Armend Nimani / AFP / Getty Images

‘Borderless’ Europe in peril as Hungary’s fence brings calm and chaos

Anti-refugee sentiment rises on both sides of fence between Hungary and Serbia as refugees grow increasingly desperate

ASOTTHALOM, Hungary — A camouflage-clad militiaman tears down a forest path on his dirtbike, the red lights of a patrol car swirl, and a police helicopter hovers near a vast, razor-wire-topped security fence, as action-movie music soars to a crescendo.

A big Hungarian in sunglasses poses with hands tucked in the pockets of his jeans, flanked by similarly built men and their SUVs, before delivering the closing line of his film with a dead-eyed stare into the camera.

“If you are an illegal immigrant and you want to get to Germany, then the shortest journey from Serbia is through Croatia and Slovenia,” Laszlo Toroczkai says, now standing in his office before Hungary’s national coat of arms. “Hungary is a bad choice. And Asotthalom is the worst.”

Toroczkai is widely credited with being the first Hungarian official to call for a fence to be built on his country’s border with Serbia, which lies 3 miles south of Asotthalom, the village of 4,000 people where he is mayor.

While the world watched tension at the fence explode over the past week, when Hungarian riot police used tear gas and water cannons at stone-throwing refugees stuck in Serbia, rural Asotthalom was savoring its quietest time in months.

Refugees arrested near Asotthalom, Hungary, on the border with Serbia, Sept. 17, 2015. Hungary recently enacted strict laws against people who enter the country illegally.

The completion of the 13-foot-high, 109-mile fence brought calm to villages along its Hungarian side, even as it caused havoc in Serbia and raised the specter of a Europe once more divided by barbed wire, after a quarter of a century pursuing the dream of passport-free, “borderless” movement across the continent.

“It’s a relief. We’ve really been looking forward to this moment,” said Attila, the manager of Asotthalom’s hardware store, who declined to give his last name because of national and international controversy over the building of the fence.

“It’s been getting worse and worse, with more and more migrants coming through the village,” he said. ”I can’t say they’ve committed any crimes, but we’ve had lots of people smugglers doing deals here on the main street. They would come tearing into the village, open the car doors and talk to migrants and take off with them.”

“This was always a peaceful place, and we lost that with the arrival of the migrants and the smugglers,” Attila said of his village, from which orchards and fields of corn and sunflowers stretch south to Serbia.

“We were worried for our families and for ourselves. The migrants hid in empty houses and took fruit from the orchards. They rest in the fields, and we were worried that a combine harvester could hit them or swallow up clothes or other things they leave behind. That can do serious damage to a machine.”

Dozens of refugees still breach the fence each day, but dramatically fewer are reaching Asotthalom, boosting support for Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban, whose hard line has faced widespread international criticism.

“I would close my shutters at 6 p.m. and see migrants going past and open them at 6 a.m. and see the same thing,” said Attila. “People couldn’t sleep because the dogs in the village would bark all night at the migrants. Now it’s quiet, and I hope it will stay that way. I trust the fence, the police and border guards to handle the situation.”

A Hungarian police officer checks a refugee arrested near Asotthalom, Sept. 17.
Attila Kisbenedek / AFP / Getty Images

Views like Attila’s are heard throughout the village, and many people there echo Orban’s claim that the arrival of large numbers of Muslims refugees in Europe threatens its security and traditional Christian identity and values.

Orban yesterday rebuked the European Union over its response to the refugee crisis, which has deeply shaken the bloc, which has yet to fully recover from recent agonies over a bankrupt Greece and troubled euro.

“Many journalists, public speakers, politicians in Europe promote a suicidal liberalism that risks our values and puts our way of life in danger,” he said. “If one jumps from the 20th floor, one could view this as an expression of freedom from a liberal point of view, while in fact it looks more like suicide.”

The arrival this year of hundreds of thousands of people from the Middle East and other parts of Asia and Africa has, with alarming speed, crippled border and transport systems in Central Europe and cast doubt on the future of the EU’s cherished Schengen system of passport-free travel across 26 states.

Europe’s drive to dismantle borders since the fall of the Iron Curtain and Berlin Wall in 1989 has gone into sudden reverse, with Schengen states — including Germany, Austria and Denmark — reinstating border controls and, in the case of several countries, sending troops to frontier areas to support overstretched police.

Thousands of refugees crossing the Balkans have rerouted their westward journey through Croatia and Slovenia to avoid Hungary’s fence — a development that Orban’s allies say proves the success of his hard-line stance.

Orban’s chief of staff, Janos Lazar, declared that the “assertive, uncompromising defense of the border has visibly held back human trafficking and forces them to change direction. That was the aim of the entire action.”

Countries that denounced Orban’s fence building and legal crackdown on asylum seekers are now improvising drastic security solutions of their own to cope with the sudden arrival of thousands of refugees.

After more than 14,000 people crossed its eastern border in 48 hours, Croatia closed road links with Serbia yesterday and bused hundreds of refugees to Hungary. Slovenia halted rail services from Croatia to stop thousands of refugees arriving by train, and Serbia threatened to sue its neighbors for closing their frontiers and potentially trapping huge numbers of people in its territory.

Leaders and interior ministers of EU states will meet next week for what the United Nations refugee agency said “may be the last opportunity for a positive, united and coherent European response to this crisis.”

As well as Hungary’s hard-line handling of asylum seekers, its rejection — along with several other Central European states — of a German-led plan for all EU members to take a quota of refugees has riled Berlin and other capitals.

“Europe is a community of values based on human sympathy and solidarity. And those that don't share our values can’t count on our money over time,” Germany’s Economy Minister Sigmar Gabriel said Friday. “If it continues like this, then Europe is in danger, more than it was from the financial crisis or the Greece crisis.”

In Horgos, a village of 5,700 people on the Serbian side of Hungary’s fence, a sense of crisis is palpable, and residents envy the relief now felt across the fields and forest in Asotthalom.

Hundreds of refugees still roam the streets and wander up to the barrier on the border in the hope that Orban may relent and let them continue their voyage toward Western and Northern Europe.

Most refugees moving north are rerouting through Croatia, but dozens still arrive daily in Horgos, unaware that this well-trodden route is now blocked or hoping that Europe’s ever-changing border policy will shift again in their favor.

Horgos residents fear the poorest refugees will be trapped here, without money or smartphones to help them make new plans and move on, as the cool nights of early autumn inevitably bring thoughts of many cold, wet months ahead.

Even away from the fence and Hungarian riot police, there is tension between tired, hungry and increasingly desperate refugees and locals who are sick of strangers filling their streets and shops and using their precious fields as places to sleep, defecate and take fruit from the trees, devastating the autumn harvest. 

“No one knows what will happen — whether they will get stuck and stay here,” said Horgos resident Frigyes Balint. “If the EU wants to be a Christian Europe, it should build a fence farther south. If the EU can’t protect its borders and guarantee the free flow of people inside those borders, then it won’t be a European union for long. And Serbia won’t want to join such a union.”

He, like many other residents on both sides of the border, believe there are terrorists among the refugees and demand a tougher stance from the EU’s leaders — above all, German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

“After making trouble in Syria and around there, they’ve been paid to come here. They are not just refugees or migrants. They have been sent here by some people,” Balint said.

He added, “Madame Merkel should understand that this is aggression against Europe.”

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