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Hungary launches border crackdown, says refugees risk expulsion

Updated: 2015-09-15 11:23

Hungary launches border crackdown, says refugees risk expulsion

A migrant carries a child as he waits to enter Hungary after the Hungarian police sealed the border with Serbia near the village of Horgos, Serbia, September 14, 2015. [Photo/Agencies]

BUDAPEST - 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-meter 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 neighbour '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.

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