Hungarian police positioned nearby watch as Syrian migrants climb under a fence to enter Hungary at the Hungarian-Serbian border near Roszke, Hungary August 26, 2015. Hungary's government has started to construct a 175-km-long (110-mile-long) fence on its border with Serbia in order to halt a massive flow of migrants who enter the EU via Hungary and head to western Europe. REUTERS/Laszlo Balogh TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Syrian migrants climb under a fence to enter Hungary at the Hungarian-Serbian border near Roszke, Hungary © Reuters

Long-simmering tensions between Europe’s east and west over how to handle a massive influx of migrants burst back into the open after Chancellor Angela Merkel on Monday warned Germany’s eastern neighbours that the bloc’s prized passport-free zone was at risk unless they shouldered more of the burden.

Hundreds of thousands of migrants, including many fleeing the war-torn Middle East, have crossed the Mediterranean and Aegean in recent months to seek refuge in the EU, with their ultimate destination often the economically prosperous north.

But the mass movement has strained Europe’s existing arrangements on migration, inflamed the politics of immigration, raised doubts over maintaining open-borders, and prompted fraught debate over creating a system for routinely sharing refugees.

Ms Merkel rebuked eastern European states reluctant to accept Muslim asylum seekers and cast the refugee crisis as a test of the union’s founding values.

“I believe that our values in Europe are based on the dignity of every individual, without starting to say — ‘we don’t want Muslims, we are a Christian land’,” she said.

Warning that the passport-free Schengen Area was at risk if the EU could not agree a fair distribution of refugees, Ms Merkel called on Europe to collectively accept responsibility for hosting refugees.

Yet with a special summit of interior ministers just a fortnight away, the EU appeared increasingly at odds. Slovak prime minister Robert Fico on Monday strongly rejected criticism from western EU capitals, accusing other European leaders of not “telling the truth” about the background of the majority of migrants.

“Ninety-five per cent of these people are economic migrants . . . We will not assist this foolish idea of accepting anybody regardless of whether or not they are economic migrants,” he said.

Strains from the crisis were evident on Monday along Hungary’s border with Austria, a thoroughfare for thousands of migrants. Claiming the controls were consistent with passport-free travel, Austria introduced traffic spot-checks causing long tailbacks — part of its response to the deaths of 71 migrants who suffocated in a lorry on the Vienna-Budapest highway.

Hundreds of migrants also boarded overcrowded trains bound for Vienna and Munich at Budapest rail stations on Monday, as frustration among thousands camped in the city appeared to prompt an easing of controls by Hungarian authorities.

Budapest Keleti station has become a makeshift refugee camp for thousands of migrants in effect trapped in Hungary by stringent passport checks on western-bound trains. Many seek covert means of reaching Austria, by car or lorry. Crowds confronted police at the station on Saturday, chanting “Let us go!”

Police guarding the trains on Monday allowed hundreds of migrants, many of them without passports or visas, to board the carriages. By early afternoon, Austrian authorities had given orders to halt two trains at Hegyeshalom, a Hungarian town near the Austrian border, citing reports of “overcrowding”.

Hungary has struggled to deal with more than 140,000 migrants who have entered the country this year despite a contentious 175km razor-wire fence built to seal its southern border.

Laurent Fabius, France’s foreign minister, singled Budapest out for criticism on Sunday, blasting as “scandalous” the response of central and eastern European countries to the migrant crisis.

Hungarian officials dismissed Mr Fabius’ “ignoble” slurs over what they see as legal means to protect the EU’s external borders. “It’s strange that French authorities are criticising the border fence when they are building their own wall at Calais,” said Levente Magyar, state secretary at the ministry of foreign affairs.

Germany expects to receive 800,000 asylum seekers this year, a fourfold increase in arrivals equivalent to about 1 per cent of its population. The numbers are confronting Ms Merkel with one of her most serious domestic political crises, with public resources under strain and the far right mounting a violent backlash.

The chancellor has sought to steer Germany’s debate over refugees and immigration in a liberal direction, challenging the far right while recasting Germany as “ein Einwanderungsland” — a country of immigration.

“The world sees Germany as a land of hope and opportunities. That hasn’t always been the case,” she said.

Additional reporting by Henry Foy in Warsaw

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