VIENNA - The hunt for people smugglers led to a security crackdown and massive tailbacks on Austria’s border with Hungary on Monday, as Europe struggled to present a united front on the huge influx of migrants and refugees.
Austria’s tightened security followed the discovery of 71 dead migrants, four of them children, in an abandoned lorry near the border with Hungary last week.
Since the checks on vehicles began late on Sunday, more than 200 migrants have been picked up and five suspected people smugglers arrested.
Trains carrying hundreds of migrants arrived in Vienna from Budapest, police said late Monday, after they had been stopped at the Austrian border with Hungary for several hours.
After arriving at Vienna’s Westbahnhof, many of the migrants, most of them without visas, boarded a train to Salzburg, while others climbed on to another one headed for Munich, with police looking on, an AFP correspondent at the scene said.
“I’m going to Germany!” cried one grinning migrant from Afghanistan standing by the doors of a packed train, munching on a banana and holding half a watermelon.
Much-flouted EU rules stipulate that refugees should be processed in the first country they reach, but Hungary says it cannot deal with the influx. The chaos and piecemeal responses have been reflected across Europe as the continent struggles to cope with the biggest movement of people since World War II, with more than 300,000 arriving this year.
Most are fleeing war, persecution and hardship in the Middle East and Africa, and at least 2,500 have died trying to make the treacherous journey across the Mediterranean Sea. Austria has called for EU funding for states refusing to take their share of migrants to be cut, in the latest sign of deepening divisions over the crisis.
EU interior ministers will meet on September 14 in Brussels in a bid to “strengthen the European response”. “If Europe fails on the question of refugees, if this close link with universal civil rights is broken, then it won’t be the Europe we wished for,” said German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Monday. She implicitly criticised countries including Slovakia that have said they would reject migrants from majority Islamic countries, saying: “if we start saying ‘I do not want Muslims’ ... that cannot be good”.
Her comments echoed those of French Prime Minister Manuel Valls in the French port of Calais, who said “too many countries are refusing to play their part. It goes against the European spirit and we can’t accept it.”
Valls said that by early 2016, France would build a new reception camp for migrants in Calais, with the help of five million euros from the European Commission.
Polish Prime Minister Ewa Kopacz said Monday the country could increase the number of refugees it is willing to accept. The central European powerhouse of 38 million people initially agreed to accept 2,200 refugees to ease the burden on Italy and Greece but then resisted German calls for a more even distribution of asylum-seekers within the EU.
Most of the migrants land in Italy or Greece, then make for the wealthier countries of northern Europe. “We are in a labyrinth, going from queue to queue, and here in Serbia, the police are shouting at us like we are animals,” Samar, 40, from Damascus, told AFP as she waited with her two teenage boys for hours in the sun at a filthy camp in Presevo. Transit countries in eastern Europe and the Balkans are struggling to cope. Two weeks ago, Macedonia declared a state of emergency after a surge of people across its border with Greece.
The right-wing government in Hungary, which has seen 50,000 new arrivals this month, has laid razor wire along its border with Serbia to try keep migrants out, and is also building a four-metre (13 feet) fence to be policed by border guards and sniffer dogs.
Meanwhile, a boat carrying migrants sank off Libya’s Mediterranean coast, killing at least 37 people, a local official said on Sunday, the second such fatal accident within days. “We had reports this morning that there are seven bodies of illegal migrants that sank off Khoms (east of Tripoli)...but we don’t have any details how many migrants were on board,” said Mohamad al-Misrati, a spokesman for the Red Crescent in Tripoli.
Fishermen later discovered 30 more bodies in the same area near Khoms, a town some 100 km (62 miles) east of the capital, he said. Volunteers of the Red Crescent were trying to recover the dead but were lacking boats.
Moreover, Greece’s coastguard has rescued about 2,500 migrants and refugees off the country’s eastern islands over the past three days, authorities said on Monday, as the flow of people trying to cross into Europe continued unabated. After a hiatus of a few days last week, Greek authorities resumed ferrying Syrian refugees to the mainland by ship on Saturday and the latest group of 2,500 refugees arrived at the port of Piraeus earlier on Monday.