Laszlo Balogh / Reuters

EU gridlocked over refugee crisis; border crackdown tests free travel laws

Overcrowded train delayed for hours; long traffic jams as Austria cracks down on activity of people smugglers

Refugees packed on a crowded train destined for Vienna were detained in sweltering carriages for hours Monday, as a security clampdown on Austria’s border with Hungary underscored the crisis facing Europe and tested the EU’s commitment to free movement among member states.

The passenger train was eventually allowed to proceed and arrived in Vienna shortly after, but elsewhere logjams continued. Austria’s crackdown on people smugglers also involved increased vehicle inspections, creating a huge traffic backup on the main Budapest-Vienna highway. 

The developments in Austria came as German Chancellor Angela Merkel called on European Union member states to “share responsibility for asylum-seeking refugees,” saying that the future of the EU’s Schengen system — which allows for passport-free travel — would be in question if Europe fails to act.

Under EU laws, asylum seekers are required to apply in the first member country they enter — under such rules many of the recent influx of people fleeing war and poverty would have been expected to apply in Hungary.

But Hungary —  a country of transit for migrants wanting to head to richer countries in western and northern Europe — says it cannot host record numbers of newcomers.

"It’s completely unacceptable that over 150,000 people come through your … borders without any kind of discipline, order and law," Hungarian government spokesman Zoltan Kovacs told Al Jazeera. 

Hungary is in the process of building a 13-foot high fence on its southern border with Serbia to try to stem the flow of refugees coming across from the Balkans.

And lawmakers in Budapest this week plan to discuss further proposals such as the deployment of troops to the border and increasing penalties for illegal migrants and human traffickers.

"So what we’re trying to re-establish at the borders of Hungary and Serbia, which is a Schengen border, is law and order — put some kind of discipline into this huge influx of illegal migrants," Kovacs said, adding that until the identity of those crossing borders is established, "we don't know if they are refugees" or not.

Meanwhile, the delayed train Monday came after Hungarian authorities allowed people to board westward bound carriages after dozens protested late Sunday about being stranded on a railway station. But Austrian authorities stopped the carriages at the border crossing of Hegyeshalom.

Austrian Railways cited “overcrowding” on the train and a police spokesman in Vienna said Austria wanted to check whether any of the migrants had already asked for asylum in Hungary. Those that had would have to stay on the Hungarian side.

A second train from Budapest also remained stuck at the border for some time.

Meanwhile, traffic jams — stretching back 30 miles along the Austro-Hungarian border — delayed progress by those travelling by road. The increase in spot checks of vehicles resulted from measures put in placed after an abandoned lorry containing 71 dead refugees, four of them children, was discovered on a motorway near the Hungarian border.

Since the Austria’s clampdown began, more than 200 refugees have been picked up, and another five people have detained on suspicion of smuggling, officials said.

“The main aim is to gangs target smuggling. What is happening here are controls conducted by traffic police and security forces — these are not border controls,” said police spokesman Helmut Marban.

Working in close collaboration with Hungarian, Slovak and German authorities, police are stopping trucks, vans and cars in an effort to catch those trying to make money from people fleeing war and persecution. 

Shortly after the checks began, officers discovered 12 migrants — nine adults and three children — crammed inside a minivan carrying a French number plate. The group was believed to be predominantly from Syria, according to media reports. The driver, whose nationality was not immediately clear, was arrested, Austrian authorities said.

The border delays follow days of finger pointing by European leaders over who is to blame for the current crisis and who should be responsible for taking in more refugees. France in particular has lambasted Hungary — which is in the process of completing its 100-mile razor-wire fence along its border with Serbia — for its stance toward refugees.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius has said that Budapest’s policy toward refugees is “extremely harsh” adding in an interview with French radio that Budapest was undermining European values by “putting up fences that we wouldn’t even use for animals.” Hungary responded by accusing Fabius of “shocking and groundless judgment.

The EU has announced that a meeting of home affairs ministers will take place on Sept. 14 in an attempt to forge some sort of coherent plan to cope with the increasing number of refugees arriving at its borders.

Meanwhile, German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Monday said the refugee crisis facing Europe is testing the core ideals of universal rights at the heart of the European Union.

“Universal civil rights have been closely linked with Europe and its history as a founding impetus of the European Union,” she said.

“If Europe fails on the question of refugees, if this close link with universal civil rights is broken, then it won't be the Europe we wished for,” she said, urging other EU members to accept their fair share of asylum seekers.

Germany, the union's most populous country and biggest economy, expects to receive 800,000 asylum seekers this year, four times more than in 2014 and more than any other EU country.

“If we don't arrive at a fair distribution, then the issue of Schengen will arise — we do not want that,” she said, referring to the visa-free zone covering much of the EU and several neighboring countries.

Merkel said Germany must cut red tape to quickly build more shelters and train more language teachers, saying that while German "thoroughness is super ... what we need now is German flexibility".

Italy especially must be offered help from other EU nations as it had taken in huge numbers of migrants arriving via the Mediterranean Sea, the chancellor said.

She also implicitly criticized countries including Slovakia that have rejected migrants from Islamic countries, saying: “if we start saying ‘I do not want Muslims’ ... that cannot be good.”

On the spate of hate crimes and attacks against refugee shelters in Germany, she vowed that the "full force of law" would be brought down on those who insult, attack or launch arson attacks targeting the newcomers. 

“There will be zero tolerance for those who put in question the dignity of other people,” she said.

Al Jazeera and wire services. Al Jazeera's Andrew Simmons contributed to this report from Budapest. 

Related News

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter


Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter