Elvis Barukcic / AFP / Getty Images

Hungary slams door on refugees: ‘We were lucky. We got through the border’

Budapest’s promised crackdown on border crossings means those who enter illegally could face prison

RÖSZKE, Hungary — “Syrian woman, Syrian child, Syrian man. Iraqi man. Afghan man, Afghan woman. Syrian woman, Syrian man. Iraqi child, Iraqi woman, Iraqi man...”

Through her face mask, a Hungarian policewoman counted refugees being loaded onto a bus to take them from the Hungary-Serbia border to the border with Austria, some 280 miles closer to what they hoped will be their life in Western Europe.

The passengers had fit in a little sleep at the roadside in the village of Röszke while guarded by police who let them into Hungary late last night, just minutes before the border slammed shut and a crackdown on refugees began.

The tough new laws make it a criminal offense, punishable with several years of prison time, to cross into Hungary without permission or to damage the 103-mile, 13-foot-high fence along the border with Serbian that was completed on Monday evening.

Dozens of refugees were arrested under the new laws today after entering the country despite the fence, and hundreds of people massed where locked gates and Hungarian police blocked the main official crossing from Serbia.

“We were lucky. We just got through the border,” said Omar, a doctor from Kurdish-controlled Hasaka in northeastern Syria, a city where two car bombs killed at least 26 people yesterday.

“Some slept on buses, but there was not room for everyone, so many slept here on the ground,” he said, on a quiet country road lined by sunflower fields. “I want to go to Sweden, for my children. In Hasaka, there is death all around, from Daesh [the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant] and from bombs dropped by the planes of [President Bashar al-Assad],” Omar said.

“We are caught between two fires, Bashar and Daesh. In our part of Hasaka, there is Daesh. Because of them, my three daughters do not go to school for two years. We sold everything, our house, car and belongings, to get away. It cost 3,000 or 4,000 euros [$4,000] for each of us. But there was nothing else to do.”

Omar declined to give his surname for fear of reprisals against his parents, who are still in Hasaka.

As police finally ushered Omar’s family and more than 100 other refugees onto buses for the journey to the border with Austria, Hungary’s government was announcing a state of emergency in two regions bordering Serbia.

The declaration gives more power to the police in an area that more than 200,000 people have crossed so far this year, as part of an ever-quickening flow of refugees arriving in Europe. Hungary is one of the mostly Central European states that have rejected a plan for most European Union members to take a quota of refugees, under proposals suggested by Germany, which has said it is ready to accept 1 million refugees this year.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has been heavily criticized by more-liberal EU leaders and by human rights groups for his claims that most people arriving in Europe are seeking prosperity rather than safety and that they are a potential threat to the continent’s security and traditional Christian identity.

The border controls introduced by Hungary are deeply controversial.

Orban’s populist government wants arriving refugees to be kept in transit zones on the border, where asylum requests would be processed within hours and most — if not all — would be rejected, on the grounds that applicants are arriving from Serbia, which Hungary deems safe enough for refugees.

People arrested for allegedly entering Hungary illegally or damaging border infrastructure will be tried in fast-track courts being established in a city near the frontier, and those convicted will be sent back to Serbia.

“The people in the transit zones are, legally speaking, not in Hungarian territory, similar to transit zones in an airport … [They] are in operation, completely conforming with Hungarian and international law,” Hungarian government spokesman Zoltan Kovacs said at a media briefing.

Alongside him, senior Orban adviser Gyorgy Bakondi said, “Today 60 people have been caught by police [while] cutting or damaging the fence — 45 at the border, the other 15 further inside the country. Police have launched criminal procedures against them.”

“The message we want to send is, ‘Don't come. This route will not take you to your destination,’” he added. “Our information suggests that the migrants and also the traffickers have got the message.”

Migration experts warn that Hungary’s measures will not deter refugees or smugglers and will only force desperate people to pay more money to traffickers and take riskier routes.

In response to predictions that refugees would quickly find new paths to Western Europe, Hungary’s Foreign Minster Péter Szijjártó said today the barrier would be extended to block part of the country’s southeastern border with Romania.

In response, the International Organization for Migration warned Hungary that it had “obligations to follow, which it looks like this new legislation would be a contravention of.”

Magdalena Majkowska-Tomkin, the head of the International Organization for Migration’s Hungary office, questioned the country’s adherence to “the international U.N. conventions on the status of refugees but also EU legislation regarding asylum and also regarding criminal procedures.”

“From my perspective, Hungary needs to respect its international obligations and allow people to claim asylum and provide facilities for them that are adequate for their condition,” she told Reuters.

After EU interior ministers failed yesterday to agree on how to share responsibility for refugees among all member states, German Chancellor Angela Merkel called for a special EU summit on the crisis, to be held next week.

As rancor over how to handle the crisis opens rifts among EU states, Hungary’s crackdown on refugees is causing deep anxiety in Serbia, which fears that tens of thousands of people could be stuck there if the border is closed to them.

Serbia’s Foreign Minister Ivica Dačić said today that it would be “unacceptable” for Hungary to send large numbers of refugees back to his cash-strapped country, which is not an EU member.

Aleksandar Vulin, Serbia’s minister for social affairs, visited the border with Hungary and said his country had not been warned of its sudden closure.

“This is not only a Hungarian and Serbian problem. This is a problem for the whole of Europe. Europe has to find a solution fast, before the situation escalates even further,” he said. “This border crossing, one of the main ones in Europe, has to remain open.”

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