Experimental feature

Listen to this article

Experimental feature

For weeks it was an unofficial gateway to Europe for thousands of migrants, a single rail track running rough the fields of Serbia into Hungary. Nine thousand passed through it on Monday alone.

On Tuesday, it was closed, a rusting goods truck hauled into place to block it, covered with coils of razor wire, linked to a new chain link fence on either side.

The closure of the track at Roszke was a powerful symbol of sweeping anti-migrant laws imposed by Hungary, condemned by rights groups as draconian.

The laws, in effect, choked off the flow of refugees, closing, for now at least, the main route into the EU through the Balkans.

At two Roszke road crossings the story was the same. Arrivals from the Serbian border town of Horgos were met by heavy iron border gates locked shut and a line of Hungarian riot police, arms locked, blocking the road beyond.

Ali, a 19-year-old from Pakistan, admitted that his country was not at war but said he had spent $7,000 on a four-month journey raised by selling his father’s land.

He aimed to find a job in Germany and send money home to provide a better life for his family.

Marta Pardavi, co-chair of Hungary’s Helsinki committee, a human rights group that works with migrants, said: “It has become very clear that what the Hungarian prime minister said months ago, that migrants should not come here, this is exactly what is being done.

“Hungary is not allowing refugees to come into the country.”

Speaking to journalists through the razor wire at Roszke, Ferenc Gyurcsany, a former prime minister and now an opposition leader, said the measures brought “shame” on Hungary.

But insisting that it is facing not just a migrant crisis but a “rebellion”, the government of premier Viktor Orban on Tuesday declared a state of emergency in two counties on the border with Serbia — the EU’s external border. The move could pave the way to bringing in Hungary’s military to patrol the frontier.

Mr Orban used a television interview to insist that Hungary was protecting its own and Europe’s “way of life” against a flood of immigrants, many of whom were not fleeing in fear of their lives.

Reforms to Hungary’s migration laws make it a criminal offence to enter the country without authorisation, or to damage or climb under or over the 3 metre (10ft) high fence that now runs the length of the 175km (110 mile) border with Serbia.

Though countries including Germany and Austria had already introduced border restrictions, Hungary’s effective closure of the EU border will have knock-on effects right along the migrant chain.

The move brought speculation that refugees would find new routes through neighbouring Croatia to Slovenia, or via Romania — opening new fronts in the migrant crisis.

But many refugees blocked at Horgos said they planned to stay put.

Rua, a 17-year-old student from Damascus, who lived in Jordan for three years before heading across Turkey towards Europe three weeks ago, queued for bedding rolls and blankets yards from the border gate.

She and her twin brother Omran would “sleep on the road tonight”, Rua said.

At a nearby motorway border crossing, more than a thousand migrants milled around, some erecting tents on a roadway that forms part of a trans-European highway running from Greece to the Baltic Sea.

Ali also said he would stay put until the border opened. “We have got to get there [Germany],” he said.

Migrants and agencies said Hungary was now turning away travellers from Afghanistan, Pakistan and other countries, saying they should return to neighbouring Serbia — which Budapest has designated a “safe” country.

Ms Pardavi said a small number of Syrians who had been admitted to Hungary on Tuesday for promised “fast-track” processing of asylum claims had been sent back to Serbia on the same grounds.

Lawyers from the Helsinki Group were planning to help some families appeal against the decisions.

While there was little violence at the border on Tuesday, some agencies have warned that tensions could fray as thousands are stranded in the open.

Amnesty International warned that by, in effect, closing its borders, Hungary was “showing the ugly face of Europe’s shambolic response to the growing refugee crisis”.

Additional reporting by Kester Eddy in Roszke

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.

Follow the topics mentioned in this article

Follow the authors of this article