Germany reinstates border controls following surge in refugee arrivals

A German policeman speaks to three Syrian refugees who were found in a car at the border crossing between Salzburg in Austria and Freilassing in Germany,  on Sunday.
A German policeman speaks to three Syrian refugees who were found in a car at the border crossing between Salzburg in Austria and Freilassing in Germany, on Sunday. PHOTO: EPA

FREILASSING (AFP) - Germany reintroduced border controls on Sunday (Sept 13) after admitting it could no longer cope with a record influx of migrants and refugees, raising the stakes ahead of a key EU meeting on sharing the burden of the crisis across the bloc.

Within hours of Berlin's shock announcement, German officers began carrying out the first passport checks near the border with Austria, an AFP journalist saw.

As night fell, police in fluorescent vests stopped all cars and pedestrians at the Freilassing crossing in Bavaria, with three Syrian migrants who were on foot told to remain on the side of the road.

The extraordinary scenes came on the eve of emergency talks on the crisis in Brussels, when interior ministers are expected to lock horns over the European Commission's controversial plan to spread migrants across the bloc.

Despite an outpouring of public sympathy for the plight of the refugees, many of whom are from Syria, several eastern European countries have already warned they will oppose any binding quotas on absorbing asylum seekers.

As the continent scrambles to respond to the biggest movement of people since World War II, Germany's dramatic reintroduction of border checks signalled a U-turn on Chancellor Angela Merkel's earlier decision to throw open the country's doors to Syrian refugees.

The renewed border checks effectively suspend Germany's participation in the bloc's borderless Schengen system, one of the cornerstones of the European integration project since it was created in the 1990s.

"The aim of this measure is to stop the current influx to Germany and to return to an orderly process," Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere said, as the city of Munich recorded an influx of 63,000 asylum seekers in two weeks.

Asylum seekers must understand "they cannot choose the states where they are seeking protection", he told reporters.

The German move was welcomed by Hungary's hardline Prime Minister Viktor Orban, whose own country is building a fence along its border with Serbia to keep migrants out.

"We understand that this decision was necessary in order to defend Germany's and Europe's values," he told Bild newspaper.

The Czech Republic said it would also boost security on the border with Austria.

The sudden developments came as tragedy struck again off the coast of Greece, with 34 more migrants - including four babies and 11 children - drowning when their overcrowded wooden boat capsized in high winds.

The image of hundreds of German police mobilising at the border piles on the pressure ahead of Monday's meeting of the bloc's interior and justice ministers on the EU plan to introduce compulsory quotas for refugees.

"The German decision of today underlines the urgency to agree on the measures proposed by the European Commission in order to manage the refugee crisis," the EU said.

While Germany and France back proposals to help "frontline" states Italy, Greece and Hungary, European Commission plans for sharing 160,000 new arrivals in a quota scheme are facing resistance from member states Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Romania.

Czech Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka insisted his country would never accept compulsory quotas, saying the system "won't work", while Slovakia said it would try to block any such binding measures.

Hungary, which reported a record 4,330 newcomers on Saturday alone, was working around the clock to finish a controversial anti-migrant fence on its frontier with Serbia by Tuesday (Sept 15), when tough new laws will take effect that mean anyone crossing illegally can be deported or even jailed.

Many migrants are now rushing to get to Hungary before the fence is completed. Those who miss the Tuesday deadline potentially face a mammoth detour around Hungary to Croatia or Romania.

For those already in Hungary, confusion reigned late Sunday over whether they would be able to get into Germany.

"I do not want to stay in Hungary," Mr Yusuf, a Syrian in his twenties, told AFP at a refugee transit camp in the border town of Roszke.

"If they take fingerprints, will they make us come back here?" he asked.

Under EU rules, the first country of entry is required to deal with an asylum seeker's request for protection, but Germany had waived the rule for Syrian refugees.

While earning praise for its welcoming stance, the German regional authorities have buckled under the sudden surge of migrants.

In Munich, overwhelmed local officials said they were stretched to capacity, with more than 13,000 migrants arriving in the city on Saturday alone.

"It is very clear that we have reached the upper limit of our capacity," said a Munich police spokesman.

Dr Merkel, whose country is taking in the lion's share of new arrivals, bluntly warned last month that the passport-free Schengen zone of 26 countries was under threat.

"If we don't arrive at a fair distribution then the issue of Schengen will arise - we don't want that," she said.

She and her French counterpart Francois Hollande discussed the latest developments by phone on Sunday evening. The two leaders "share the same evaluation of the current situation of the refugees", a spokesman for the German government said.

The 57-member Organisation of Islamic Cooperation meanwhile, in an emergency meeting on Sunday, urged the United Nations to consider a peacekeeping force for Syria to help stem the flow of people trying to reach Europe.

The International Organisation for Migration said Friday that more than 430,000 people have crossed the Mediterranean to Europe this year, with 2,748 dying en route or going missing.