Rick Lyman, New York Times, October 16, 2015
Hungary said on Friday that it would close its border with Croatia to migrants at midnight to control the flow of thousands of migrants and refugees across Europe.
The Hungarian foreign minister, Peter Szijjarto, told reporters in Budapest that his country was taking the action after completing construction of a razor-wire fence along the 216-mile border and because the European Union had yet to come up with a comprehensive plan to deal with the flow of migrants.
Hungary approved the plan to close the borders a day after European Union leaders agreed to improve border controls and backed a deal with Turkey intended to slow the influx of migrants into Europe.
A spokesman for the Croatian Interior Ministry, Domagoj Dzigumovic, said that there would be no change “for now” in his country’s practice of processing migrants and moving them toward the Hungarian border.
It was not clear if Croatia was testing Hungary’s resolve or if it had simply been caught off guard.
In a brief statement Friday after Hungary’s announcement, Croatian officials said the country had coordinated with Slovenia to create a new route for the migrants in the event Hungary closed its border. Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic of Croatia and his Slovenian counterpart, Miro Cerar, have been in close contact about the migrant situation, the governments said.
“In case the border is closed on the Hungarian side, Croatia will begin this plan in agreement and constant coordination with Slovenia,” the statement said.
Hungary closed its nearly 109-mile border with Serbia last month after more than 150,000 migrants entered the country from the West Balkans, en route to Germany and other destinations.
As a result, the migrant flow shifted west, into Croatia, and until now people have been allowed to register and cross the Hungarian border on their way to Austria and beyond.
Hungary’s move could shift the migrant flow even farther west, through Slovenia, which has been nervously preparing for that possibility.
Prime Minister Viktor Orban of Hungary has repeatedly called for a multinational European effort to intercept refugees at the Greek border rather than dealing with the influx piecemeal, at borders throughout the Balkans and Central Europe.
“The European Council meeting has not resulted in any decision that would provide for defending the common borders of the European Union with European forces,” said Mr. Szijjarto, the Hungarian foreign minister.
If Hungary follows the same policy it has put in place on the Serbian border, any refugees caught crossing the “green border” or tampering with the border fence would be arrested and subject to years in prison.
Official border crossings would remain open, but refugees seeking to cross would be sent to a transit center to begin the long process of applying for asylum. Hungary plans to open two transit centers along its border with Croatia.
Two transit centers are already in operation on Hungary’s border with Serbia, but only about 500 refugees have tried to use them, said Babar Baloch, a spokesman for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Hungary.
European leaders agreed at a summit meeting on Sept. 22 to spread 120,000 asylum seekers around Europe, even to countries that do not want them, and to set up “hot spots” to quicken the process of registering and moving migrants. But United Nations officials say the reception system continues to be overwhelmed.