Sunday 26 March 2017

Austria warns Hungary it will retaliate in migrant row

Migrants from Syria heading towards Hungary climb down a motorway near the Serbian border with Macedonia Credit: Ognen Teofilovski
Migrants from Syria heading towards Hungary climb down a motorway near the Serbian border with Macedonia Credit: Ognen Teofilovski

Sandor Peto

Austria will re-instate border controls with Hungary if Budapest refuses to take in asylum seekers sent to it by other European Union states.

The row between the two EU neighbours has further weakened the already fragile unity in Europe over how to share the burden of a rising tide of migrants.

Several countries on the EU's periphery say the system for tackling migration is broken but Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban's decision to halt transfers of asylum seekers is the most radical step taken by any European leader so far.

Mr Orban has a history of tangling with Brussels, with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, in a barbed joke, once describing him as a "dictator".

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Under EU rules, migrants must apply for asylum in the first member state they enter. If they move on to another EU country, they can be sent back to the country where they entered.

Hungary said it was temporarily suspending accepting such transfers back because it was overwhelmed by migrants, after 61,000 crossed into the country from outside the EU since the start of the year.

"What happened yesterday is that our government said 'I cannot do more'," said Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto.  

"It's not a suspension, it's simply a request to show solidarity with us for a limited period of time."

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This has angered Austria, where many migrants head after passing through Hungary.

"Hungary's decision is completely unacceptable for us," Austrian Interior Minister Johanna Mikl-Leitner said, adding that "we do not rule out border controls as a last resort."

"That would involve passport checks on the Austrian-Hungarian border - something that ended when the two countries implemented the Schengen agreement on border-free travel nearly a decade ago."

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Austria itself stopped processing asylum requests this month, in an effort to pressure other EU states to do more to help absorb waves of refugees.

Freedom of movement across internal borders is a fundamental principle of the EU, but hundreds of thousands of non-EU migrants - many trying to head north to countries such as Germany or Sweden - are testing commitment to that ideal.

In Berlin, the head of the Europe department in the Foreign Ministry received Hungary's ambassador to Germany for talks.

The Germans made clear their expectation "that despite the burdens to which Hungary also sees itself exposed in the refugee crisis, responsibilities in the joint European asylum system cannot be unilaterally questioned," a ministry official said.

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Foreign Minister Szijjarto said Austria and other EU states were planning to send back to Hungary illegal immigrants who should instead be sent to Greece."We do not agree with this," he told reporters.

He denied his government was violating EU rules.

Conflicts in the Middle East and Africa and a breakdown of order in states along the southern Mediterranean coast have driven the migrants to try to reach Europe.

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Countries such as Italy, Greece and Malta, where migrants make landfall after crossing the Mediterranean, have borne the brunt of the influx.

But there is also an overland route into Hungary.

Mr Orban's government earlier this month ordered the construction of a fence along Hungary's border with Serbia to keep people from crossing illegally.

Syrian migrants on their way to Hungary, which has refused to take back migrants who cross through its borders to Austria Credit: Ognen Teofilovski
Syrian migrants on their way to Hungary, which has refused to take back migrants who cross through its borders to Austria Credit: Ognen Teofilovski

Reuters

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