Germany fails to heal European rift over migrants

Jan Flemr with Simon Sturdee in Vienna
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Hundreds of migrants await a train on September 11, 2015 in Nickelsdorf, Austria, at the border with Hungary

Hundreds of migrants await a train on September 11, 2015 in Nickelsdorf, Austria, at the border with Hungary (AFP Photo/Joe Klamar)

Prague (AFP) - Eastern European countries on Friday resisted a German push for them to take more migrants, as new video footage added to concern over the treatment of refugees in Hungary, which has vowed to arrest anyone crossing the border illegally from next week.

Pressing his Czech, Hungarian, Polish and Slovakian counterparts at a meeting in Prague to show more solidarity, Germany's foreign minister warned the influx of hundreds of thousands of migrants could be "the biggest challenge for the EU in its history."

"If we are united in describing the situation as such, we should be united that such a challenge is not manageable for a single country," Frank-Walter Steinmeier said, calling for "European solidarity."

The International Organization for Migration said Friday over 430,000 migrants and refugees had crossed the Mediterranean to Europe so far in 2015, with 2,748 dying or going missing en route.

Germany has taken the lion's share, admitting 450,000 refugees so far this year, most of them fleeing violence in the Middle East -- particularly Syria -- and Asia.

But Steinmeier's appeal for EU members to accept proposals to share around 160,000 migrants fell on deaf ears among eastern nations.

Slovak Foreign Minister Miroslav Lajcak said he wanted a solution "that is not imposed" but "made jointly".

"Migrants don't want to stay in Slovakia," he added bluntly.

Denmark's right-wing government also said Friday it would not take part in the quota scheme.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Friday meanwhile took flak from her conservative allies in the southern state of Bavaria, first port of call for most of the migrants.

"We are getting ourselves into an emergency situation we soon won't be able to control," CSU leader Horst Seehofer told Spiegel, adding that it would be hard to "put the cork back in the bottle".

Seehofer said he would discuss the issue with Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban, whose country is building a fence on the Serbian border to keep migrants out and has adopted tough new laws that will make it a crime to cross the border illegally from next week.

"From September 15, the rules are changing in Hungary, if you cross the border illegally, you will be immediately arrested by the authorities, the authorities will not have a choice," Orban warned Friday.

- Budgetary costs -

The migrant crisis also came up at a meeting of EU finance ministers Friday, with some EU members requesting the bloc's strict budget rules be relaxed to account for the cost of accepting refugees.

"The cost to Ireland - and I don't like talking to this in terms of costs because we are talking about people's lives - of accommodating 4,000 refugees is in or around 48 million (euros) ($54 million)," Ireland's Junior Minister for Finance Simon Harris said.

EU lawmakers have called for an international conference on migration, together with the United States, United Nations and Arab countries.

Facing criticism that his government has been too slow to help, US President Barack Obama pledged to admit at least 10,000 Syrian refugees over a year starting October 1.

Underscoring the scale of the crisis, some 7,600 migrants entered Macedonia in just 12 hours overnight, according to a UN official, with more buses on their way from Greece.

From Macedonia, the migrant route cuts through Serbia into Hungary and from there veers west into Austria, from where most of the arrivals continue on to Germany and Sweden.

Germany has placed 4,000 troops on standby for this weekend alone to cope with the influx.

The response of Hungary, which has received some 175,000 migrants this year -- the vast majority just passing through -- has been to lay a razor-wire barrier along its border with Serbia and begin erecting a fence four meters (13 feet) high.

Further concerns about Hungary were raised Friday by video footage showing migrants inside a holding camp being fed in the words of one volunteer "like animals in a pen".

Orban insisted Friday that his country was just trying to apply European rules in seeking to register the new arrivals, pinning the blame on fellow EU member Greece for waving migrants through for onward travel north.

"Just because Greece is not keeping to the common (Schengen) agreement does not authorise Hungary to give up on the Schengen rules as well," he said in Budapest.

- Selling boats to migrants -

From the smugglers who pack them into leaky boats, to taxi drivers who charge exorbitant sums to ferry them across land, some people have sought to profit from the migrants' plight.

The French government on Friday suspended an honorary consul in the Turkish resort of Bodrum after she was secretly filmed selling rubber dinghies and life jackets to desperate refugees.

Meanwhile, a Hungarian camerawoman who caused global outrage after being caught on film tripping and kicking fleeing refugees, including children, apologised and said she had "panicked".

"I'm not a heartless, child-kicking racist camera-person," said Petra Laszlo, now fired by her employer, a television station close to Jobbik, one of Europe's most extreme far-right parties.

On Saturday, tens of thousands of people are expected to take part in a Europe-wide "day of action" in solidarity with refugees, with a handful of rival anti-migrant protests also to take place.

In the Italian city of Venice Friday, over 1,000 people marched behind banners that read "welcome to refugees" and "there is no invasion, we are all citizens of the world".