Germany beefs up asylum rules as half a million cross Med

Hui Min Neo with Nina Larson in Geneva

Berlin (AFP) - Germany toughened rules Tuesday for asylum seekers from the Balkans as Europe struggled to cope with a record surge in migrants, with new figures showing more than half a million have crossed the Mediterranean so far this year.

Berlin added Albania, Kosovo and Montenegro to a list of so-called safe countries, so people claiming asylum from those conflict-free states can be deported more swiftly to free up resources for refugees from war-torn countries like Syria.

Germany's open-door policy to Syrians has sparked clashes with some eastern EU member states, in particular Hungary, which has adopted the opposite strategy, sealing its borders to migrants.

Croatia also lashed out Thursday at Budapest's handling of migrants as "totally unacceptable" while Prime Minister Viktor Orban was preparing to defend his hard line at the UN General Assembly

"They (Hungary) are considering closing border crossings. But how will they stop people? Shoot at them? Deploy the army?" said Croatian Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic.

The tensions came as the number of migrants arriving via the Mediterranean showed no signs of abating, with the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) saying that 515,000 arrived so far this year.

About half are escaping the four-year civil war in Syria, also a hot topic among world leaders meeting in New York this week.

Some 2,980 people have perished or disappeared trying to make the perilous journey.

- 1,150 rescued -

Highlighting the dangers, the Italian coastguard said it had coordinated the rescue Monday of 1,151 migrants in 11 separate operations off the coast of Libya.

"Many are suffering from shock," the Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF, Doctors Without Borders) charity, whose ship Dignity 1 saved 373 of the people rescued Monday, said on Twitter with a photograph of a distressed six-year-old boy.

The Libyan coastguard too reported that it rescued 346 migrants on Tuesday, almost 100 of them women and children, found adrift on rubber boats off the country's coast.

At the other end of the continent, a 20-year-old Iraqi was found dead Tuesday in a lorry near the French port of Calais, crushed by pallets as he tried to reach Britain.

From Greece, many of the migrants then travel up through the Balkans and into EU member Hungary, bound for northern Europe, particularly Sweden and Germany.

With between 8,000 and 10,000 migrants arriving daily in Europe's biggest economy in the past four days, Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere said economic migrants who have no chance of obtaining asylum in Germany have to be told early and rapidly repatriated.

"We want to send a clear signal to those (who are not fleeing war), don't come here, you have no chance, you will have to leave our country," he said.

Berlin will also reduce payouts to migrants, and seek to distribute benefits in kind rather than in cash to refugees.

In the first six months of 2015, about 40 percent of asylum-seekers in Germany came from the Balkans, even though their chances of getting asylum was less than one percent.

- Hardline Hungary -

Hungary, which has seen close to 300,000 migrants cross its borders this year, used a more drastic measure to halt the influx -- by sealing off its border with Serbia, the main entry point to the European Union.

That has diverted the flow of migrants to Croatia, overwhelming authorities there who have been transferring them back to its border with Hungary.

But Orban said last week that he also intended to seal the border with Croatia.

He said however that he plans first to consult UN chief Ban Ki-moon, whom he intends to meet in New York this week.

Hungary's policy towards migrants has been sharply criticised, including by Ban who has said he was "shocked to see how these refugees and migrants were treated". Hungary's foreign minister rejected the criticism as "shocking".

Hungary has also made it a crime punishable by up to five years in prison to cross the border illegally, while giving the army the right to use rubber bullets on border patrols.

It is also building a barrier along its border with Romania, and last week briefly put in place barbed wire along its frontier with Slovenia, the first such measure inside the passport-free Schengen zone.