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Refugees and Europe face perfect storm as crisis deepens

A European Union schism hampers response as worsening Syrian security and Balkan weather boosts refugee numbers

BUDAPEST — Thousands fleeing warzones are now reaching Germany, where they hope their search for safety will finally end, but for the European Union and neighboring Balkan states the refugee crisis is far from over.

Even after Hungary relented to pressure on Friday, allowing refugees to leave the country and continue west into Austria and Germany, the EU remains split over what to do next as problems look set to deepen.

A perfect storm appears to be developing. As the EU’s 28 countries squabble over how many refugees to accept, some member states are seeking to seal their borders to new arrivals, and continued fighting in Syria is driving people to embark on the trek from the Middle East to Europe now, before winter sets in.

When many hundreds of refugees in Hungary breached police lines and walked westward on Friday, they compelled the country to allow them to use public transport to leave, and they eased pressure at the Budapest train station where thousands were gathered in increasingly tense and squalid conditions.

But Hungary has now stopped providing buses to take refugees to Austria, and it is not clear how long trains will keep carrying them west, as the government prepares to include the army in a huge security effort to stop more refugees arriving through Serbia.

Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orban, is the most vocal opponent of a German-led plan for refugees to be settled across the EU according a quota system, but his stance is broadly shared by most other leaders in central Europe and by Britain.

Orban says Hungary, a country of 10 million, cannot cope with the more than 150,000 refugees who have passed through so far this year, and he blames Germany, which expects to receive 800,000 refugees this year, for encouraging more to come with its welcoming stance.

Hungary’s parliament, dominated by Orban’s populist Fidesz party, is expected to pass new measures to tighten border security and to allow soldiers to support more than 2,000 police now patrolling the frontier with Serbia.

Hungary is also building a 13-foot-high steel barrier along the entire 109-mile border, having seen a triple-layer razor-wire fence make no difference to the number of refugees crossing, with more than 3,000 arriving on some recent days.

“We are going to deploy the police, then if we get permission from parliament, we will deploy the army, and after September 15, step by step, we will control the entire border,” Orban said Saturday.

“We will do everything to make sure it comes to fruition. I am personally committed to it.”

The welcome that Germany and Austria are now giving to refugees — some of whom are carrying pictures of, and placards praising, German Chancellor Angela Merkel — highlights the EU’s split on the issue, although hundreds of volunteers in central European states are working hard to help refugees.

Orban called Germany’s proposed quota system “mad and unfair,” and described Muslim immigrants as a threat to Hungary’s security and traditional Christian values and identity.

While Germany, France, Italy and Scandinavian countries call the refugee crisis a test of EU values and solidarity, Hungary, Poland, Slovakia, the Czech Republic and the Baltic states see it as a danger to their people’s safety and livelihoods.

Slovakia’s prime minister, Robert Fico, said that under a quota system his country “will wake up one day and have 100,000 people from the Arab world, and that is a problem I would not like Slovakia to have.”

Czech leaders also deride the quota plan. President Milos Zeman said, “Of course I would wish for the EU to strengthen its borders, but I don’t see any real action. … Therefore I believe the Czech Republic should take care of its borders alone and expel illegal immigrants from the borders, including with the use of the army.”

Experts say that fences and deployment of troops to guard borders will do nothing to deter refugees, however. Instead, they argue, it only will force more refugees to seek out people smugglers, and to pay them higher prices, to reach the safety of Western Europe.

The risks can be fatal, as shown by the death of 71 refugees in the back of a Hungarian-registered truck abandoned beside an Austrian highway late last month.

“Our view on the wall building is that this is a roundabout subsidy to the smugglers. If you create a barrier, they will just charge the people they're transporting more money to get around that barrier,” said Joel Millman, a spokesman for the International Organization for Migration.

“Countries do this all the time to please a domestic constituency — it looks tough, it looks proactive, it looks like you're taking seriously people's concerns that there are too many migrants. So they build a wall. We have decades of experience to show that that has not stopped the problem as they perceive it.”

Signs that security in Syria may deteriorate still further are raising fears that still greater numbers will make for Europe before the harsh Balkan winter sets in.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry spoke to Moscow’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov yesterday about Washington’s concerns surrounding a suspected Russian military build-up in Syria to bolster the regime of Bashar al-Assad.

“The secretary made clear that if such reports were accurate, these actions could further escalate the conflict, lead to greater loss of innocent life, increase refugee flows and risk confrontation with the anti-ISIL [Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant] coalition operating in Syria,” the U.S. State Department said.

The United Nations refugee agency expects up to 3,000 refugees to cross from Greece into Macedonia every day in the coming months, racing to beat the cold weather, before moving on through Serbia to Hungary.

For cash-strapped Balkan states that are not members of the EU, the prospect is daunting — especially if Hungary’s tighter border controls trap many refugees in Serbia.

“It’s impossible to halt enormous migration with barbed wire, walls and fences,” said Nebojsa Stefanovic, the interior minister of Serbia, which has asked for EU cash to help it prepare for the months ahead.

Europe, he added, “didn’t foresee events, nor does it have an idea of how to solve all this.”

Serbia’s prime minister, Aleksandar Vucic, said late last month that about 10,000 migrants were on its territory at any one time.

“The situation will get worse, when winter arrives,” Vucic warned.

“We’re getting ready to look after double that number.”

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