German border checks add urgency to EU refugee debate

German border checks add urgency to EU refugee debate

Associated Press

BRUSSELS (AP) - Austria and Slovakia rushed Monday to join Germany in reintroducing border checks, putting even more pressure on European Union ministers meeting in Brussels to come up with a common strategy to handle Europe's unwieldy immigration crisis.

German Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel defended the new checks, saying they were not designed to keep those fleeing violence in their homeland out of Germany but were aimed at producing a more orderly flow of people. He also predicted, in a letter to his Social Democrat Party, that Germany alone would see at least 1 million asylum seekers this year - and demanded that other EU nations do more to help.

" (Border checks are) a "clear signal" to our "European partners that Germany, even if we are prepared to provide disproportionate assistance, cannot accommodate all of the refugees alone," he wrote.

Hungary, on the other hand, was set to introduce much harsher border controls at midnight - laws that would send smugglers to prison and deport migrants who cut under Hungary's new razor-wire border fence. The country's leader was emphatically clear that they were designed to keep the migrants out.

"You have to defend Hungary and Europe. You have to defend the country's borders while at the same time you have to protect our way of life. You are the defenders of our culture, our way of life and our sovereignty," Prime Minister Viktor Orban told hundreds of police bound for the Serbian border at a ceremony in Budapest's grand Heroes Square.

The Czech Republic boosted its presence along its border with Austria but did not yet reintroduce border checks.

With the Schengen system of unfettered travel through much of the continent under increasing pressure, interior ministers from the EU's 28 nations opened emergency talks, trying to narrow a yawning divide over how to share responsibility for the thousands of refugees arriving daily.

"If we don't find a solution, then this chaos will be the result," said Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn of Luxembourg, which holds the EU presidency. "That will become a domino effect and then we can forget Schengen" - generally considered one of the greatest achievements of the EU.

The talks focused on distributing 160,000 refugees from the front-line states of Greece, Italy and Hungary over the next two years - but at least four Eastern European nations have strongly rejected suggestions they should be forced to take in any more people.

"We will accept the number of refugees that we can afford - not one more, not one less," said Polish Prime Minister Ewa Kopacz.

The arrival of some 500,000 migrants this year - all trekking across Europe's eastern nations by train, bus or foot - has taken the EU by surprise. Germany, which has accepted the most people of any EU nation by far, warned Monday those figures could swell further.

Lacking a quick and comprehensive policy answer, EU nations have begun tightening border security or, in the case of Hungary, erecting fences. Greece is simply overwhelmed by the numbers of people coming across the sea from Turkey and cannot properly screen the migrants, let alone lodge them. Scuffles and fights have broken out among migrants on Greece's eastern islands as they desperately seek food, shelter and a route to the mainland.

But if every nation starts setting up border checks again, that undermines a cornerstone of the EU. When trucks, planes and trains can whiz through the continent without checks it creates a unified EU spirit. Long lines at highway border crossings and stalled trains near the frontier would quickly wipe that away.

Germany's border checks already caused traffic jams as long as 20 kilometers (12 miles) Monday on highways in Austria.

German police say they will conduct rolling checkpoints on major roads coming from Austria but will not check every vehicle and driver for passports.

"These controls are flexible in terms of where and when they will be in place. That means not all traffic crossing the border will be controlled," said Mathias Knott, a Bavarian police official speaking at the side of the major A8 highway connecting Salzburg, western Austria, with the German cities of Munich and Stuttgart.

On the German side of the A8 border crossing, officers placed warning lights and cones on the road and selected individual vehicles to be searched. On trains coming from Austria, German police were removing asylum seekers at the first German station reached and placing them on buses bound for refugee shelters nationwide.

Humanitarian groups have been deeply critical of the slow European response to the crisis.

"Bear in mind that the decisions adopted in previous summits have so far largely failed to improve the situation," Doctors Without Borders President Joanne Liu said in a letter to EU leaders.


Pablo Gorondi and Shawn Pogatchnik in Budapest, Hungary, contributed.

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