Hungary on Tuesday declared a state of emergency at its southern border with Serbia and detained migrants trying to enter the country illegally in a bid to shut down the mass influx of refugees.
A day after two decades of frontier-free travel across Europe unravelled in the face of an unprecedented influx of people seeking refuge from war and poverty, ex-communist Hungary effectively sealed entrance to the EU in scenes carrying echoes of the Cold War.
Having spent the night out in the open, families with small children sat in fields beneath a new 3.5-metre-high fence running almost the length of the EU’s external border with Serbia, halted by a right-wing government that hailed a “new era”.
Others pressed against the gates, confused and demanding passage. More still sat on the main highway from Serbia to Hungary.
“I will sit here until they open the border. I cannot go back to Syria. Life in Syria is finished,” said a Kurd from Syria who gave his name as Bower.
Serbia’s foreign minister expressed outrage at a state of emergency declared in Hungary’s two southern border counties, saying it was “unacceptable” that migrants were being sent back from Hungary while more and more were arriving in Serbia from Macedonia and Greece.
“[Serbia] wants to be part of the solution, not collateral damage. There will have to be talks in the coming days with Brussels and other countries,” Ivica Dacic said in Prague.
The government said it was aiming to deal with asylum requests within a matter of hours, exercising the right to reject them almost immediately on the grounds that Hungary -- as of July -- considers Serbia a "safe" country for refugees.
Hungarian police said they had arrested 174 people for trying to make their way through the razor-wire fence on Tuesday. Under harsh new laws, which came into force Monday night to punish “illegal border-crossing”, those arrested face prison terms of several years.
Long queues in no-man's land
Long queues formed in a no-man’s land at metal containers built into the fence, where migrants were expected to register, stranded in what the government has dubbed a "transit zone" and denied official entrance into Hungary.
“Once their data is entered into the computer system, the decision can be issued very fast, saying, ‘You came through Serbia, Hungary considers Serbia safe, so your asylum claim is inadmissible,’” said Marta Pardavi of the Hungarian Helsinki Committee rights body.
“[Language] Interpretation will be over the phone,” she said. “Those who apply for legal remedy will have to wait in this transit zone, or no-man’s land.”
The United Nations refugee agency, the UNHCR, expressed alarm at Hungary’s new border rules and the fast processing of asylum requests.
“There are many details of the new law, the new legislation, which are really alarming,” Erno Simon, a spokesman for UNHCR in Hungary, told Reuters.
The influx of hundreds of thousands of migrants and refugees from the Middle East, Africa and Asia has triggered discord and recrimination in Europe.
EU interior ministers on Monday failed to break a deadlock over sharing responsibility for some of those seeking asylum. On Tuesday, Luxembourg, which currently holds the EU’s rotating presidency, said a new meeting will be held on September 22 following calls for an urgent summit from German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
“Time is running out,” she warned Tuesday, as she defended Berlin's shock decision over the weekend to reinstate border controls on security grounds.
Berlin's move has had a domino effect, with Austria, Slovakia and Hungary also reimposing identity checks.
At least 200,000 migrants have crossed Hungary so far this year, streaming north through the Balkan peninsula having hit Greek shores by boat or dinghy from Turkey.
More than 9,000 entered on Monday, a record day for the year, and the flow continued unabated over Greece’s northern border into Macedonia on Tuesday, threatening to create a dangerous bottleneck in the impoverished and volatile Balkans.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, one of Europe’s most vociferous opponents of immigration, has vowed to stop the flow.
The prospect of a long wait at the Hungarian border, possible imprisonment or expulsion back to Serbia may force many to seek alternative routes.
They could go west into Serbia’s fellow former Yugoslav republic Croatia, or east into Romania, both members of the EU but not of Europe’s Schengen zone of border-free travel.
“Maybe we’ll try Croatia, then Slovenia and from there to Vienna and Germany,” said Emad, a refugee from the Syrian capital Damascus as he entered Macedonia from Greece. “I don’t know if it’s a good plan, but we have to try.”
Others may bide their time at the fence, where the razor-wire and soldiers resembled the borders of Eastern Europe during the Communist era.
“I don’t know what I will do,” said 40-year-old Riad from Aleppo, once Syria’s commercial hub but reduced in many parts to rubble since war broke out in 2011. “I will wait to see. We have lost everything to reach this point.”
Serbia, an impoverished ex-Yugoslav republic still years away from joining the EU, says it is readying more temporary accommodation, but warned it would not accept anyone turned back from Hungarian territory.
“That’s no longer our responsibility,” Aleksandar Vulin, the minister in charge of policy on migrants, told the Tanjug state news agency. “They are on Hungarian territory and I expect the Hungarian state to behave accordingly towards them.”
The UNHCR reiterated on Tuesday that it advised against sending refugees back to Serbia. “Safe third-country” status implies refugees have a fair chance of being granted asylum and would receive the necessary protections and support.
Rights groups say Serbia meets none of those criteria and is still finding homes for thousands of its own refugees from the collapse of Yugoslavia in the 1990s, the last time Europe confronted the displacement of people on such a scale.
“We’re on the street now,” said Mouz, a 22-year-old Syrian, who slept on the border. Asked if he might consider another route, he replied: “I don’t know. I’m from Syria. I cannot go back.”