said on Friday that it would close its border with Croatia to migrants at midnight to control the flow of thousands of migrants and refugees across Europe
The Hungarian foreign minister, Peter Szijjarto, told reporters in Budapest
that his country was taking the action after completing construction of a razor-wire fence along the 216-mile border and because the European Union had yet to come up with a comprehensive plan to deal with the flow of migrants.
Speaking after a meeting of the Hungarian national security committee, Mr. Szijjarto said the government had told Croatia, as well as Austria
, Slovakia and Slovenia, about its decision to seal the border.
Hungary approved the plan to close the borders a day after European Union leaders agreed to improve border controls and backed a deal with Turkey
intended to slow the influx of migrants into Europe.
Aid groups and refugee officials have warned that the closing of any borders between Greece
, where many of the migrants first enter Europe, and their intended destinations in Germany, Sweden
or elsewhere will quickly cause a backup of migrants at borders along the West Balkan route. That would lead to new encampments of stranded migrants behind blocked borders, as happened over the summer.
A spokesman for the Croatian Interior Ministry, Domagoj Dzigumovic, said that there would be no change “for now” in his country’s practice of processing migrants and moving them toward the Hungarian border.
It was not clear if Croatia was testing Hungary’s resolve or if it had simply been caught off guard.
In a brief statement Friday after Hungary’s announcement, Croatian officials said the country had coordinated with Slovenia to create a new route for the migrants in the event Hungary closed its border. Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic of Croatia and his Slovenian counterpart, Miro Cerar, have been in close contact about the migrant situation, the governments said.
“In case the border is closed on the Hungarian side, Croatia will begin this plan in agreement and constant coordination with Slovenia,” the statement said.
Hungary closed its nearly 109-mile border with Serbia last month after more than 150,000 migrants entered the country from the West Balkans, en route to Germany and other destinations.
As a result, the migrant flow shifted west, into Croatia, and until now people have been allowed to register and cross the Hungarian border on their way to Austria and beyond.
Hungary’s move could shift the migrant flow even farther west, through Slovenia, which has been nervously preparing for that possibility.
Slovenia has estimated that it can accommodate the passage of as many as 6,000 migrants a day, as long as Austria and Germany continue to accept them. A meeting of the Slovenian national security council was called as soon as Hungary announced its move Friday afternoon.
Mr. Cerar told reporters in Brussels
on Friday that his country had been preparing intensely for another wave of migrants and that it was “ready to face the challenge.”
Slovenia has built 12 reception centers around the country, with up to 7,500 beds, but it has warned that it cannot accommodate an endless flow of tens of thousands of migrants.
Slovenian officials said they had discussed with their Hungarian counterparts a potential change in the migrant route for at least two weeks.
Hungary seemed to have decided to close the border for two reasons: It finally finished construction of the fence along the Croatian frontier but, more crucially, Hungarian leaders were unsatisfied by the result of a European Council summit on Thursday in Brussels, where leaders agreed on a plan to address the migration crisis.
For months, Budapest has complained that the failure of Greece, the migrants’ initial entry point, to control the human flow has shifted the burden to Hungary and other European Union nations.
Prime Minister Viktor Orban of Hungary has repeatedly called for a multinational European effort to intercept refugees at the Greek border rather than dealing with the influx piecemeal, at borders throughout the Balkans and Central Europe.
“The European Council meeting has not resulted in any decision that would provide for defending the common borders of the European Union with European forces,” said Mr. Szijjarto, the Hungarian foreign minister.
If Hungary follows the same policy it has put in place on the Serbian border, any refugees caught crossing the “green border” or tampering with the border fence would be arrested and subject to years in prison.
Official border crossings would remain open, but refugees seeking to cross would be sent to a transit center to begin the long process of applying for asylum. Hungary plans to open two transit centers along its border with Croatia.
Two transit centers are already in operation on Hungary’s border with Serbia, but only about 500 refugees have tried to use them, said Babar Baloch, a spokesman for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Hungary.
“If they are going to do it the way they have been doing it with the Serbian border, it will mean that no more migrants will be allowed through,” Mr. Baloch said. “This is not going to end the crisis or the number of people who are trying to seek safety in Europe. It may reroute the population somewhere else, but this is not the final answer.”
United Nations officials in Geneva have said that Europe needs to act quickly to develop reception centers and accelerate the relocation of asylum seekers, as its refugee agency on the Greek island of Lesbos
is struggling with a surge in migrants crossing the narrow waterway between the island and Turkey.
European leaders agreed at a summit meeting on Sept. 22 to spread 120,000 asylum seekers around Europe, even to countries that do not want them, and to set up “hot spots” to quicken the process of registering and moving migrants. But United Nations officials say the reception system continues to be overwhelmed.
“This is not a crisis at the moment that is adequately managed,” Adrian Edwards, a spokesman for the United Nations refugee agency, said in Geneva
. “What’s needed is rapid implementation of what has been agreed.”
About 85 boats landed on Lesbos on Wednesday, and similar numbers arrived on Thursday and Friday, according to representatives of the refugee agency. They reported seeing up to six boats arriving at a time, most of them rubber dinghies carrying about 50 people each.
The refugee agency temporarily evacuated the registration facilities at Moria, outside the island’s capital, Mitilini, after an outbreak of violence among the thousands of refugees, including families with young children, who line up there, sometimes for days.
“The level of anxiety and tension was very high, and things got out of control,” said Ron Redmond, a refugee agency official, by telephone from Greece.
To relieve the congestion and overcrowding at Moria, the authorities have suspended bus transfers for the hundreds of refugees landing daily on the north coast, about 70 miles away, leaving around 4,000 of the latest arrivals stuck in spartan waiting areas.
More than 450,000 refugees and migrants have reached Greece by boat this year, Mr. Edwards said, adding that Europe must act quickly to set up proper reception centers.
“If it doesn’t work, and it doesn’t work quickly, refugees and migrants will take matters into their own hands and continue to move via irregular channels,” he added.
The reasons for the current spike in arrivals are unclear, but Mr. Edwards cited a slight improvement in weather, and a rush to reach Europe before winter sets in or its borders close.