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First Migrant Wave Reaches Hungary After Crossing Balkans

  • RFE/RL

A migrant family rests beside the border fence near the village of Asotthalom, at the Hungarian-Serbian border. The razor-wire fence was cut by migrants seeking to enter Hungary.

A migrant family rests beside the border fence near the village of Asotthalom, at the Hungarian-Serbian border. The razor-wire fence was cut by migrants seeking to enter Hungary.

More than 1,000 migrants and refugees arrived in EU member Hungary on August 24, the first of at least 7,000 who overran Macedonian authorities trying to stop them at the border with Greece last week.

An AFP photographer said at least 1,000 people entered Hungary from Serbia via a cross-border railway track, close to the southern Hungarian village of Roszke.

Their arrival comes just days before a Hungarian government deadline of August 31 for the completion of a razor-wire barrier along the length of its southern border with Serbia in a bid to keep migrants out.

Serbia and Macedonia, which are not members of the European Union, have been engulfed by a deluge of migrants trying to reach the European bloc through the "western Balkans route," which has become among the most popular pathways this summer for those seeking work and refugee status.

Some 102,000 migrants entered the EU via Macedonia, Serbia, Bosnia, Albania, Montenegro, or Kosovo between January and July of this year, versus just 8,000 for the same period in 2014, according to EU border agency Frontex.

The group that reached Hungary, comprised mostly of refugees from war-torn Syria, arrived at a section of the border not yet fenced off by razor wire. They were met by Hungarian police who escorted them to a nearby refugee registration center, Hungarian state news agency MTI said.

A Hungarian soldier carries a border sign to install at a fence near the town of Morahalom on August 24.

A Hungarian soldier carries a border sign to install at a fence near the town of Morahalom on August 24.

Many told AFP they had passed through Serbia after traveling from Macedonia's border with Greece, which Macedonia closed for three days last week, declaring a state of emergency after being overwhelmed by the huge influx of people.

There were chaotic scenes last week as Macedonian police lobbed stun grenades at desperate migrants trying to cross newly laid rolls of barbed wire at the frontier.

At least 7,000 people made it north to Serbia after Macedonia finally reopened its Greek border on August 22. Most trekked five kilometers from the border to a reception center in the town of Presevo, where dozens of buses were waiting to carry them north. A one-way ticket cost 25 euros. Buses left every few minutes.

Hungary has adopted aggressive antimigrant measures to try to stop the deluge, including the nearly complete razor-wire barrier. It is also building a 4-meter-high fence behind the razor wire, while Budapest plans to pass legislation in September to criminalize illegal border-crossing or any attempts to cut through or climb over the fence.

Hungary's Interior Ministry also gave the green light on August 24 to the deployment of special police units of "border hunters" to intercept migrants.

The first wave to reach Hungary will soon be followed by others, as between 7,000 and 10,000 swept past overwhelmed border guards in Macedonia over the weekend and are now traversing Serbia. Most of those migrants also appear to be from Syria.

The new surge of migrants has worried EU leaders and left the impoverished Balkan countries struggling to cope.

Visiting Macedonia on August 24, Austrian Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz talked to migrants and said Greece needed to control its borders more effectively to curb the influx into the Balkans.

"This is a humanitarian disaster...for the whole European Union," Kurz said. "The Western Balkan countries are overrun, overwhelmed, and have been left to their own devices...We have to help them."

Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic said that although the migrant influx is "huge," Serbia won't "build walls or put them in containers and drive them out of the country."

The leaders of France and Germany called for a unified response to the migrant crisis -- a call echoed by the United Nations' refugee agency.

"We must put in place a unified system for the right to asylum," French President Francois Hollande said, calling the influx from the world's crisis zones "an exceptional situation that will last for some time."

Germany, which expects to take in 800,000 asylum seekers in 2015, saw antimigrant sentiment rear its head over the weekend as violent protests erupted against a refugee home, provoking anger from German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

"It is vile for far-right extremists and neo-Nazis to try to spread their hollow, hateful propaganda, but it is just as shameful for citizens, including families with children, to join them" in the protests, said Merkel in her strongest statement to date against a wave of antirefugee protests to hit eastern Germany.

With asylum-seekers coming not just from war zones such as Syria but also from countries without military conflict in southeastern Europe, Hollande and Merkel have called for Brussels to draw up a list of safe countries of origin.

Germany in particular sees this as a priority, as 40 percent of its asylum-seekers come from countries such as Albania and Kosovo.

Merkel is scheduled to meet in Vienna on August 27 with leaders of Balkan states, including Albania and Kosovo, to find out why "so many thousands of people are coming from these countries," her spokesman Steffen Seibert said.

Other coordinated action sought by Hollande and Merkel includes setting up reception centers in overwhelmed Greece and Italy -- two countries which have borne the brunt of the crisis -- to help identify asylum-seekers and illegal migrants.

Merkel said the centers must be set up and staffed by the EU by the end of the year.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees criticized wealthier EU states like Germany and Sweden for not doing more to help the poorer states finance facilities to deal with the influx of immigrants.

The problem "will not go away any time soon and affects all of Europe," said UN Europe bureau director Vincent Cochotel.

Last month, the EU provided Macedonia with about 90,000 euros in humanitarian aid to help cover the basic needs of migrants arriving in the country. Greece is due to get about 425 million euros to manage its borders and create a "hotspot" for processing asylum seekers.

"We have to realize that the blame game is not bringing any kind of positive results for any of us," EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said on a visit to Talinn, Estonia.

Besides helping with the influx of refugees, Mogherini stressed the need to tackle the root causes of migration, such as the conflict in Syria, unrest in Afghanistan and parts of Africa, and failure to establish a government of national unity in Libya.

With reporting by AFP, AP, Reuters, and dpa