– Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban warned Friday that anyone trespassing his country’s border with Serbia starting next week will be “immediately arrested,” and slammed Greece for not doing enough to protect its frontiers.
“We will not courteously accompany them as [we have been doing] until now,” Orban said, as he spoke about tens of thousands of migrants and refugees who have already crossed over, and equal number who are moving across the Balkans towards Hungary.
“If Greece does not protect its borders, then we must do it,” he told reporters in Budapest.
Hungary is a key transit route for migrants and refugees – a majority of who are fleeing war in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan – who reach the Greek islands and mainland from Turkey, travel on to Macedonia and Serbia, and hope to cross Hungary to seek asylum in Western European countries.
A new law comes into effect in Hungary on Tuesday, making illegal border crossing a criminal act punishable by up to three years in prison. Cutting the newly erected fence carries up to five years.
The same day the government will decide on whether to declare a crisis situation because of the influx of thousands of mostly Middle Eastern refugees each day.
Hungarian Defence Minister Istvan Simicsko said 3,800 soldiers have been sent to accelerate the completion of a fence along the country’s 175-kilometre border with Serbia.
The first task is to complete the 4-metre-high fence, which currently extends along parts of the border, while the rest is secured by coils of razor wire.
Simicsko told TV2 channel that the army will help secure that frontier. “We need a stronger defence at the border, the fence alone is not enough,” he said.
On September 21, the Hungarian parliament will debate whether to allow the military to patrol the border alongside police.
Despite the menacing presence of the razor-wire barricade, the number of people crossing over from Serbia into Hungary has steadily grown in recent weeks – from 1,000 each day to 2,500-3,000 a day. On Thursday alone, 3,601 refugees were registered, setting a new daily high for the second consecutive day.
Orban has maintained a tough stance against migrants and refugees, saying his country does not want to take in Muslims.
But the mass movement of people has continued, in the cold and rain, by foot, in trains and buses, with thousands of men, women and children waiting in punishing conditions for permission to enter Macedonia from Greece and then find a ride to Tabanovce, 200 kilometres north on the Serbian border.
On Thursday, some 4,000 people made the trip north on trains, buses and taxis. But train drivers went on strike Friday and there may be no trains at all on Saturday to shuttle migrants, Sitel TV reported.
From Macedonia, the refugees typically trek across Serbia and reach the Hungarian fence in about two days.
“Since the start of the year, 116,000 refugees were registered, but we suspect that the number is at least twice as high,” UNHCR spokeswoman Melita Sunjic told dpa in Serbia.
She estimated that the reception centre in Presevo, on the border with Macedonia, can process 1,500 arrivals a day, but that many more have passed through the town.
“It can be said that a quarter-million people passed through Serbia this year,” Sunjic said. “We estimate that there are 12,000 refugees in Serbia at any given moment.”
Heavy rains and a sharp drop in temperatures on Thursday in Belgrade forced most of the refugees and migrants waiting for a ride to the Hungarian border to seek shelter elsewhere, as the two parks where they set makeshift camps turned into mud pools.
The long and arduous journey has taken its toll, particularly on children. Already suffering cuts, abrasion and wounds after walking for weeks, the change in weather means that worse is likely to come, doctors warned.
“More children are coming now with stomach infections that they catch along the way,” a Nis military hospital internist, Aleksandar Jovanovic, told Serbian state TV RTS.
“Apart from stomach problems, we saw skin and respiratory infections,” said Nevena Jovicic of the Belgrade University children’s clinic.
UNHCR says more than 80 per cent of the people crossing Serbia are Syrians fleeing war, with large numbers also of Iraqis and Afghans.
The Interior Ministry in Vienna said Friday that 16,000 refugees have crossed the Hungarian border into Austria. Most continued to Germany.
Austrian railway company OeBB has said that cross-border service between Hungary and Austria will remain suspended over the weekend because trains and train stations in eastern Austria have become overcrowded with arriving migrants en route to Germany.