Endless procession has overwhelmed nations along migrant trail through Balkans prompting Hungary to seal its borders
VIENNA: Austria said on Wednesday it would build a fence along its border with fellow EU state Slovenia to “control” the migrant influx, in what would be the first barrier between two members of the passport-free Schengen zone.
Both countries have become key transit points for tens of thousands of refugees and migrants seeking to reach northern Europe, as they try desperately to outrun winter and get ahead of more potential EU border closures.
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The endless procession has overwhelmed nations along the migrant trail through the Balkans, already prompting Hungary — also an EU and Schengen member — to seal its southern borders with razor-wire fence.
Austria’s announcement is bound to intensify concerns about the EU’s cherished Schengen system, a crucial part of European integration efforts designed to encourage the free movement of people and goods.
But Interior Minister Johanna Mikl-Leitner insisted the planned barrier was “not about shutting down the border”. “This is about ensuring an orderly, controlled entry into our country. Also, a fence has a door,” she told Austrian media on Wednesday.
The move comes just days after EU leaders at an emergency Balkans summit warned that “unilateral actions could trigger a chain reaction”.
Refuting claims that Austria risked creating human bottlenecks, Mikl-Leitner pointed the finger at Germany, saying border police there processed “too few migrants”. She also implicitly criticised Chancellor Angela Merkel’s open-door policy.
“The fact is that the majority want to go to Germany, because they feel they have been invited,” Mikl-Leitner said. Germany, the EU’s economic powerhouse, is expecting up to one million asylum-seekers this year.
Its interior minister, Thomas de Maiziere, said Wednesday the rising number of Afghan asylum seekers was “unacceptable”, urging young Afghans to stay at home and rebuild their homeland.
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More than 700,000 migrants and refugees have already landed on Mediterranean shores so far this year, the majority escaping violence in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.
Big rifts have opened up between EU member states over how to handle Europe’s worst migration crisis since World War II.
The situation had the potential to create “tectonic changes” in Europe’s political landscape, EU President Donald Tusk warned Tuesday.
Few details have been released so far about Austria’s planned fence, which is set to run several kilometres either side of the Spielfeld border crossing, where thousands of migrants have arrived in recent weeks.
Mikl-Leitner — who last week said it was time to build “fortress Europe” — stressed on Wednesday the situation risked escalating as people were forced to wait in cold weather for hours before being allowed to cross from one nation into another.
“We know that individual groups of migrants have become more impatient, aggressive and emotional. If groups push from behind, with children and women stuck in between, you need stable, massive precautions,” said the conservative minister whose OeVP party is in a ruling national coalition with the Social Democrats.
Most migrants land first in Greece but, desperate to get to Germany and wealthier northern European countries, thousands have pushed on rather than staying there to have their asylum applications processed as is required under EU rules.
Hotspots like Serbia, Bulgaria and Romania warned last week they could follow Hungary’s example to avoid becoming “buffer zones”. Slovenia has also threatened to erect a barrier at its Croatian frontier if an EU action plan announced at Sunday’s Balkans summit failed to produce quick results in tackling the crisis.
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The tiny nation of two million has seen nearly 90,000 people pass through since mid-October when Budapest sealed its frontier with Croatia. “As a European I do not desire it but the state will be forced into it if the commitments (from Brussels) are not fulfilled,” he said.
As part of its 17-point action plan, the EU has pledged to send 400 police officers from other bloc members to Slovenia. It has also vowed to set up 100,000 places in reception centres in Greece and the Balkans.
On Tuesday, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker slammed EU member states for providing less than half of the guards pledged to the bloc’s Frontex border agency in migrant hotspots Greece and Italy. “Member states have been moving slowly at a time when they should be running,” he said.