KORMEND, Hungary (Reuters) - The controversial fence on Hungary’s southern border with the Balkans may well have helped slow down the flow of migrants into northern Europe from the record highs reached last year.
But a visit to a newly-opened camp on Hungary’s western border with Austria showed a small but steady trickle of them are still passing through the country on their way north.
And while locals want the camp closed, it is helping to keep the issue in the public eye as Prime Minister Viktor Orban prepares a referendum in which he will ask voters to reject an EU plan to re-distribute migrants across the continent.
The tent camp in Kormend, just 2 km (one mile) from the Austrian border, was opened on May 2 and is a so-called “open-gate” center allowing its 165 inhabitants to go freely in and out. Those interviewed by Reuters made no bones of how they got there, and where they plan to head next.
“I want to go to Germany,” said Sahed, 18, from Afghanistan, adding he would take the train back to the capital Budapest and from there offer a driver 300 euros to get him to his hoped-for destination.
Another Afghan, Niaze, said he had paid for someone to cut a hole in the fence on Hungary’s border with Serbia and, with no money left to pay a driver, was now aiming to find a way into Austria by foot. His final destination was Belgium.
The numbers are nothing like last year, when hundreds of thousands of refugees and migrants passed through Hungary, mainly on their way to Germany.
But a police spokesman in Burgenland, the Austria province just across the border, said it had decided to start border controls late last month and already 1,124 people have been stopped — among them 20 suspected human traffickers.
Hungary’s immigration office said it has registered 15,355 asylum applications so far this year. However it noted most requests are finally annulled with asylum-seekers logged as having “left for an unknown destination”. Already that was the case for 74 migrants put in the Kormend camp.
One rights group, the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, accuses the government of not taking any real steps to prevent Hungary being a transit country for migrants as it wants to keep the number of migrants as low as possible.
“It’s the interest of the authorities that asylum seekers should not stay here,” Helsinki Committee co-chair Marta Pardavi told Reuters. The Immigration office said just 221 had been granted some kind of international protection this year.
However government spokesman Zoltan Kovacs said temporary shelters like the one in Kormend had to be open-gate camps to comply with European Union protocols.
“Illegal migrants who applied for political asylum ... are basically free to leave the camp and move within the country at their will,” he said, acknowledging that many migrants abused the system and tried to move on.
Orban’s tough line on migration has boosted his public support, with his Fidesz party well ahead in opinion polls.
Elections are not due till 2018. But before that, Hungary will hold a referendum in September or early October on whether to accept an EU quota system for resettling migrants.
In the past week, the government has started a full-fledged campaign for the vote, placing billboards nationwide, that say: “We are sending a message to Brussels so they understand.”
Analysts say there is only a slim chance for the referendum to be valid, as more than half of Hungary’s eligible 8 million voters need to turn out for that.
“The main aim of the government with this referendum is to keep this refugee question on the agenda,” said Peter Kreko, director of think tank Political Capital.
That was certainly the case for Kormend resident Antal Nagy, 60, who said he was staunchly against the camp.
“I think immigration into Hungary must be stopped,” he said. “(German Chancellor Angela) Merkel should put them up and feed them.”
Writing by Krisztina Than, Additional reporting by Alexandra Schwarz-Goerlich in Vienna; editing by Mark John