Germany re-imposed border controls on Sunday after Europe's most powerful nation acknowledged it could scarcely cope with thousands of asylum seekers arriving every day.
A day before deeply divided European Union ministers tackle the migrant crisis, the U.N. refugee agency also called on every member state to take in a share of asylum-seekers under a Brussels plan which some countries are fiercely resisting.
Berlin announced that the temporary measure would be taken first on the southern frontier with Austria, where migrant arrivals have soared since Chancellor Angela Merkel effectively opened German borders to refugees a week ago.
"The aim of these measures is to limit the current inflows to Germany and to return to orderly procedures when people enter the country," said Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere, adding that this was also necessary for security reasons.
Open borders among the European countries which signed the Schengen Treaty are a crucial part of the EU project but controls can be re-introduced, provided they are only temporary.
"The free movement of people under Schengen is a unique symbol of European integration," the EU's executive Commission said in a statement. "However, the other side of the coin is a better joint management of our external borders and more solidarity in coping with the refugee crisis."
At an emergency meeting on Monday, interior ministers from the EU's 28 member states will discuss Commission proposals to redistribute about 160,000 asylum seekers across the bloc.
"We need swift progress on the Commission's proposals now," the Commission said in a statement issued as tens of thousands of people fleeing war and poverty in Syria and other parts of the Middle East, Asia and Africa made their way north.
Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker won the backing of the UNHCR, the United Nations' refugee agency.
It appealed for the creation of effective reception centres to help, register and screen people arriving in the Schengen states of Greece, Italy and Hungary. "This must be accompanied by the rapid implementation of a relocation programme as proposed by the European Commission," it said in a statement.
Amid the political bickering among European governments, the crisis claimed yet more lives. On Sunday 34 refugees, almost half of them babies and children, drowned off a Greek island when their boat sank, the coastguard said.
Limit of ability
Germany, Europe's largest and richest economy, has become a magnet for migrants making journeys by sea and land, often via Turkey and the Greek islands, and then onwards through the Balkans, Hungary and Austria. Police said around 13,000 arrived in the southern German city of Munich alone on Saturday, and another 3,000 on Sunday morning.
Now Germany has joined smaller and poorer countries such as Greece and Hungary that are struggling to manage the huge flow of desperate people.
Germany has halted train traffic from Austria, a spokeswoman for Austrian rail company OeBB said on Sunday.
Berlin made clear it wanted EU partners to share the burden. "It's true: the European lack of action in the refugee crisis is now pushing even Germany to the limit of its ability," Economy Minister Sigmar Gabriel, who is also vice-chancellor, told the website of Der Tagesspiegel newspaper.
With large numbers of migrants stuck in squalid and chaotic conditions on European borders, or trudging along the side of motorways, Merkel last weekend stopped enforcing the EU's "Dublin" rules under which asylum seekers should register in whichever member state they first arrive in.
De Maiziere defended her decision but insisted the Dublin rules were still valid. "We need to quickly return to orderly procedures now," he added. "We can't allow refugees to freely choose where they want to stay – that's not the case anywhere in the world."
Most asylum seekers are refusing to stay in the poorer southern European countries where they arrive, such as Greece, and are instead making their way to Germany or Sweden where they anticipate a warmer welcome. Many Germans have greeted the arrivals with cheers and volunteers are flooding in to help.
Red Cross praise
Peter Maurer, president of the Geneva-based International Committee of the Red Cross, praised Merkel for showing leadership in the crisis.
But Maurer expressed his disquiet after Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban declared he would use a newly built fence to close the border with Serbia to migrants on Sept. 15, and that those who are "rebellious" would be arrested.
"I find it dangerous when a European country drifts in this direction," he told the Swiss newspaper SonntagsZeitungs.
Central European countries are hostile to the Juncker plan for spreading refugees around the bloc, and reject any suggestion of compulsory quotas.
"It is impossible to retreat," Czech Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka said on Sunday. "We are helping, we are ready to help, but on a voluntary basis. The quotas won’t work."
In neighbouring Slovakia, Interior Minister Robert Kalinak said he would try to block quotas. "They don't make any sense … and don't solve the crisis in any way," he said in a TV interview.
Poland said it might accept more migrants, but only if the EU secures its external borders, separates those who need help from economic migrants, and allows Warsaw a say in screening them from the point of security.
Meanwhile, the migrants continued to risk all on their journeys. The Greek coastguard said the 34 drowned off the island of Farmakonisi, almost certainly the largest death toll in those waters since the migrant crisis began.
In the space of 90 minutes, a Reuters photographer saw 10 dinghies packed with refugees arriving from Turkey on the Greek island of Lesbos, which caretaker Prime Minister Vasiliki Thanou was visiting on Sunday.
Further up the refugee route, 8,500 migrants entered Macedonia from Greece between Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon, the UNHCR agency said.
Hungarian state TV M1 reported that 8,000-10,000 migrants had crossed into Austria at Hegyeshalom by 6 pm (1600 GMT) and several thousand more were expected by the end of the day.