KANJIZA, Serbia/ROSZKE, Hungary (Reuters) - Hungary sent migrants by special trains direct to the Austrian border on Monday, trying to offload record numbers streaming into the country before a crackdown by the right-wing government.
Hungary is threatening to arrest and jail anyone caught trying to cross undetected its southern border from Serbia as of Tuesday, and to hold or expel asylum seekers under new rules adopted to stem the flow through the Balkans to western Europe.
By noon (1000 GMT) on Monday, police said 5,353 migrants, many of them Syrian refugees, had been recorded entering from Serbia, which is outside the European Union. More than 5,800 crossed on Sunday, the most in a single day this year.
Many migrants said they hoped to enter Hungary before Tuesday and were taken by bus to the railway station in the border town of Roszke, where police directed them onto a train in an apparent attempt to clear the backlog by Tuesday.
Some said they had not been registered, despite the government’s insistence it is sticking to EU rules that asylum seekers must be registered in the first EU country they enter.
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 15th 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.”
More than 190,000 migrants and refugees fleeing poverty and war in the Middle East, Africa and Asia have been recorded entering Hungary from Serbia this year, putting the ex-Communist country on the frontline of Europe’s worst refugee crisis since the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s.
The influx has sowed discord and recrimination in the 28-nation EU, feeding anti-immigration sentiment.
More than a week after they lifted restrictions on migrants entering from Hungary, Austria followed Germany on Monday in reimposing Europe’s internal border controls, in effect suspending the Schengen regime allowing border-free travel across the continent. Vienna said it would dispatch the armed forces to guard its eastern frontier.
Hungary says it is duty-bound to secure the EU’s external frontier. Authorities say they will from Tuesday receive and process asylum requests at the border with Serbia and send many of those who apply to camps elsewhere in the country. Hungary has reserved the right to expel asylum seekers back into Serbia, having declared its neighbor a ‘safe country’ for refugees.
Those who refuse to cooperate will be held at the border and could be expelled. Those who try to smuggle themselves over the border, avoiding police, face arrest and possibly jail.
Many migrants try to avoid being registered or seeking asylum in Hungary, fearing being stuck in the country or sent back there if caught elsewhere in Europe.
Workers were seen fixing razor wire to a train wagon positioned to quickly block the railway line that crosses the border. Orban drafted hundreds more police to the border on Monday, telling on them to be humane but “uncompromising” in implementing the new law.
“You will meet with people who have been deceived. You will be met with temper and aggression,” he told them.
At the border, police were evacuating the area of migrants. At least two trains of around 15 carriages left for the Austrian border and aid workers said several more departed on Sunday.
The United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, said there was “no official procedure, people are just being collected” and that four hours later the trains arrived at the Austrian border.
“That these people are not being taken to registration points is confirmed by our information, given that these registration points are empty,” said spokesman Erno Simon.
A government spokesman denied authorities were no longer registering migrants, saying registration was taking place elsewhere.
In Serbia, buses took migrants from a makeshift camp in the northern town of Kanjiza to around one kilometer from the border. Discarded blankets and shoes littered the area.
In the south, on the border with Macedonia, aid workers said authorities had accelerated migration procedures and a train was taking many direct to the Hungarian border, bypassing Belgrade, where a central park previously inundated with migrants had emptied significantly.
Safet Ferhatbegovic, a volunteer translator in the park, said many left for Hungary at the weekend, some of them paying as much as 200 euros for a taxi to take them the 190 km north to the border.
“They will close the border,” said 25-year-old Ahmed from the Syrian city of Aleppo as he walked with a friend across the border into Hungary. “Today is the end-day.”
Additional reporting by Sandor Peto and Gergely Szakacs in Budapest and Maja Zuvela in Belgrade, Writing by Matt Robinson, Editing by Anna Willard and Timothy Heritage