Many migrants crossed Eastern Europe, including Hungary, at the height of the so-called refugee crisis | Photo: Picture-alliance
Many migrants crossed Eastern Europe, including Hungary, at the height of the so-called refugee crisis | Photo: Picture-alliance

The governments of both Austria and Hungary have issued firm statements following Turkish announcements that it has opened its borders to allow migrants and refugees on towards the EU. Both Austria and Hungary say they will defend their borders to prevent a repeat of what happened in 2015 when hundreds of thousands of migrants and refugees entered the EU via the Balkan route.

"There will be no waving them [migrants] through at the border," said Austria’s Interior Minister Karl Nehammer in statements to Austrian media. His response followed Turkey’s announcement that it would open its borders for migrants and refugees to leave its territory and make their way towards the EU.

The news agency Reuters added that Nehammer explained that any attempt to rush the Austrian borders would be "stopped" if "measures to halt [migrants] in Greece and through the Balkans first fail."

Hungary to protect its borders

"Hungary has assured us that it will protect its borders as best it can, like Croatia’s," Nehammer told the Austrian state broadcaster ORF. Reuters reported that, when asked by ORF what he would do if migrants leaving Turkey were to get to the Austrian borders, Nehammer answered simply, "they must be stopped."

Nehammer is a member of the governing conservative ÖVP party Österreicher Volkspartei, led by Chancellor Sebastian Kurz. Kurz has always pledged to prevent a repeat of what happened in 2015. In 2016, when Kurz himself was foreign minister, he helped coordinate border restrictions along the Balkan route in order to stem the numbers of people reaching Austria from Greece.

A Hungarian police officer patrols the temporary border fence along the Hungarian-Serbian border near Roszke | Photo: EPA/ZOLTAN GERGELY KELEMANControls along the Balkan route

According to Reuters, both men have indicated they would be prepared to do the same again this time. "The second safety net," said Nehammer "and here the Austrian security services have a lot of previous experience, is close cooperation and also support, whether that be financial, material or in terms of personnel, with countries along the [migrants'] escape route."

Kurz reiterated this point saying that his government was in "constant contact with our partners in the EU and along the western Balkan route." Although his government is now in coalition with the left-wing Green party which, on entering government had a differing approach to migration, the Greens are minority partners and the messages coming from the new government have maintained much of Kurz' 'firm' approach to migration and border control. Something which has led some political analysts to criticize the Greens for "enabling anti immigration policies."Prime Minister Kurz (in front) hopes to clamp down on irregular migration while his deputy, Green Party leader Werner Kogler, espouses less radical views on migration | Photo:  Reuters/L. Foeger

'Extra police to control the EU external borders'

Kurz told Reuters that Austria would be ready to send "extra police to countries on the border," with Turkey including Greece and Bulgaria, in order to help defend the EU's external borders.

Kurz's sentiments were echoed in neighboring Hungary. According to the news agency AFP, Hungary declared on Sunday that it was going to "halt entry to its border 'transit zone' camps for asylum seekers over coronavirus fears." AFP quoted Gyorgy Bakondi, an adviser to Prime Minister Viktor Orban: "We are seeing a certain link between the coronavirus and illegal immigrants," he told a press conference.Most migrants are kept at Hungary's so-called "transit zones" along the Serbian border until their asylum applications are reviewed

Hungary halts entry

According to Bakondi, the majority of migrants now trying to enter the EU come from Afghanistan, the Palestinian territories or Iran and may have crossed Iran, one of the new 'hotspots' of the coronavirus on their way to Hungary. Bakondi added that these measures were being taken "in the interests of protecting the 321 people waiting for a decision on their asylum applications who are already inside [the transit zone]."

The human rights organization the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, which advocates for refugee rights, said however that Hungary's announcement had "effectively shut down access to asylum." Bakondi said though that Hungary's message to those hoping to cross Hungarian territory was: "The road down not lead here, it’s not worth trying this way."

On February 29, Reuters reported that Prime Minister Orban convened a special meeting of his security cabinet following a telephone call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. "Hungary must strengthen the protection of its borders and pay special attention to developments on the Balkan migration route," Orban said.

Zoltan Kovacs, Hungary's State Secretary for international communication and relations, posted a video on Facebook on Saturday, according to the English language online newspaper Hungary Today. In it he reiterated the government message that Hungary was prepared to "pursue all measures that protect the border and the Hungarian people."

•••• ➤ Also read: Hungary's slow descent into xenophobia, racism and human rights abuses

•••• ➤ Also read: UN special rapporteur slams Hungary's treatment of migrants

 

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