Border clash intensifies criticism of Hungary’s crackdown

Rights groups sound alarm over Hungary’s new laws as migrants re-route to Croatia

A migrant girl is overcome by pepper spray and tear gas after Hungarian police repelled an attempt by migrants to break the border post gate. Photograph: Christopher Furlong/Getty

A migrant girl is overcome by pepper spray and tear gas after Hungarian police repelled an attempt by migrants to break the border post gate. Photograph: Christopher Furlong/Getty

 

Tension has soared on the Hungary-Serbia border as both countries sent additional security forces to the area, after clashes between migrants and Hungarian riot police.

Within minutes of the first violent scenes on the border, which Hungary closed in a crackdown on migrants this week, the country’s anti-terrorism forces were on the scene.

Last night, Hungarian military Humvees mounted with guns reportedly took up position in fields near the border. Serbia responded by deploying more police units to a frontier that is the major flashpoint in Europe’s migration crisis.

Hungary rejected international criticism of its stance against migrants, announcing that the border crossing with Serbia would stay closed for 30 days and that it would extend the fence along its frontier.

Prime minister Viktor Orban said that part of Hungary’s border with Croatia would also be closed with a four-metre-high security barrier that now runs the length of the 175km Hungary-Serbia border. Hungary also intends to extend the fence along part of its frontier with Romania – a move that prompted Romania to summon Budapest’s envoy for an explanation.

Tear gas

Women and children ran for cover and dozens of people gathered around a water pipe to wash away the stinging effect of the gas. “I was shocked to see how these refugees and migrants were treated. It’s not acceptable,” United Nations secretary general Ban Ki-moon said last night.

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“All the countries have their domestic problems, but since they are the people fleeing the wars and persecutions, then we must show our compassionate leadership . . . They must be treated with human dignity and human rights,” he added.

Hungarian spokesman Zoltan Kovacs blamed “armed mobs” of migrants for the clashes, accusing them of using children as “human shields” that they allegedly threw at police lines. At least 20 police officers and several migrants, including two children, were injured, Hungarian officials said.

Rights groups have expressed grave fears over tough new Hungarian laws that make it a criminal offence, punishable with several years in prison, to cross Hungary’s border without permission or to damage the fence on the frontier.

Hungary has also declared a state of emergency in two counties bordering Serbia – giving sweeping powers to the police – and it wants migrants to be kept in “transit zones” on the frontier where asylum requests would be processed within hours. Most such requests will be rejected, on the grounds that the applicant is arriving from Serbia, which Hungary deems to be safe for refugees.

People arrested for allegedly entering Hungary illegally or damaging border infrastructure will be tried in “fast-track” courts being established in a city near the Serbian frontier, and those convicted will be sent back to Serbia.

Poisoned relations

The Council of Europe’s secretary general, Thorbjorn Jagland, said yesterday he had “written to prime minister Orban to get an explanation of the new laws and the practices they have installed”.

Hungary’s recent moves have poisoned its relations with Serbia, which fears a humanitarian crisis if many thousands of migrants are trapped in the country as the winter approaches. Aleksandar Vulin, the Serbian minister in charge of migration issues, said Hungary had “no right” to use tear gas and water cannon on the frontier.

“This is being thrown across the border line, which no state has the right to do and because of that I protest in the strongest terms,” he said.

Hungary’s foreign minister Peter Szijjarto called on Serbia to take steps against “a group of very aggressive migrants [that] is persistently attacking Hungarian police with rocks and pieces of concrete.

“This attack is coming from Serbia, Serbian territory. Therefore, I firmly asked my Serbian colleague to call on Serbian authorities to act immediately against this aggressive group of migrants.”

Croatia joined the chorus of criticism against Budapest, as it welcomed the first few hundred migrants to switch routes and enter its territory from Serbia, to avoid the closed Hungarian border. “They will be able to pass through Croatia and we will help, we’re getting ready for that possibility,” said Croatian prime minister Zoran Milanovic. “I don’t approve of the policy of Budapest, I consider it harmful and dangerous.

“Not that the walls that are being erected will stop anyone, but they are also sending a horrible message. A fence in Europe in the 21st century is not an answer but a threat.”