SZEGED, Hungary — Hungary closed the main entry point on its border with Serbia on Monday after a record number of refugees surged into the country, racing to enter the European Union amid a dramatic tightening of border security.
Workers also rushed to complete a 13-foot-high steel fence on the Hungary-Serbia border as police rounded up arriving refugees and ushered them onto waiting trains and buses that took them directly to the Austrian frontier.
At around 4:30 p.m. local time, police blocked the rail line that for months has been the main unofficial border crossing in the area. Scores of refugees quickly gathered at the police cordon, unsure what would happen next, as a police helicopter circled low overhead. It was not immediately clear if police would re-open the crossing, or seek to seal it completely, but they directed refugees to a nearby official border crossing, where they would be registered. As of 4 p.m. 7,437 people had crossed, a new daily record.
Hungarian troops also patrolled the area, ahead of what the country’s prime minister, Viktor Orban, says will be a “new era” tomorrow, with the start of a crackdown on people trying to cross the border undetected.
Officials say more than 190,000 asylum seekers have travelled through Hungary this year, with most continuing to Germany, which now expects to take in one million refugees this year — up from a previous prediction of 800,000.
Germany reintroduced checks on its border with Austria on Sunday to slow the flow of refugees, and Austria mirrored that move today on its frontier with Hungary, where more than 2,000 troops are being deployed to handle ever-greater numbers of new arrivals.
Austrian police said that about 9,000 people arrived via Hungary on Monday between midnight and mid-afternoon, after some 14,000 came the day before. Temporary accommodation centers near the border are full, and similar facilities across Austria and in parts of Germany are nearing capacity.
Slovakia on Monday deployed more than 200 additional police officers to tighten security on its borders with Hungary and Austria, after reinstating checks on people crossing from both countries; the Czech Republic also increased police numbers on the Austrian frontier.
“I expect us to act like Germany, and let in people who’re seeking refuge,” Austria’s chancellor, Werner Faymann, said Monday in Vienna.
“Border checks can be tightened temporarily … and police on the borders have shown that they can do that while respecting humanitarian needs. It’s a balancing act they’ve handled well and with which the troops will help them now.”
In Berlin, a spokesman for Chancellor Angela Merkel, also insisted that tighter border checks did not mean the door was closed to refugees.
“A temporary closing doesn’t mean that the border is shut,” Steffen Seibert said.
“Refugees will continue to come and we hope that it will happen as part of a more orderly process.”
Despite such assurances, however, the sudden moves to stiffen border controls and temporarily suspend the EU’s Schengen system of “passport-free” travel highlight the scale of Europe’s worst refugee crisis since World War II.
Interior ministers from the EU’s 28 countries are discussing the crisis in Brussels Monday amid deep rancor over a German-led plan for all member states to take a quota of refugees.
Hungary and fellow central European states reject such a scheme as unworkable, and favor a focus on preventing refugees from reaching the heart of Europe by boosting security on the EU’s fringes.
“The free movement of people under Schengen is a unique symbol of European integration,” the EU's executive Commission said in a statement ahead of the talks.
“However, the other side of the coin is a better joint management of our external borders and more solidarity in coping with the refugee crisis.”
Orban insists that refugees should stay in the first safe country they reach after fleeing conflict zones such as Syria and Afghanistan, and claims that those who seek to reach Germany, Sweden and other wealthy EU states are seeking prosperity rather than security.
Addressing more than 850 newly graduated police officers in Budapest, Orban said they would be sent straight to the border with Serbia to “defend Hungary and Europe” and “protect our way of life.”
“Hungary is a country with a 1,000-year-old Christian culture. We Hungarians don't want the worldwide movement of people to change Hungary,” Orban said, urging the officers to be humane but “uncompromising” in their enforcement of the new laws taking effect tomorrow.
Orban said that “illegal border crossings will no longer be misdemeanors but felonies, punishable with prison terms or bans” and that “punishment for human trafficking will be so severe that it will be really deserved by those who trade on the life and fate of others.”
At Budapest’s two main train stations, and in the main southern city of Szeged 10 miles from the Serbian border, police worked today to get refugees onto buses to Austria and clear temporary camps and aid points run by volunteers.
“We got through the fence yesterday,” said Ramzi Hussein, a student from Karachi in Pakistan, as he boarded a packed bus today from Budapest’s Nyugati (Western) train station to the Austrian border.
“We heard it was getting hard to reach Germany, so we went quickly,” he said, recounting his journey with two friends through Turkey, Greece, Macedonia and Serbia to Hungary.
“I know many people are going to Germany. Everyone wants to go there. But I think we will be okay – I think Germany will let us stay.”