German Border Checks Add Urgency to EU Refugee Debate

September 14, 2015 Updated: September 14, 2015

BRUSSELS—Migrants at Hungary’s crowded border crossings with Austria and Serbia faced fear and uncertainty Monday, as several European Union countries beefed up border controls in a precedent that could gut the bloc’s cherished principle of free movement among most of its nations.

While Hungarian police patrolled their border fence on horseback and workers uncoiled the razor-wire and steel mesh that would finish it, Austria, the Netherlands, the Czech Republic and Slovakia all rushed to join Germany in tightening border controls.

The efforts created significant pressure points as the flow of people fleeing violence at home and trekking through the Balkans showed no sign of abating.

“Hurry up! They’re letting us through!” some shouted in Arabic at a checkpoint near Roszke, Hungary, as police blocked a rail line where thousands had entered the country, funneling the migrants to waiting buses.

Elsewhere, bottlenecks developed at the Austrian border town of Nickelsdorf, where a police spokesman said a main highway had to be closed because up to 10,000 migrants were crossing in from Hungary. Germany’s border checks also caused traffic jams Monday as long as 20 kilometers (12 miles) on highways in Austria.

Faced with a full-on emergency, EU interior ministers sought a common stance on how to equitably relocate 160,000 refugees across much of the continent. Their effort was a test case to see whether there was enough unity between the bloc’s western and eastern members to contain the crisis.

“If we don’t find a solution, then this chaos will be the result,” said Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn of Luxembourg, which holds the EU presidency. “That will become a domino effect and then we can forget Schengen” — the open-border policy generally considered one of the greatest achievements of the EU.

Actors dressed with face masks of EU leaders, from left, British Prime Minister David Cameron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Francois Hollande and Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy pose for photographers in front of a refugee message board outside of EU headquarters in Brussels on Monday, Sept. 14, 2015. (AP Photo/Virginia Mayo)
Actors dressed with face masks of EU leaders, from left, British Prime Minister David Cameron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Francois Hollande and Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy pose for photographers in front of a refugee message board outside of EU headquarters in Brussels on Monday, Sept. 14, 2015. (AP Photo/Virginia Mayo)

After a deal was sealed to relocate 32,000 asylum seekers from Italy and Greece, EU ministers were working Monday on draft plans obtained by The Associated Press to spread some 120,000 more around Europe with “due regard” for flexibility among nations, a move that would gut an initial proposal to make the migrant quotas mandatory.

The EU ministers were also making it easier to decide on asylum claims and to detain rejected asylum seekers who refuse to leave the EU voluntarily.

German Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel defended the new checks on the German border, saying they were aimed at producing a more orderly flow of people. He also predicted that Germany alone would see at least 1 million asylum seekers this year, 200,000 more than a previous assessment, and demanded that other EU nations do more to help.

He called the checks a “clear signal” to our “European partners that Germany, even if we are prepared to provide disproportionate assistance, cannot accommodate all of the refugees alone.”

German police said they will conduct rolling checkpoints on major roads coming from Austria but will not check every vehicle and driver for passports.

Hungary, however, was introducing much harsher border controls at midnight — laws that could send smugglers to prison and deport migrants who cut under Hungary’s new razor-wire border fence. Hungary’s leader was emphatically clear that those moves were designed to keep migrants out.

“You have to defend Hungary and Europe. You have to defend the country’s borders while at the same time you have to protect our way of life. You are the defenders of our culture, our way of life and our sovereignty,” Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban told hundreds of police bound for the Serbian border at a ceremony in Budapest’s grand Heroes Square.

The talks in Brussels focused on the objections of at least four Eastern European nations who refused to be forced to take in any more people.

Friends Ibrahim,  Hamayoun and Nomi, from left,  refugees from Afghanistan, travel in  a special train to Dortmund, photographed  at the  central  train  station in Munich, Germany,  Friday Sept. 11, 2015. (Matthias Balk/dpa via AP)
Friends Ibrahim, Hamayoun and Nomi, from left, refugees from Afghanistan, travel in a special train to Dortmund, photographed at the central train station in Munich, Germany, Friday Sept. 11, 2015. (Matthias Balk/dpa via AP)

“We will accept the number of refugees that we can afford — not one more, not one less,” said Polish Prime Minister Ewa Kopacz.

The arrival of some 500,000 migrants this year — all trekking across Europe’s Balkan and eastern nations by train, bus or foot or across the Mediterranean and through Italy — has taken the EU by surprise.

Lacking a quick and comprehensive policy answer, EU nations have begun tightening border security or, in the case of Hungary, erecting fences. Greece is simply overwhelmed by the numbers of people coming across the sea from Turkey and cannot properly screen the migrants, let alone lodge them. Scuffles and fights have broken out among migrants on Greece’s eastern islands as they desperately seek food, shelter and a route to the mainland.

But if every nation starts setting up border checks again, that undermines a cornerstone of the EU. When trucks, planes and trains can whiz through the continent without checks it creates a unified EU spirit — something that long lines at highway border crossings and stalled trains near the frontier would quickly wipe away.

Still, whatever obstacles European nations put up, they pale next to the difficulties faced back home by those on the road in Europe.

Raed Waleed Abdullah, a 34-year-old Iraqi refugee walking into Hungary with his family, said Islamic State extremists had made life impossible for them at home. He sold his apartment and taxi in Mosul to raise $11,000 to pay smugglers to get his family across the Aegean Sea from Turkey, and they had been on the road for nine days.

“Every day, the Islamic State group was issuing new orders. The situation was terrible,” he told The Associated Press, speaking at Roszke. “I had no income, there was no electricity and they were forcing us to live according to their ways … (we) reject their harsh values.”

His wife, Hala Khalil, the mother of his three children, agreed.

“Those who refused to obey them (IS) would be thrown from tall buildings. They are inflicting so much suffering,” she said.

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