One of the main routes used by refugees to reach the safety of the European Union clanged shut on Tuesday, when Hungary formally closed its border with Serbia, finished fortifying a long-promised border fence, and blocked off a pathway that has brought more than 160,000 people into northern Europe since the start of the year.
Crowds built through the morning as some sat in fields, halted by a razor-wire fence, while others pressed against gates demanding passage. Under new rules that took effect from midnight, Hungary, which also declared a state of emergency in two southern counties, said anyone who tried to break through the fence would face jail and those seeking asylum at the Serbian border would automatically be turned back.
As tension between the two countries grew, the Serbian government said it was talking to Hungary about the build-up of people and believed Budapest would have to open the border. “Europe has to find a solution fast before the situation escalates even further. This border crossing, one of the main ones in Europe, has to remain open,” said social affairs minister, Aleksandar Vulin, at the border.
Meanwhile, the Serbian foreign minister, Ivica Dačić, visiting Prague, said Belgrade considered the idea of returning refugees to the country “unacceptable” and did not want to become a victim of the crisis.
The Hungary-Serbia border was formally closed at midnight and shortly after around 100 people, mostly from Syria and Afghanistan, were turned back from the legal land crossing in Horgos. Earlier, police had wheeled a train carriage across a set of nearby disused railway tracks, which for weeks had been left open to allow refugees to walk unhindered into the EU.
Hungarian police said 174 people had been detained under the new laws, including 16 claiming to be Syrian and Afghan migrants, who were held for illegally crossing the Serbian border fence. A spokeswoman said they were suspected of lifting the razor wire fence to get into Hungary.
Hungarian authorities said they had ruled on 16 asylum requests under the new border regime and rejected all within a matter of hours.
On the main road connecting Serbia and Hungary, in the no man’s land between Röszke and Horgos, a group of people staged a sit-in protest, saying they would refuse food and water until they were allowed to cross into Hungary.
Hungary, however, showed no sign of relaxing its stance and said it had decided to begin preparatory work for the construction of a fence along its border with Romania if there was a change in refugee routes.
Further south, Turkish security forces stopped hundreds of people, mainly Syrians, from marching towards Turkey’s western border with Greece in an attempt to reach Europe, potentially opening up a new front in the crisis. Separately, at least 22 people drowned when their boat capsized off the Turkish coast.
On Monday, EU interior ministers agreed on plans aimed at denying the right of asylum to innumerable refugees by funding and building camps for them in Africa and elsewhere outside the EU.
The hardline Hungarian government of Viktor Orbán hopes its actions mark the symbolic conclusion of a months’ long attempt to seal its border to an unprecedented wave of refugees, who began to make their way through the country in the spring, and whose numbers have risen sharply in recent weeks.
More than 9,000 refugees made it into Hungary in the final hours before the border was sealed, officials said in a statement, but a substantially greater number of people – still making their way through Syria, Turkey, Greece and the Balkan states – have been left in limbo.
One of the first families to be shut out was a Palestinian-Syrian family from the Damascus suburb of Yarmouk. Carrying two babies all the way from Syria, they have been forced to find a new home just a few decades after their parents’ generation fled from Israel. Radwan, a 38-year-old printer and the father of the family, said: “We’re Palestinian-Syrians, where else are we supposed to go now? We’re coming from destruction and killing. I shouldn’t have to take five children all the way here for us to be shut out.”
But his wife Mayada warned of the futility of trying to stop people fleeing from a fate far worse. “This won’t stop people,” she said, cradling her baby on the road next to the border gates. “For example, my sister and her husband and their three children will leave Syria soon. I have told them that it is difficult, but they will still come.”
For now, those at the border have promised to wait until they are let through, but smugglers say they are already plotting other routes. A car smuggler in Belgrade suggested going through Croatia, via the town of Sid, while two smugglers who had just dropped people on the Hungarian border said they already had alternatives. “We have other ways,” said one. “This was the easiest, but we have other ones.”
Under plans endorsed in Brussels on Monday, ministers agreed that once the proposed system of refugee camps outside the EU was up and running, asylum claims from people in the camps would be inadmissible in Europe.
The emergency meeting of EU interior ministers was called to grapple with Europe’s worst modern refugee crisis. It broke up in acrimony amid failure to agree on a new system of binding quotas for refugees being shared across the EU and other decisions being deferred until next month.
The lacklustre response to a refugee emergency that is turning into a full-blown European crisis focused on “Fortress Europe” policies aimed at excluding refugees and shifting the burden of responsibility on to third countries, either of transit or of origin.
The ministers called for the establishment of refugee camps in Italy and Greece and for the detention of “irregular migrants” denied asylum and facing deportation but for whom voluntary return was not practicable.
The most bruising battle was over whether Europe should adopt a new system of mandatory quotas for sharing refugees. The scheme, proposed by the European commission last week, is strongly supported by Germany, which sought to impose the idea on the mainly eastern European rejectionists.
Hungary’s government said it would have no part of the scheme, from which it would benefit, while Thomas de Maizière, the German interior minister, complained that the agenda for the meeting was inadequate.
The ministers agreed in principle to share 160,000 refugees across at least 22 countries, taking them from Greece, Hungary, and Italy, but delayed a formal decision until next month. They made plain the scheme should be voluntary rather than binding and demanded flexibility. De Maizière, by contrast, called for precise definitions of how refugees would be shared.
Luxembourg, chairing the meeting, signalled that there was a sufficient majority to impose the quotas, but that the meeting had balked at forcing a vote.
The meeting took place as curbs on free movement across Europe snowballed following Germany’s unilateral and controversial decision on Sunday to re-establish national border controls at the centre of Europe’s free-travel Schengen area of 26 countries. Austria and Slovakia followed suit, while the Dutch said they were stepping up border area patrols and the Belgian authorities said they were considering parallel action. The Guardian