ASOTTHALOM, Hungary (Reuters) - Hungary must ‘shut its gates’ to economic migrants, a top ally to Prime Minister Viktor Orban said on Friday, urging action to stem a dramatic surge in the number of Kosovars crossing ditches and walking through forests under cover of night to reach the European Union.
More than 15 years since it broke away from Serbia in war, Kosovo is witnessing a sudden surge in the number of its citizens smuggling themselves across Serbia’s border with Hungary to escape poverty and unemployment.
Some 30,000 have been caught by Hungarian border police and applied for asylum since September, compared to 6,000 for the whole of 2013.
The trend mirrors a similar surge in the number of Syrians, Kurds and others from further afield fleeing repression and war in the Middle East and Africa through the Balkans to the affluent states of Western Europe.
“We think this is extremely worrisome and therefore the Fidesz-KDNP party parliamentary group expressed it very clearly to the government that Hungary’s gates must be shut to economic immigrants,” Antal Rogan, parliamentary leader of Orban’s Fidesz party, told a news conference.
Either side of the Hungarian-Serbian border, Reuters reporters on Friday saw dozens of men, women and children crossing a water-filled ditch to enter EU territory, before making the 10-kilometre walk to the nearest village of Asotthalom.
Once there, many are detained and apply for asylum to stave off immediate deportation, using the time it takes for their applications to be processed to give over-stretched immigration authorities the slip and push on westwards through the EU’s borderless Schengen zone.
“All these people, all from Kosovo because the economy is poor,” said migrant Malsor Sadiku, part of a group of between 40 and 45 Kosovars. “No jobs, no money; we decide to go out from Kosovo and look for a job and better life,” he said while making the walk to Asotthalom.
Not since Kosovo’s 1998-99 war, when almost a million ethnic Albanians fled or were expelled by Serbian forces through the mountains to Macedonia and Albania, have so many left on foot.
The surge in numbers coincides with a period of political turbulence and unrest since an election in June, and follows a relaxation of entry rules to Serbia, meaning Kosovars can now enter on Kosovo-issued documents previously shunned by Serbia given its rejection of the country’s 2008 declaration of independence. Serbia said it had arrested 290 on Friday.
Asotthalom mayor and outspoken right-wing activist Laszlo Toroczkai has advocated putting up a wall to stem the tide. In an interview with Reuters, he called the situation “apocalyptic”.
“They waltz across an international border, which is completely unguarded,” he said. “Anyone, and I mean anyone, can get into the EU here.”
Orban ally Rogan called for a “national consultation” on whether asylum seekers should be detained until their applications were assessed, and whether legislation should amended so that illegal immigrants “should be expelled with immediate effect”.
Additional reporting by Krisztina Than and Reuters Television; Writing by Matt Robinson