One of the main routes used by refugees to reach the safety of the European Union clanged shut on Tuesday, when Hungary formally closed its border with Serbia, finished fortifying a long-promised border fence, and blocked off a pathway that has brought more than 160,000 people into northern Europe since the start of the year.
Crowds built through the morning as some sat in fields, halted by a razor-wire fence, while others pressed against gates demanding passage. Under new rules that took effect from midnight, Hungary, which also declared a state of emergency in two southern counties, said anyone who tried to break through the fence would face jail and those seeking asylum at the Serbian border would automatically be turned back.
As tension between the two countries grew, the Serbian government said it was talking to Hungary about the build-up of people and believed Budapest would have to open the border. “Europe has to find a solution fast before the situation escalates even further. This border crossing, one of the main ones in Europe, has to remain open,” said social affairs minister, Aleksandar Vulin, at the border.
Meanwhile, the Serbian foreign minister, Ivica Dačić, visiting Prague, said Belgrade considered the idea of returning refugees to the country unacceptable.
“The idea of returning all migrants to Serbia, with others flowing in from Greece and Macedonia, is unacceptable, because we would then become the centre of arrivals … Serbia cannot handle this.”
The Hungary-Serbia border was formally closed at midnight and shortly after around 100 people, mostly from Syria and Afghanistan, were turned back from the legal land crossing in Horgos. Earlier, police had wheeled a train carriage across a set of nearby disused railway tracks, which for weeks had been left open to allow refugees to walk unhindered into the EU.
Hungarian police said 174 people had been detained under the new laws, including 16 claiming to be Syrian and Afghan migrants, who were held for illegally crossing the Serbian border fence. A spokeswoman said they were suspected of lifting the razor wire fence to get into Hungary.
Hungarian authorities said they had ruled on 16 asylum requests under the new border regime and rejected all within a matter of hours.
On the main road connecting Serbia and Hungary, in the no man’s land between Röszke and Horgos, a group of people staged a sit-in protest, saying they would refuse food and water until they were allowed to cross into Hungary.
Hungary, however, showed no sign of relaxing its stance and said it had decided to begin preparatory work for the construction of a fence along its border with Romania if there was a change in refugee routes.