Hungary rushes to complete anti-migrant barrier

Migrant children stand on railways close to a migrant collection point in Roszke, Hungary on Sept 12, 2015.
Migrant children stand on railways close to a migrant collection point in Roszke, Hungary on Sept 12, 2015.PHOTO: REUTERS

RÖSZKE, Hungary (AFP) - "This needs to be finished today," the exhausted police officer says as rain lashes down, pointing to a 400-metre stretch of the anti-migrant fence Hungary is rushing to erect along its southern border.

"Starting September 15, every person who crosses the fence will be imprisoned," he said, his face hollowed with fatigue in the fog and cold of the early morning.

The four-metre-high barrier being built along Hungary's 175km border with Serbia is aimed at stopping the several thousand migrants who enter Hungary - and therefore the EU - every night.

With 175,000 having crossed this year, it is one of a raft of measures - many of them highly controversial - announced by Hungary's rightwing Prime Minister Viktor Orban in an effort to stem the flow.

But the fence is behind schedule. On Monday, Orban's dissatisfaction with the slow pace prompted the defence minister to resign. His successor has pledged to speed things up.

Last month, Hungary completed the first stage of the barrier, piling up three coils of razorwire along the length of the frontier which has done little to halt the influx.

But the main part has yet to be finished.

Almost 4,000 soldiers have been drafted in to get the barrier ready, and prisoners have also been brought from a nearby jail to help, rolling out barbed wire, dressed in neon vests as they trudged through the mud, an AFP correspondent said.

"Everybody must be prepared to work hard in the coming weeks," the Hungarian leader said recently.

Together with Greece and Italy, ex-communist Hungary has become a "frontline" state in Europe's refugee crisis, with people crossing from Greece into Macedonia then passing through Serbia before reaching the Hungarian border.

Even though they all want to travel on to western Europe via neighbouring Austria, overstretched Hungarian authorities are trying to take the new arrivals to camps for registration.

But this has caused huge frustration, with hundreds of migrants breaking through police lines, thousands stuck at Budapest's main international train station and large crowds ending up walking towards Austria.

Hungary has also come under fire after video footage showed guards at a holding camp hurling food into a packed crowd, with a volunteer saying it was like feeding "animals in a pen".

Another clip showed a Hungarian camerawoman tripping and kicking refugees as they tried to escape police, including a man carrying a young child. She was later fired.

Hungary's parliament has also passed a raft of tough new laws that will take effect on Tuesday, meaning anyone crossing the border illegally can be deported or even jailed.

"From September 15, the rules are changing in Hungary, if you cross the border illegally, you will be immediately arrested by the authorities," Orban said on Friday.

The UN refugee agency has warned that criminalising illegal border crossings could violate the UN Convention on Refugees if it involved asylum seekers.

Later this month, parliament will also vote on beefing up the police and army powers, including giving troops the authorisation to use weapons in "emergency situations".

But Orban, 52, has staunchly defended himself, saying that Hungary is merely fulfilling its legal obligations as a member of the Schengen passport-free zone with an exterior border.

In an interview with Germany's Bild published Saturday, he blamed German Chancellor Angela Merkel's decision to relax asylum laws for causing a "revolt" among migrants in Hungary.

"Before, our authorities had the situation under control, even if it was tough. Once the German announcement was made... chaos broke out," he said, accusing European leaders of "living in a dream world".

"The influx is endless: from Pakistan, Bangladesh, Mali, Ethiopia, Nigeria. If they are all going to come here, then Europe is going to go under," he said.

"Immigration will mean that in the foreseeable future Muslims will be in the majority in Europe."