Wednesday 7 December 2016

Europe's borders unravel as Austria and Slovakia impose frontier controls

* Border-free Europe unravels as migrant crisis hits record day
* Austria, Slovakia follow Germany in imposing border controls
* Hungary closes main migrant crossing point from Serbia
* Schengen system allows temporary controls in emergencies
* EU interior ministers argue over relocation of 160,000 refugees

By Krisztina Than and Francois Murphy

Published 14/09/2015 | 17:15

Police officers stop refugees after taking them off the train at the rail station in Freilassing, Germany (AP Photo/Kerstin Joensson)
Police officers stop refugees after taking them off the train at the rail station in Freilassing, Germany (AP Photo/Kerstin Joensson)

TWO decades of frontier-free travel across Europe unravelled today as countries re-established border controls in the face of an unprecedented influx of migrants, which broke the record for the most arrivals by land in a single day.

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Germany's surprise decision to restore border controls on Sunday had a swift domino effect, prompting neighbours to impose checks at their own frontiers as thousands of refugees pressed north and west across the continent while European Union ministers argued in Brussels over how to share the burden.

A Syrian refugee girl looks out the window from inside a bus after disembarking a passenger ship at the port of Piraeus, near Athens, Greece. Photo: REUTERS/Michalis Karagiannis
A Syrian refugee girl looks out the window from inside a bus after disembarking a passenger ship at the port of Piraeus, near Athens, Greece. Photo: REUTERS/Michalis Karagiannis
A German policeman watches as migrants are taken off a train at a border station in Freilassing, Germany Photo: REUTERS/Dominic Ebenbichler

Austria said it would dispatch its military to help the police carry out checks at the border with Hungary after thousands of migrants crossed on foot overnight, filling up emergency accomodation nearby, including tents at the frontier.

Read more: Former Nazi death camp being used to house refugees in Germany

Thousands more raced across the Balkans to enter Hungary before new rules take effect on Tuesday, which Budapest's right-wing government says will bring a halt to the illegal flow of migrants across its territory.

By 1400 GMT on Monday, police said 7,437 migrants had been recorded entering Hungary from Serbia, beating the previous day's record of 5,809.

A Syrian refugee carries his sleeping daughter as they walk towards Greece's border, with Macedonia near the Greek village of Idomeni. Photo: REUTERS/Alexandros Avramidis
A Syrian refugee carries his sleeping daughter as they walk towards Greece's border, with Macedonia near the Greek village of Idomeni. Photo: REUTERS/Alexandros Avramidis

Then a line of Hungarian police in helmets blocked off the main informal crossing point. Backed by mounted police and soldiers with a helicopter circling overhead, dozens of officers took up positions on a railway track used by migrants to enter the EU's Schengen zone of border-free travel.

Slovakia said it would now impose controls on its borders with Hungary and Austria. The Netherlands announced it would make spot checks at its borders. Other EU countries, ranging from Sweden to Poland, said they were monitoring the situation to decide whether controls were needed.

"If Germany carries out border controls, Austria must put strengthened border controls in place," Vice Chancellor Reinhold Mitterlehner told a joint news conference with Chancellor Werner Faymann. "We are doing that now."

He and Faymann said the army would be deployed in a supporting role.

"The focus of the support is on humanitarian help," Faymann said. "But it is also, and I would like to emphasise this, on supporting border controls where it is necessary."

Read more: Artist creates ‘Syrian Super Mario’ to show dangers of being a refugee

Monday's measures were the biggest threat so far to the Schengen system of a border-free Europe, which ranks alongside the euro single currency as one of the transformative achievements of integration on the continent.

Named after a Luxembourg town where it was agreed, Schengen has eliminated frontier posts across the continent since 1995. Twenty-six European countries now issue common visas and leave the borders between them unguarded.

Frontiers which were fought over for centuries and which were a bottleneck for traffic and trade just a few years ago are now marked by little more than signposts on highways across the world's biggest economic bloc.

The rules bar undocumented migrants from travel within the zone but leave few mechanisms to stop them.

That has created chaos as hundreds of thousands of people, including refugees from war in the Middle East, arrive on the bloc's southern and eastern edges and trek to rich countries further north and west.

EU interior ministers have agreed to relocate a further 120,000 asylum-seekers around the bloc following an earlier accord to redistribute 40,000 from Italy and Greece, the Luxembourg government said.

"Agreement in principle on relocation of 120,000 additional persons," it tweeted, adding "adoption foreseen" at the next meeting of interior ministers on Oct. 8. Luxembourg holds the rotating presidency of EU ministerial councils.

It gave no detail on how the asylum-seekers would be shared out. Several states firmly oppose proposals to distribute them around the bloc according to national quotas.

A draft agreement included strong language on the need for tighter controls of the bloc's external borders, rapid screening of arrivals and deportation of those without valid asylum claims, to help assuage countries concerned that relocating asylum seekers could attract more people.

Read more: EU countries reintroduce border checks as migrant numbers swell

Hungary's hardline right-wing government had warned that new policies due to take effect on Tuesday would halt the flow across its frontier, the main land route the EU. That led to an unprecedented rush to cross before the deadline.

Hungarian authorities did not appear to register migrants who arrived on Monday, transferring them instead by bus to a railway station in the town of Roszke, where police directed them onto special trains to the border with Austria. At least two trains of around 15 carriages departed, and aid workers said several more had left on Sunday.

Soldiers cradled automatic weapons by a metal fence that the government of Prime Minister Viktor Orban says will run the length of the frontier with Serbia by October.

"We heard the Hungarians will close the border on September 15 so we had to hurry from Greece," 24-year-old engineering student Amer Abudalabi, from the Syrian capital Damascus, said shortly before crossing the border from Serbia.

"We have not slept since Saturday morning... I'm so tired. I won't believe it when we cross into Hungary."

From Tuesday, Hungarian authorities say they will receive and start processing asylum requests at the border with Serbia, and transport many of those who apply to camps elsewhere in the country. Those who refuse to cooperate will be held at the border and possibly expelled, while those who try to cross evading police will face arrest.

Workers fixed razor wire to a train wagon positioned to block the railway line that crosses the border and that has become the main crossing point for migrants.

Read more: EU ministers to discuss sharing refugees among nations

Orban, one of the loudest critics of immigration he calls a threat to Europe's Christian heritage, drafted hundreds more police officers to the border on Monday, telling them to be humane but "uncompromising".

"You will meet with people who have been deceived. You will be met with temper and aggression," he told them.

In Serbia, buses took migrants from a makeshift camp in the northern town of Kanjiza to around a kilometre from the border. Discarded blankets and shoes littered the area.

In the south, on the border with Macedonia, aid workers said authorities had sped up migration procedures and a train was taking many directly to the Hungarian border, bypassing Belgrade, where a city park previously inundated with migrants was rapidly emptying as they headed for the border.

Schengen countries are permitted to reimpose border checks on a temporary basis in emergencies, and have occasionally done so in the past on security grounds during major sports tournaments or international summits, but not on this scale.

Most of the refugees have been bound for Germany, which announced in August it would suspend EU asylum policy to accept Syrians who arrive elsewhere in the EU, luring more to trek across the bloc.

Austria had shuttled refugees directly on to Germany. But since Berlin announced border controls on Sunday, migrants have walked across the border into Austria from Hungary at the fastest rate yet, without being able to travel onward. An Austrian police spokesman said in the early afternoon that 9,000 people had arrived since midnight, after 14,000 on Sunday.

"The accommodation centres in Nickelsdorf, Parndorf, and in the near surroundings are all full," the police spokesman said, of an area near the main border crossing.

The threat to reimpose border controls has spread beyond the southern and eastern countries along the main migration paths. The Dutch justice ministry said it would impose "mobile controls" in border regions. The Netherlands received 3,000 asylum seekers last week, double the number from a week before.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has taken a lead, announcing that Europe's biggest economy was willing to host hundreds of thousands of refugees and preparing for as many 800,000 asylum requests this year. Her vice chancellor said in a letter to party members seen by Reuters that figure could reach 1 million.

EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker has proposed a formula to distribute refugees based on member states' economic strength and population. But eastern European countries such as Poland, Slovakia and Hungary itself strongly oppose quotas, even though Hungary would be one of the three beneficiaries.

French President Francois Hollande, who has joined Merkel in campaigning hard for quotas, called for rapid agreement on control of entrants along the EU's external borders as well.

"In concrete terms that means putting registration centres in Greece, Italy and Hungary," Hollande said. "It must be sorted out today."

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