JOHN THYS / AFP / Getty Images

EU ministers hold emergency talks to formulate refugee plan

EU talks come as Hungary apparently seals frontier and massive traffic jams form amid German border checks

Interior ministers from the European Union's 28 nations held emergency talks on Monday in Brussels to try to narrow a divide over how to share responsibility for the thousands of refugees arriving daily. 

The talks are focusing on distributing 160,000 refugees over the next two years — but at least four Eastern European countries, including Hungary, have strongly rejected suggestions they should take in any more people.

As darkness fell Monday on Hungary's village of Roszke, police officers rolled a train carriage covered on one end with seven coils of razor wire along rail lines to close a gap in the country's border fence. This gap, along the Serbia-Hungary border, had in recent weeks been the most popular path for the tens of thousands of people entering Hungary on foot en route to other parts of Europe. While closing off the rail lines, Hungary is permitting them to enter the country through a road checkpoint nearby.

From there, Hungarian authorities appeared determined to help as many refugees and migrants as possible reach Austria, rather than try to keep them in one of Hungary's asylum registration centers.

Hundreds of people were bussed from the Hungary-Austria border Monday night and taken to a nearby train station in the village of Roszke, where authorities told them they would be taken northwest to Hungary's border with Austria.  

A refugee father with his pregnant wife and daughter asks for permission to enter into Hungary near Roszke on Monday as the border fence with Serbia is closed by Hungarian police.

The decision by some EU countries to have checks at borders — which have long been open as part of the EU's landmark Schengen passport-free zone — have added urgency to the talks. The EU has been largely unprepared for the arrival of approximately 500,000 refugees this year. Germany warned on Monday that those figures would swell further. Hundreds of thousands of refugees have been fleeing to Europe per year from war-torn countries such as Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.

Germany announced on Monday it expects to handle one million people fleeing their homelands this year, and Slovakia joined Berlin in reintroducing border checks with Austria, underscoring the need for EU countries to quickly forge a common strategy to deal with the refugee crisis.

Germany's decision to temporarily reintroduce border checks is allowed under the Schengen rules governing free movement within the EU. German Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel defended his government's move, saying it should be a “clear signal” to our “European partners that Germany, even if we are prepared to provide disproportionate assistance, cannot accommodate all of the refugees alone.”

Cars are seen stuck in a traffic jam as they leave the city of Salzburg on the road heading to the Austrian-German border, where German Federal Police conducted controls on Monday.

“The aim of these measures is to limit the current inflows to Germany and to return to orderly procedures when people enter the country,” German Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere said.

The German border checks have caused traffic jams as long as 12 miles on highways in Austria. Austrian highway operator Asfinag said the longest traffic jam Monday was at Suben on the A8 highway near the German city of Passau, according to the Austria Press Agency. There was also a 6-mile traffic jam on the A10 highway at Salzburg at one point.

The two-decade-old era of border-free travel in Europe seemed to be unraveling as more countries imposed more controls on their frontiers. Austrian Interior Minister Johanna Mikl-Leitner said the country will follow Germany in introducing border controls to manage refugees coming in from Hungary.  Dutch police will also carry out spot border checks in response to a surge in asylum seekers into the European Union, the country's Ministry for Justice said.

Migrants and refugees wait to board a train after crossing the Macedonian-Greek border near Gevgelija on Monday.
Robert Atanasovski / AFP / Getty Images

Lacking a quick and comprehensive policy answer, EU countries have begun tightening border security or, in the case of Hungary, erecting fences. Greece has been overwhelmed by the numbers of people coming across the sea from Turkey and cannot properly screen the refugees, let alone lodge them.

Adding to the unraveling of free travel within the EU, Slovakia said Monday that 220 extra officers have been deployed at border crossings and along the border. It said authorities were also coordinating with police forces in neighboring Austria, Hungary and the Czech Republic.

Poland said it might accept more refugees, but only if the EU secures its external borders, separates those who need help from economic migrants and allows Warsaw a say in screening them for security reasons. But Polish Prime Minister Ewa Kopacz Poland will not agree to the refugee quota — some 12,000 people — that the EU wants it to accept. "We will accept the number of refugees that we can afford, not one more, not one less," she said. Poland says it can handle over 2,000 refugees, but not as many as 12,000. 

Meanwhile, Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban reiterated on Monday that starting Tuesday refugees crossing into his country will be treated as criminals, and that Hungary didn't want its “thousand-year-old Christian culture” to be changed by “the global-sized movement of people.”

Orban also spelled out new laws on immigration set to take effect at midnight. The country hopes to imprison human traffickers, and deport people back Serbia if they do not use police-supervised border checkpoints to register with authorities.  

"Illegal border crossings will no longer be misdemeanors but felonies punishable with prison terms or bans," Orban told border police on Monday. 

Dutch Foreign Affairs Minister Bert Koenders said the temporary border measures showed the need to quickly come up with a more comprehensive deal on the refugees.

“It means that we have [to] make progress about the relocation today,” he said.

Meanwhile, the refugees continued to risk all on their journeys. The Greek coast guard said the 34 drowned off the island of Farmakonisi, the largest known death toll in those waters since the refugee crisis began.

Al Jazeera and wire services. Al Jazeera's Mohammed Jamjoom contributed to this report from Roszke, Hungary. 

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