Hungary sounds the alarm about new front in EU's migrant crisis
By Krisztina Than
BICSKE, Hungary (Reuters) - It's a long way from the beaches of Greece and Italy where shipwrecked migrants drag themselves ashore, but in the fields of Hungary a migration crisis is playing out that in its scale is no less dramatic than the scenes in the Mediterranean.
In the first six months of this year, the number of migrants crossing into the European Union via Hungary's border with Serbia reached at least 61,000, overtaking even the number arriving in Italy.
In recognition of the new front in Europe's migrant crisis, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban - a man regularly greeted as "dictator" by the European Commission chief - was allowed this week to opt out of an EU deal on taking in migrants.
"People hate Viktor Orban on human rights. But on this, he has a good point," said one EU official close to talks on migration among EU heads of government that dragged into the early hours of Friday. The summit also committed to organizing a major conference to look at migration in the western Balkans.
"This does not involve people on boats or on beaches and so it gets less media attention," said a senior EU official closely involved in the negotiations. "But it is a serious problem."
Still, critics of Orban at home say that while the crisis is real, with a third of the EU's new asylum seekers registering in Hungary this year, he has played it up to appeal to anti-immigrant sentiment among his supporters and to try to rescue his dwindling popularity.
Orban has ordered the construction of a fence on the Hungarian-Serbian border to keep illegal migrants out, he has threatened to pull out of EU rules on accepting asylum seekers, and his government has put up billboards warning migrants they have to fit in with Hungarian culture.
EU rules theoretically can allow asylum seekers to be sent back to the country where they first entered the bloc, although so far only small numbers have been transferred under this rule.
Orban's chief of staff on Thursday said other EU states were preparing to transfer 200,000 migrants to Hungary by the end of this year, but the government has not spelled how this could happen under any existing or planned program.
This week's EU deal involves resettling 60,000 migrants across the entire bloc and explicitly exempts Hungary from taking them. Another program allows migrants to be sent back to the first EU state they set foot in, but the numbers sent back to Hungary under that scheme have been in the hundreds.
Marta Pardavi, co-chair of Hungary's Helsinki Committee, a human rights group that works with migrants, said Orban's focus was not on finding a practical solution to Europe's migrant crisis but going it alone by taking drastic measures, and on appealing to disaffected voters.
"We do see that the messages the government and Mr Orban are voicing are resonating with the public," she said. "Xenophobia is certainly on the rise."
The town of Bicske, a 40 minute drive west of Budapest, is temporary home for some of Hungary's migrants.
On the outskirts of the town, next to a large Tesco supermarket, is a camp for asylum seekers. On the roadside nearby is a large billboard with a message, in Hungarian: "If you come to Hungary you must respect our laws."
People coming out of the camp on Thursday said it was full to over-flowing. They said people were sleeping in tents and in the camp's sports hall. One man said he had to share a room with 11 other people. Another man, a 20-year-old called Muslim, said he had come to Europe to escape the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Some local residents view the new arrivals with suspicion.
"They should just go home," said Andras, who was shopping at a Tesco supermarket. "We're not rich here either."
Migration officials say most of those arriving in Hungary make the sea crossing to Greece, then travel overland into Macedonia, then Serbia, and across into Hungary along the border where Orban plans to build a fence.
According to Frontex, the agency responsible for guarding the EU's external borders, the numbers recorded crossing the Serbia-Hungary border in May this year were up 880 percent on the same period last year.
Hungarian officials say they are overwhelmed.
"We cannot give them blankets and beds. We have even run out of tents," said Lajos Kosa, vice president of Hungary's governing Fidesz party.
He denied the government was seeking political gain. "We are driven by the country's interests," he said.
The vast majority of migrants who enter Hungary don't stay.
Instead, they head as soon as possible to the border with Austria and on to destinations further north.
At the end of last year, Hungary had 8,551 resident refugees or asylum seekers, or 0.18 percent of its population, according to the United Nations. By contrast, the number for Sweden, a favored destination for migrants, was 226,158, or 2.3 percent of the population.
Arpad Szep, a director at the Hungarian government's immigration office, said of the 60,000 applications for asylum this year, more than 50,000 cases were dropped because the applicants had disappeared.
"A significant number of them don't arrive at the reception centers, so we assume that they leave the country within 24 hours of submitting the asylum application," he said.
For most of the migrants who pass the time by trudging to the Tesco store from their camp in Bicske, the town was just a stopping-off point.
Adeel Mushtaq, a 26-year-old Pakistani, said most of his fellow camp residents were preparing to head on to Germany, Italy, or Austria.
Another man, who gave his name as Hakaan, said he wants to catch a train to Italy. "Here it's not good," he said.
(Additional reporting by Sandor Peto in BUDAPEST, Shadia Nasralla in VIENNA, Alastair Macdonald in BRUSSELS, Sevrin Thorsten in BERLIN and Isla Binnie in ROME; Writing by Christian Lowe; Editing by Peter Graff)