "to be not a correct gesture from a political point of view and not in line with the European spirit."

Hungary also introduced a state of emergency in its southern counties because of the influx of migrants. This gives extra rights to police and army once they are approved by parliament later this week.

In the meantime, Austria informed the European Commission that it will temporarily reintroduce border controls on Wednesday (16 September) along its border with Hungary, Italy, Slovakia and Slovenia.

The Commission said in a statement that the move further underscores the need to agree on the measures proposed by the European Commission last week. EU ministers on Monday failed to come to an agreement, however.


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