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Thousands of lives hang in the balance as Hungary closes its borders

Hungary closed down a key border crossing from Serbia overnight on Monday, leaving thousands of migrants stranded. Hundreds of migrants spent the night in the open at the border crossing in Horgos after officials finished fortifying a 108-mile border fence preventing migrants from getting through to the European Union. On Tuesday, Hungary declared a state of emergency in the area, with hundreds of army and police force deployed to enforce new laws making it nearly impossible to enter the country without permission. Chaos ensued at the border, as hundreds of asylum seekers piled up at the crossing, and Serbian officials reacted with outrage. Police sealed a railway crossing point near Roszke which had been used by migrants to enter the European border-free Schengen zone.

The Hungarian government said the refugees will be allowed to claim asylum at two official border crossings, but warned that anyone trying to cross illegally will be forced to return as Hungary considers it to be a “safe country”. The move somehow managed to stop the influx of migrants. On Wednesday, Hungarian police reportedly detained 367 migrants entering illegally, and in response, first criminal proceedings have been launched. The EU’s border agency said more than 500,000 migrants crossed the EU’s border in 2015, compared with 280,000 in 2014. Many are fleeing conflict and poverty in countries including Syria, where a civil war has been raging since 2011. Half the country’s people are on the move, and more than 200,000 have died. The humanitarian crisis remains extremely challenging which is likely to pose further challenges, especially with the global situation at hand.

Hungary’s government also confirmed plans to extend its border fence with Serbia to its much longer border with Romania. Austria has officially notified the European Commission that it will temporarily reintroduce border controls with Hungary, Italy, Slovakia and Slovenia, following Germany’s lead by reinstating border controls to cope with the heavy influx of refugees. German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Germany’s decision to reintroduce border controls was necessary for an orderly regime. Poland confirmed it was considering similar action, while the Netherlands is increasing border patrols. Antonio Guterres, UN High Commissioner for Refugees, said that Hungary’s decision effectively to seal its border to refugees meant there was an immediate need to help Serbia cope the expected logjam.

Hungarian authorities took the extreme action after an unprecedented wave of migrants crossed the border from Serbia. A record 9,380 migrants crossed the border on Monday, nearly double the previous record of 5,809 migrants. The closing of the border left throngs of refugees stranded on the Serbian side. Until Monday, most of the flow poured into Schengen member Hungary and crossed into Austria to reach Germany. Migrants and refugees who are already in Serbia could either divert westwards, into Croatia, and then on into Slovenia and Austria to seek shelter, or head east through Romania and back into Hungary over its less heavily guarded border. Both countries are part of the European Union but are not in the Schengen zone, which means people must travel further to apply for the right to border-free movement.

The reintroduction of border controls also threatened to create an impulsive patchwork of complications and potential obstacles for migrants making their way through Europe to preferred destinations in places like Germany or Sweden, where benefits are greater and the processing of asylum applications moves faster. The desperation to reach such countries, even with border controls in place, has increasingly driven migrants and refugees into the wrong hands of the unscrupulous smugglers, leading recently to the deaths of 71 migrants who suffocated in the back of a truck on the outskirts of Vienna. The discovery came just as European leaders were meeting in a nearby place to devise new ways to cope with the migration crisis.

Meanwhile, EU leaders failed to agree on a modest plan that would force individual countries to take in a share of some of the hundreds of thousands seeking asylum in Europe. In light of the disharmony caused by Europe’s worst humanitarian crisis since World War II, interior ministers from across Europe gathered for an emergency meeting in Brussels to discuss the quota scheme, agreed to share 40,000 migrants sheltering in Greece and Italy following strong resistance from countries including Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic. The European Commission would endorse a new plan put in motion last week by Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, for a program of resettlement for a further 120,000 asylum seekers that would be compulsory among member states.