ROSZKE, Hungary/BELGRADE (Reuters) - Hungarian police herded hundreds of migrants past 4-metre (13-foot) high fences topped with razor wire into a new “Alien Holding Centre” on its southern border on Sunday, readying a security clampdown on an unremitting influx from Serbia.
The right-wing government of Prime Minister Viktor Orban, one of Europe’s most vociferous critics of mass immigration to Europe, has vowed to cut illegal border crossings to zero as of Sept. 15, with a 175-km (108-mile) barrier and stringent new laws. He has asked parliament to approve sending in the army.
Construction crews are completing a 3.5-metre-(11.5-foot)-high fence along the length of Hungary’s boundary with Serbia to keep further migrants out. Orban’s government has shrugged off the symbolism and Cold War echoes — noted by critics in western Europe — of razor-wire barriers and watchtowers along borders in formerly Communist eastern Europe.
Overwhelmed by migrants, Hungary on Saturday sent 104 busloads of them, many of them refugees from the Syrian war, to its western border with Austria, which together with Germany threw open its doors. Around 8,000 made it to Germany and the flow kept up on Sunday as migrants boarded trains in Budapest bound for towns near the Austrian border.
In the south of Hungary, hundreds of new arrivals – among over 1,200 who had entered by midday (1000 GMT) – wrapped in blankets and sleeping bags against an early autumn chill, were rounded up and sent to a new camp nestled among trees just inside Hungary near the town of Roszke.
Police dubbed it an “Alien Holding Centre” and said it contained 100 large, green heated tents for 1,000 people. It was opened at the weekend and located near another, older camp where migrants have revolted in recent days, breaking through wooden barriers and fleeing for the nearby motorway.
Migrants have complained about conditions at the older camp, which was frequently overcrowded.
“Do you know where they are taking us?” a man named Ahmed, from the northwestern Syrian city of Idlib, asked a Reuters journalist.”It’s very cold at night and I am worried how long they will keep us here.”
Another Syrian man, Omar, speaking through the fence, said he had been sent to the camp on Saturday and had not received any papers or been told when he would be allowed to leave.
The new facility was described by authorities on Sunday as a “registration center”, where migrants can be held for some 24 hours, and is part of a stepped-up effort to channel the several thousand migrants pouring across Balkan borders every day.
Human rights groups, however, are growing nervous at plans unveiled by the government and approved by parliament last week for another type of camp, dubbed “transit zones”.
To be located in a narrow border strip, migrants would be held in such camps while their asylum applications are processed and, if denied, would be ejected back into Serbia.
The government says migrants held there will not technically be deemed as having entered Hungarian territory, creating a legal limbo which rights groups say may affect their rights and Hungary’s obligations towards them. Migrants deemed to have crossed illegally or damaged the border fence face possible jail sentences, under new laws adopted last week.
“It sounds very, very, very horrible,” said Marta Pardavi of the Hungarian Helsinki Committee rights watchdog. “It’s an out-of-sight, out-of-mind scenario – facilities that completely lack transparency to the public.”
Orban told Serbia last week to “be prepared” for Sept. 15, and the former Yugoslav republic called for EU cash to help address what may turn into a dangerous human bottleneck.
Hungary says it has no choice, having registered 165,000 migrants entering this year who had coursed up the Balkan peninsula after boat and dinghy journeys from Turkey to Greece and then overland through Macedonia and Serbia.
Orban has painted Europe’s worst refugee crisis since the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s as a threat to European prosperity, identity and “Christian values”. Countless more may have entered undetected.
Greece, which saw a record 50,000 hit its shores in July alone, has taken to ferrying them from inundated islands to the mainland, over 13,000 since Monday.
On Thursday last week, over 5,000 crossed from Greece into Macedonia, indicating the kind of influx Austria and Germany can expect on a daily basis as long as they keep their borders open.
Under European Union rules, migrants are obliged to register in the first EU country they enter and remain there until their asylum requests are processed. Hungary said last week it was only sticking to the rules as it barred migrants from trains bound for western Europe, creating a huge backlog that on Friday became too much for overstretched police.
Late on Friday, as Hungary began to deploy a huge convoy of buses, Austria said it had agreed with Germany, “in this case”, to allow the migrants to continue their journeys. It was unclear on Sunday how long that leniency would last. Most migrants say they want to reach wealthy Germany, which has already said it expects to receive 800,000 asylum seekers this year.
On Sunday, they were allowed to board trains unhindered in Budapest, following hand-written signs in Arabic directing them to trains bound for Hegyeshalom on the Austrian border.
Writing by Matt Robinson; Editing by Mark Heinrich