Hungary, Austria seal their borders as refugee crisis escalates

Hungary's first border fence, built in 2015. [Reuters]

Hungary’s right-wing government shut the main land route for migrants into the European Union on Tuesday (15 September), aiming to halt a massive influx of refugees.

Austria did the same, closing its borders with neighbours Hungary, Italy, Slovakia and Slovenia, dealing a further blow to Europe’s vaunted Schengen area of free travel.

Under new rules that took effect beginning at midnight (16 September), Hungary said anyone seeking asylum on its southern border with Serbia, the EU’s external frontier, would automatically be turned back, and anyone trying to sneak through would face jail.

Hungary’s conservative Prime Minister Viktor Orbán also announced plans for a similar barrier on its frontier with Romania.

The controversial measures are part of Orbán’s strategy to stem the flow of migrants – more than 200,000 of whom have entered his country so far this year – travelling from Greece and transiting through the Western Balkans and Hungary, most of them headed on via Austria to Germany.

At the border, migrants who tried to apply for asylum in a transit zone of metal containers were swiftly turned away. Macruf Suhufi Abdi Omar, a Somali, told Reuters he had been refused asylum barely an hour after he gave his fingerprints.

Hungarian officials said they had denied 16 asylum claims at the frontier within hours and were processing 32 more. Police had arrested 174 people for trying to sneak across the border.

Schengen unravelling

Orbán says he is acting to save Europe’s “Christian values” by blocking the main overland route used by mainly Muslim refugees, who travel through the Balkans and cross his country mainly to reach Germany or Sweden.

Amnesty International accused Hungary of “showing the ugly face of Europe’s shambolic response” to the crisis.

But Orbán argues that by reinforcing the EU’s external border his government is merely enforcing EU rules. He also stresses that no countries are duty-bound to take in refugees that pass through safe states.

Although Hungary’s response is extreme, it is not isolated. The great migration has led to the unravelling of one of the 28-member EU’s signature achievements, its Schengen system of border-free travel across much of the continent.

Record arrivals forced Berlin to reimpose emergency frontier controls earlier this week, which were approved by the European Commission because of their exceptional nature.

>>Read: Commission approves German border controls, urges backing of migrant plan

This sparked a domino effect, with Austria and Slovakia also reimposing identity checks in a further blow to Europe’s vaunted passport-free Schengen zone.

The European Commission said it was informed Austria would temporarily reintroduce controls at midnight (2200 GMT Tuesday) with Hungary, Italy, Slovakia and Slovenia.

With Poland and the Netherlands also considering similar measures, there are fears the Schengen system could collapse entirely, even though its rules do allow states to impose temporary controls for security reasons.

“The measures taken by Austria today, like those taken by Germany on 13 September, are provisional in nature,” the Commission reminded in a statement, saying its task was “to ensure the proportionality of the exceptional measures concerned”.

“The objectives of our efforts must be to help ensure that we can go back to the normal Schengen system of open borders between Schengen Member States as soon as feasible,” the Commission added.

The severity of the crisis may make exceptional measures last for some time, however.

Germany calls for EU solidarity

In Berlin, Chancellor Angela Merkel and her Austrian counterpart Werner Faymann called for European solidarity to end the chaos and proposed a special EU summit next week.

“Time is running out,” Merkel warned, urging an end to the squabbling that has grown more acrimonious since eastern members flatly refused to accept EU-set quotas for taking in refugees.

French President Francois Hollande held telephone talks with Merkel and several other EU leaders on the possibility of holding a special summit.

“We can manage this,” Merkel insisted, while defending Berlin’s decision last Sunday to reinstate border controls on security grounds, after over 60,000 migrants had arrived in Germany so far this month.

>> Read: Merkel calls for summit on refugee crisis

EU leaders have agreed on the outlines of a two-year plan to deal with unprecedented numbers of migrants fleeing the Middle East and Africa.

But implementing the system to resettle or relocate 60,000 refugees is proving to be highly contentious at a time of rising anti-immigration parties in Europe. Many countries, including France and Germany, do not reject the idea of burden-sharing for refugees, but contend that the European Commission's proposed quota system needs to be reworked.

>> Read: Germany and France urge Commission to revise immigration plan

EU leaders argued through the night at a summit in June over the plan, wary of taking in migrants and reflecting deep national rivalries that the bloc's cooperation is supposed to transcend. They have set December as the latest deadline to agree final numbers.

>> Read: EU migration meeting turns into fracas

But the refugee crisis has worsened since then. Jean-Claude Juncker, the President of the European Commisison, now hopes to convince EU member states to accept the mandatory distribution of 160,000 refugees.

In order to achieve this, the Dublin Regulation, which forces refugees to apply for asylum in the first EU country they arrive in, and is often accused of destroying solidarity between EU countries, would have to be altered or suspended.

Such an ambitious policy would require a fundamental change in attitude among EU leaders, who in May refused a similar distribution plan for just 40,000 refugees.

The urgency of the migration crisis will force the EU to review the list of safe countries of origin and examine the system of distribution for asylum seekers, two issues that have been blocked at European level for years.

>> Read: Juncker defies EU countries with distribution plan for 160,000 refugees

  • 22 Sept.: Extraordinary meeting of EU interior ministers
  • 8 Oct.: Interior ministers meeting

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