BERLIN — Facing an unstaunchable flood of migrants and refugees, Germany on Sunday said it was reaching a breaking point and would implement emergency controls on its border with Austria, temporarily suspending train service along the main pipeline for thousands seeking sanctuary in western Europe.
The move immediately signaled the extent of the crisis confronting Europe, a region where a decades-long policy of open borders, once a source of pride and unity, is fast eroding as nations struggle to cope with a record flow of migrants. Germany has thus far stepped in to take in the most migrants of any European Union nation, but the huge surge in recent days – German officials predicted 40,000 migrants only this weekend – has tested the ability of this nation to house and aid all the newcomers.
Off a Greek island on Sunday, 34 refugees, including four babies and 11 boys and girls, , drowned when their wooden boat overturned and sank. It is almost certainly the largest death toll in those waters since the migrant crisis began, the Greek coast guard said, Reuters reported.
Germany’s new border controls will start at the frontier with Austria, German interior minister Thomas de Maizière said Sunday. Trains to Germany from Austria were temporarily suspended until at least 6 a.m. Monday to give authorities time to cope with the surging numbers, according to German news reports.
“The aim of this measure is to restrict the current flow to Germany and to return to an orderly procedure of immigration,” de Maizière said. “This is urgently necessary also for security reasons.”
The 28-nation E.U. is deeply divided over a plan backed by Germany and France to issue new migrant quotas to all nations. De Maizière on Sunday appeared to chide those countries opposed to taking in more migrants, saying Germany could not shoulder the burden alone. In part due to what many have called Berlin’s open arms policy, Germany is expecting up to 800,000 asylum applications from fleeing Syrians, Iraqis and others escaping conflict and poverty.
“The German readiness to help must not be overstretched,” he said. “The measure therefore is also a signal to Europe. Germany is facing its humanitarian responsibility, but the burden that comes with the high number of refugees must be distributed fairly within Europe.”
The numbers of migrants and refugees streaming into the Hungary reached record highs over the weekend, as thousands of families from the Middle East and Africa tried to make it to Europe before Hungarian authorities initiate a crackdown next week.
More than 4,000 walked through the Serbian-Hungary border on Saturday, according to a report from the BBC.
Meanwhile, governments continued to bicker about how to cope with the influx. Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann, in an interview with German news magazine Der Spiegel, compared Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s treatment of refugees to the Nazis’ deportation of Jews.
“Sticking refugees in trains and sending them somewhere completely different to where they think they’re going reminds us of the darkest chapter of our continent’s history,” he said.
Hungary’s foreign minister retorted that such comments were “totally unworthy of any leading 21st-century European politician” and counterproductive to solving the crisis, according to the Associated Press. The number of migrants who have crossed the border into Hungary is now well over to the 175,000 — with roughly a third of those being from Syria, according to Hungarian officials. They are also seeing high numbers of border crossers who are Afghans, Kosovars, Pakistanisand Iraqis.
With the threat of heightened border enforcement over the next few days, protesters flocked to streets throughout Europe on Saturday to show support for the refugees.
Thousands joined a protest in central London, some with signs that said “Reject the Politics of Fear,” the Guardian reported. And hundreds also came for a solidarity concert in Budapest, at a train station where many migrants pass through on the way to Germany. “Refugees Welcome,” a sign read as attendees held hands and sang along to Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song.”
In recent days, several countries in Europe have hardened their stances on allowing migrants to pass through their borders openly. The discord has been so great that the European Union has pushed back a vote on a resettlement plan to distribute refugees throughout the coalition’s 22 countries until the beginning of next month.
In the meantime, Orban, Hungary’s prime minister, has suggested a solution: Have the E.U. give $3.4 billion to Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan to help improve services for refugees who are placed in camps in those areas. In an interview released Saturday in Germany’s Bild newspaper, Orban said, “These people do not come to Europe because they are looking for security, but they want a better life than in the camps.
“If Europe allows a competition of cultures, then the Christians will lose,” Orban continued. “These are the facts. The only way out for those who want to preserve Europe as a Christian culture is not always more Muslims let in!”
Foreign ministers from the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland and Hungary issued a joint statement Friday calling for the E.U. to create a “more balanced distribution of finances” and to play a greater role “contributing to the international efforts in resolving the ongoing crisis in Syria and Iraq.”
Meanwhile, rights groups and others stepped up pressure for improvements at various bottlenecks where conditions are “inhumane,” including a center in southern Hungary where video appeared to show penned migrants scrambling for food thrown by security personnel. The UN’s refugee agency has since sent enough supplies for 95,000, including 300 temporary housing units for families at bottlenecks in Hungary.