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.
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.
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.