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Tuesday, September 15, 2015, 22:35

Hungary locks down EU border

By Agencies

Hungary locks down EU border
Migrants and refugees walk near razor-wire along a 3-meter-high fence secured by Hungarian police (right) at the official border crossing between Serbia and Hungary, near the northern Serbian town of Horgos on Sept 15, 2015. (AFP PHOTO / ELVIS BARUKCIC)

SERBIAN-HUNGARIAN BORDER - Declaring a state of emergency, Hungary's right-wing government shut the main land route for migrants into the EU on Tuesday, taking matters into its own hands to halt Europe's unprecedented influx of refugees while the bloc failed to agree a plan to distribute them.

Crowds of migrants built up at Serbia's northern border with Hungary, their passage blocked by a razor wire fence.

A decree declaring a state of emergency covers two Hungarian counties, Csongrad in the southeast and Bacs-Kiskun in the south.

The decree contains a sunset clause, automatically expiring on March 15. However, government spokesman Zoltan Kovacs said the state of emergency would remain in place "as long as necessary."

Under new rules that took effect from midnight, Hungary said anyone seeking asylum at the Serbian border will automatically be turned back. Anyone trying to sneak through will face jail.

Prime Minister Viktor Orban, one of the continent's loudest opponents of mass immigration, says he is acting to save Europe's "Christian values" by blocking the main overland route used by mainly Muslim refugees, through the Balkans and across his country via its border with Serbia.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and visiting Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann said on Tuesday they had proposed a special EU summit to discuss the current refugee crisis.

Speaking at a press conference after their talks in Berlin, the two leaders said they had called for a refugee summit in the coming week during a joint telephone conversation with European Council President Donald Tusk.

The special meeting of heads of state and government of the 28 European Union member states, according to Merkel, should focus on issues including better support for the countries of origin, a more intensive dialogue with Turkey as well as rapid establishment of so-called "hotspots" for registration and distribution of refugees.

In scenes with echoes of the Cold War, families with small children sat in fields beneath the former communist country's new 3.5-metre high fence, which runs almost the length of the border.

Hundreds of thousands of people have been arriving at the EU's southern and eastern edges and making their way to the richer countries further north and west, in the greatest migration to Western Europe since World War II.

Hungary locks down EU border
Migrants and refugees from the Middle East stand at a 3-meter-high fence at the official border crossing between Serbia and Hungary, near the northern Serbian town of Horgos on Sept 15, 2015. (AFP PHOTO / ELVIS BARUKCIC)

With emergency talks having failed to break a deadlock over an EU plan to force member countries to accept quotas of refugees, Germany's Interior Minister said the bloc should consider imposing financial penalties on countries that refuse.

Record arrivals forced Germany and several neighbors to re-impose emergency frontier controls this week, unraveling two decades of borderless travel within the 26-member Schengen zone, one of the EU's flagship achievements.

Germany and other relatively open countries say Europe has a moral obligation to accept refugees and other EU states must do their part. Eastern European countries in particular argue that a more welcoming stance only encourages more people to make dangerous voyages, and risks attracting an uncontrolled influx of millions.

Under its new rules, Hungary said it will now automatically turn back refugees who arrive by land at its border with Serbia, which it has declared "safe", meaning those crossing from it cannot claim asylum. Asylum claims would be processed within eight days, and those at the Serbian border should be rejected within hours.

Hungary's government will start preparatory work to extend the border fence along its Serbian frontier eastwards towards Romania, in case migrants start taking other routes into its territory, the foreign minister said on Tuesday.

Hungary has already been building a 175-km razor wire fence on the Serbian boundary, across the main land route for migrants into the EU.

Nine Syrians and seven Afghans were detained by police and face possible imprisonment on suspicion of breaching the fence, the first arrests under the new rules.

At least 200,000 migrants have crossed into Hungary this year. More than 9,000 entered on Monday, setting a single-day record as they rushed to cross the frontier before Orban's government shut it.

It remains to be seen whether Hungary's new stance will curb the flow across the Balkans, or whether migrants will find other routes to the Schengen zone, possibly via Croatia or Romania.

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