REUTERS - Hungary warned on Tuesday that asylum seekers entering the European Union across its southern border with Serbia faced potential expulsion within days under a crackdown to confront Europe's worst refugee crisis in two decades.
As tough, new border laws and powers to expel asylum seekers entered into force at midnight, Hungary's right-wing government sealed off a railway track used by tens of thousands of migrants, many of them Syrian refugees, to enter the EU this year on foot, for some the end of a journey from war in the Middle East and Africa.
"We will start a new era," government spokesman Zoltan Kovacs said shortly after midnight on the border. "We will stop the inflow of illegal migrants over our green borders."
A major flashpoint in Europe's worst refugee crisis since the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s, Hungary has vowed to control the flow through the Balkan peninsula to the richer countries of northern and western Europe.
Police have recorded over 190,000 entering Hungary this year, including a record for one day of more than 9,000 on Monday.
Their window of opportunity is rapidly shrinking as Hungary races to finish a 3.5-metre high fence the length of its 175-km (108 mile) southern border by October. On Monday, a cargo wagon, one end covered in razor wire, was shunted into position to close the main informal crossing point for migrants. Helmeted police and soldiers stood guard and a helicopter circled overhead.
The government says refugees will still be able to claim asylum at official border crossings into Hungary, but if they have entered from Serbia - and not already sought asylum there - they face automatic expulsion within eight days after Budapest in July declared its impoverished southern neighbor 'safe' for refugees.
"The legal border crossing points will work," said Kovacs, "and whoever wants to submit an asylum application can do that based on the international rules."
The United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, says it disputes the designation of Serbia, not an EU member, as a so-called "safe third country," which would imply refugees have a fair chance of being granted asylum and will receive all the necessary protections and support.
Rights groups say Serbia meets none of the criteria and is still finding homes for thousands of its own refugees from the collapse of Yugoslavia in the 1990s, the last time Europe confronted displacement of people on such a scale.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, one of Europe's most vociferous opponents of mass immigration, said he expected a high rate of deportations.
"In such a case, if someone is a refugee, we will ask them whether they have submitted an asylum request in Serbia. If they had not done so, given that Serbia is a safe country, they will be rejected," he was quoted as telling private broadcaster TV2.
An official of Orban's Fidesz party said authorities would rule on such asylum requests within eight days.
Orban has vowed zero tolerance on the EU's external border, framing the crisis as a battle for Europe's prosperity, identity and "Christian values."
The influx into Europe, by boat from North Africa across the Mediterranean or across Turkey and up the Balkan Peninsula, has triggered discord and recrimination in the 28-nation EU, feeding anti-immigration sentiment.
On Monday, two decades of frontier-free travel across Europe unraveled as Austria and Slovakia followed Germany in re-establishing border controls to cope with the influx. Austria said it would dispatch armed forces to guard its eastern frontier with Hungary.
EU ministers meeting on Monday failed to break a deadlock over sharing out responsibility for some of the hundreds of thousands who have sought asylum in Europe this year.
Migrants were able to enter Hungary until midnight on Monday, in small groups queuing at an official pedestrian border crossing, but there was deep uncertainty over a possible bottleneck on the Serbian side on Tuesday as the crossing was closed overnight and thousands continued to stream through the Balkans from Greece, having arrived by boat and dinghy from Turkey.
Aleksandar Vulin, the Serbian government minister in charge of policy on migrants, said Serbia would not accept anyone being returned to Serbia having already entered Hungarian territory.
"That's no longer our responsibility," he told the Tanjug state news agency. "They are on Hungarian territory and I expect the Hungarian state to behave accordingly towards them."
Queuing to enter Hungary, 25-year-old Syrian civil engineering student Mohamed admitted he was nervous of what might come next.
"We don't know what will happen to us," he said. "I want to go to Germany, but they will first take our fingerprints and then they will tell us where to go."
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