The number of refugees forging through Europe from war-torn Syria shows no sign of letting up despite the approach of winter, testing the region’s governments as they build fences to contain the flow.
More migrants have crossed the Mediterranean Sea to reach the European Union so far this month than in all of September, the United Nations refugee agency said Wednesday. A record 180,000 people had already landed in the EU as of Oct. 26, compared to 173,000 in September, UNHCR spokesman William Spindler said in an interview. In 2014, when the flows were just a fraction of this year’s, the number of arrivals dropped by a third in October as the weather turned worse.
“It hasn’t yet peaked,” Spindler said. “In previous years, September was the highest month and then in October, November, December you saw a reduction. But this year it’s different — we’ve seen a constant increase since May.”
With more than 700,000 refugees arriving by sea so far this year and tens of thousands more on their way, the EU’s commitment to the principle of free movement is wavering. Austria became the latest country to announce plans to build a border fence on Wednesday, the first to go up within the supposedly borderless Schengen area.
Austria had previously criticized neighboring Hungary’s decision to erect a barrier, and the move to put up its own fences shows the increasing desperation of officials trying to regain control of the number of people flooding across its borders.
“It doesn’t work,” Spindler said. “People will always find ways to go around those fences and it just makes it more dangerous for them. People have to go on longer, more dangerous journeys and that encourages smugglers.”
While the actual shape and length of the barrier on its border with Slovenia still needs to be worked out, there won’t be any razor wire on it, as there is in Hungary, Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann said Wednesday. There won’t be a fence around the entire country, either, he said.
“We want to be able to enact control, and for that, we need technical security,” Faymann told reporters in Vienna after a government meeting. Separately, Slovenia may start to build “technical barriers” on the Croatian border if the migrant crisis doesn’t abate, Prime Minister Miro Cerar told reporters in Ljubljana.
The Austrian chancellor softened his stance hours later after a phone call with EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker. On ORF television’s evening news, Faymann said that “whoever thinks fences will solve the refugee question is on the wrong path.” Germany’s slowing intake of refugees had, however, created a backlog in Austria that needed to be dealt with, he said.
Bottlenecks are created in areas where countries have partially closed borders or tried to reduce the flow of refugees, and many desperate migrants are stuck for hours close to the frontiers between different EU nations, Spindler said.
The border crossings between Serbia and Croatia, Croatia and Slovenia and Greece and Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia have experienced the largest buildups of refugees, sometimes with thousands of people massing at the frontiers.
“People are reluctant to move away from the border even if the conditions are very, very bad,” he said. “When we say ‘we can take you to a reception center where we can give you food and a bed for the night,’ they say ‘no, we don’t want to miss our chance, the border might open any minute.’ ”
More than half a million people have arrived in Greece by sea so far this year, according to the UNHCR. Around half are Syrian and almost a fifth are from Afghanistan. Many are forced to wait weeks on Greek islands before they can register and after that get a ferry ticket to the mainland, Spindler said. From there, unless governments close borders, refugees can take 24 hours to reach Germany, mainly on public buses or trains or on special transport provided by authorities.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel has insisted Europe can’t put up new walls and must welcome war refugees.
Her stance came under attack Wednesday from party allies in the German state of Bavaria, bordering Austria, who renewed charges that she violated German law by not applying EU rules that would have required her to send refugees back to the European countries they first arrived in.
Germany must work with EU partners to stop the uncontrolled influx of refugees, Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble said Wednesday in Berlin. Those fleeing war-torn Afghanistan should no longer be admitted as Germany and its allies have a military presence there to allow civilians to stay there instead of fleeing to Europe, Schaeuble said.