The railway track that thousands of refugees have followed from Serbia to Hungary and the European Union was blocked Monday after weeks of threats by the Hungarian government that it would close its border with Serbia.
The movement of a few dozen troops and a the erection of a few more metres of fence crushed the dreams of thousands of refugees. Tens of thousands are already on route from southern Europe, through the Balkans, most with plans to reach Germany.
But now a chain-link fence, lined with two strips of razor wire stands in their way. Behind it, units of Hungarian army and police.
Groups continue to follow the tracks, only to find the route blocked. Some head along the fence trying to find another way in.
The UN refugee agency has said a fence is not a solution to a refugee crisis but Hungary has publicly disagreed and started this barrier months ago.
A few hundred meters from the fence, aid workers and volunteers take down tents and collect garbage. Until this afternoon this field was a holding area where often over a thousand refugees would wait to board buses for camps.
“Are you hungry?” shouts a volunteer at a group of journalists. There are no more refugees here to feed. No one seemed to know exactly when the border would close or what that would mean, so volunteers have prepared food for hundreds.
A few kilometers down the road from the border, police stop cars and check papers. Until now, hundreds of people would cross the border undetected and then sneak into the fields of tall corn stalks and make their way to Austria. It seems that will now also come to an end.
Hungarian officials say that anyone that tries to break the fence or pass the border irregularly could be arrested and possibly deported.
Hungary’s closure of the border came after a number of E.U. countries, including Austria and the Netherlands tightened restriction on their borders, effectively suspending the principles of the Schengen zone, the European free movement agreement. Even Germany, where refugees have been welcomed, began checking cars and passports coming in from Austria.
Europe has been divided on how to deal with the massive influx. E.U. interior ministers met on Monday in Brussels but failed to come up with a comprehensive solution for what has become the one of the worst refugee crises faced by the continent since World War II. They agreed to redistribute 40,000 refugees from Greece and Italy—the countries that have served as the first stop for refugees, but there are 100,000s more to accommodate.
Around 180,000 have crossed into Hungary this year alone, and while Hungary has implemented its new restrictions, there are thousands still en route to this frontier of the E.U.
Volunteers at the Hungarian border say there has been an increase in refugee numbers as people have rushed through the Balkans, fearing a frontier closure.
“We saw on television that Hungary would close its border on September 15. We saw they were passing new laws,” said Ahmed Abdul Khader as he crossed into Hungary from Serbia on Sunday with his family.
They traveled from Damascus and it seems just in time. Just 24 hours later this border is shut and for many that means they will be stuck in Serbia, a non-E.U. country.
Hungary says it will continue to accept refugees who present themselves at official crossing points and has promised to speed up the process of assessing asylum requests.
Hungary’s right-wing Prime Minister Viktor Orban sees his country as the gatekeeper for Christian Europe and has said few claims will be accepted.
“Given that the Hungarian government considers Serbia a safe country,” he told Hungarian TV. “… if someone is a refugee, we will ask them whether they have submitted an asylum request in Serbia.”
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