From west to east, Europe tightens borders as refugees scramble – Washington Post

European nations deployed police, soldiers and, in Hungary, a razor-wire-covered boxcar on Monday in a bid to stem the torrent of asylum seekers flowing across Europe, as leaders failed to agree on a plan to address the escalating refugee crisis.

With tens of thousands of men, women and children racing to reach western Europe before their path is blocked as early as Tuesday, several nations declared that they could no longer hold to the E.U. ideal of open internal borders. Hungary plans to seal its frontier on Tuesday and to force all new arrivals into camps next to Serbia, a step condemned by refugee advocates that could significantly restrict the flow into Europe.

The restrictions swept across Europe from west to east on Monday. But none matched Hungary in scope or ambition, where Prime Minister Viktor Orban swore in 860 new border police at a ceremony in Budapest’s Heroes’ Square.

“You are the defenders of our culture, lifestyle and sovereignty,” Orban told them.

By late Monday, Hungarian agents sealed one of the last gaps in their 108-mile border fence with Serbia by rolling into place a boxcar festooned with seven strings of razor-wire, a sharp warning for asylum seekers to turn elsewhere.

The new restrictions pushed asylum seekers to try even harder to reach Germany and other western European nations before it was too late. Germany has thrown open its doors, converting gymnasiums, airport terminals and office buildings into temporary shelter for as many as 1 million new arrivals this year alone.

But as it began to impose border controls Monday, leading Austria to do the same, migrants raced to beat the clampdowns.

“We don’t know how long countries will take us in. So we had to work fast,” said Mohammed Hayek, 26, a graphic designer from Syria who arrived Sunday in Budapest bound for Germany.

Farther up the migrant route at the border between Serbia and Hungary, others worried late Monday that they had just missed their window. In the dark and the drizzle, many said that they had raced from Syria try to beat the clock, shaving three days off what is often a 12-day journey.

“I’m really down. If we can’t get to Germany, I have no hope. The dream is off,” said Bilal Rahmani, 18, who was sitting glumly on an embankment Monday night on the chaotic Serbian side of the border, where more than 500 people lined up to speak to Hungarian border agents. Rahmani was traveling with his family from Damascus and said that they had not known that the border would be closed.

New laws go into effect in Hungary on Tuesday that threaten up to a three-year prison sentence for unauthorized passage into the country. Under the new rules, most asylum seekers could be turned away since nearly all enter from Serbia, which theoretically can provide them with safe shelter. As they await Hungary’s asylum decision, they will be held in makeshift camps set up along the border, where many refugee advocates fear conditions will be squalid. Authorities closed a strip of airspace along the border to make it easier to patrol using helicopters and other aircraft.

In the wave of constricted travel across Europe on Monday, Germany dispatched border guards to its border with Austria, which in turn scrambled troops to the border with Hungary. Slovakia imposed tough frontier checks, and Poland and the Czech Republic said they were ready to follow suit. Farther north, the Netherlands upped controls of traffic coming from Germany.

The moves were a sharp reversal of the open-frontier policy that has become one of the hallmarks of E.U. integration.

At Vienna’s central train stations, crowds of refugees were swelling by the hour as new migrants were bused in from the Hungarian border and rail service onward to Germany slowed to a crawl, as one Munich-bound train after another was canceled.

Quietly, more and more police arrived and appealed for calm at the stations, careful not to panic the migrants, promising them that they would soon be moving west to their ultimate goal, Germany.

“I want to reach Germany,” said Samir, 38, a Syrian businessman from Aleppo, as his family of five waited at the Westbahnhof station in Vienna. He complained of chaos at the station, which has been transformed into a temporary refugee camp, patrolled by large numbers of police, assisted by doctors staffing makeshift clinics and volunteers serving hot meals.

“I don’t want any financial assistance. I will start a business. We have some resources,” said Samir, who would not give his last name because he was concerned about the safety of family members who remained in Syria.

Even Germany, which has declared that there are few limits to the number of asylum seekers it can accommodate, is increasingly under strain with fresh records of new arrivals set nearly every day.

“Germany is strong and can do a lot,” said German Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel, in an open letter to supporters. “Nevertheless, in recent days we have seen that despite the best intentions, our reception capabilities have reached their limits, above all when it comes to the speed of the influx of refugees.”

He said that he believed that Germany would now take in 1 million asylum seekers in 2015, an increase over previous estimates by 200,000.

The proposal to parcel asylum seekers among 22 nations has come under heavy criticism from central and eastern European countries, which oppose any steps that would require mandatory refugee quotas.

A meeting of E.U. interior ministers ended Monday in discord, with officials able to agree on measures to strengthen Europe’s borders but not on efforts to redistribute 120,000 people across the European Union. Leaders agreed to keep talking and to revisit the matter in early October.

“To say, ‘Let’s shut all the borders and keep everybody out’ is unrealistic, populistic, and simply impossible,” said European Commission Vice President Frans Timmermans. “To say, ‘Let’s open all the borders and let everybody in’ is equally unrealistic because it would seriously harm the European social model.”

About 34,000 asylum seekers who received commitments from European countries in July will begin to disperse to their respective nations. But the efforts fall far short of the need because that number represents just a few days’ worth of arrivals. Hungarian border police say that more than 5,800 asylum seekers arrived Sunday. But Hungary is so opposed to the influx of the asylum seekers that leaders there have worked to thwart any new deal, even though it would relieve pressure on them by redistributing people to other nations.

Samuels reported from Hungary. William Booth and Souad Mekhennet in Vienna, Anthony Faiola and Stephanie Kirchner in Berlin, Gergo Saling in Hungary and Griff Witte in London contributed to this report.

Read more:

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Read The Post’s coverage on the global surge in migration


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