Europe

Hungary races to build border fence as migrants keep coming

  • 6 August 2015
  • From the section Europe
Media captionThere has been a sharp rise in the number of migrants trying to enter Hungary

Since Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto announced on 17 June that his government had decided to build a 175km-long (109 miles) steel barrier against illegal migrants, another 57,000 have entered the country.

News of the impending barrier along Hungary's border with Serbia spread rapidly among the diverse groups of migrants travelling northwards through the Balkans, or still hesitating before setting out on the journey from northern Greece or western Turkey.

But the immediate effect seems to be the opposite of what the Fidesz government intended.

Before the announcement, 500 people a day were walking through the narrow bottleneck of woods close to the E75, the main Belgrade to Budapest motorway. Now the daily average is 1500.

Image caption People arrive at Hungary's border as they flee conflict or search for a better life
Image caption The UN and human rights groups have criticised Hungary's anti-immigration plans

The Dunaferr steel mill in Dunaujvaros in central Hungary has not seen so much media interest since communist times.

The city around it was a model Soviet settlement built after World War Two on the banks of the Danube, originally called Stalinvaros - Stalin-town.

Iron ore is still brought here on barges up the Danube, from Ukraine and Russia.

Forty-four inmates from the nearby Palhalmai jail, in grey prison uniforms and heavy, steel-capped boots stack giant girders, labouring under the watchful scrutiny of prison guards.

Image caption Prisoners are being used to make the barrier

Despite the television cameras, many look glad to have a change from the boredom of prison life, showing off their physical strength, and stealing a wink at female reporters.

This will be the skeleton of the border fence. In another factory nearby, unseen by journalists, more inmates put together coils of of razor-wire - 'Nato wire' as it is known in Hungarian - for assembly down on the southern border.

'No choice'

It is 34C and the local Fidesz MP Denes Galambos, trapped in his business suit, looks more uncomfortable than most of the prisoners.

Hungary has no choice but to build this "temporary barrier", he says.

The main attraction of Hungary to most asylum seekers is that it belongs to the Schengen zone of border-free countries at the core of the EU.

Once here, there are no more border controls to reach Western Europe, with the exception of Britain and Ireland.

Using prisoners to build the barrier, and unemployed people and soldiers to fix it in place along the border, is the government's way of telling voters that it is trying to both protect them from migrant "hordes", and keep costs down.

Image caption The government wants to show that it is protecting people from what it calls the migrant 'threat'
Image caption The fence is to run the length of the 175km (109-mile) border with Serbia

Already estimated at €100m (£70m), Prime Minister Viktor Orban has said that every penny spent on it hurts him.

"The real threat is not from the war zones, ladies and gentlemen, but from the heart of Africa," he said in his 25 July speech at Baile Tusnad in Romania.

The barrier is his contribution to protecting the European identity, he said, as well as the Hungarian one.

Frenetic

Originally planned for completion by November, Mr Orban now wants it finished by the end of August. That would require 6km a day.

An army officer overseeing construction at Morahalom, not authorised to speak on the record, said the coils of wire could be in place by then, but not the stanchions (fence posts), even at the current, frenetic rate.

Image caption Razor wire - or 'Nato wire' as it is known in Hungarian - is being assembled for use
Image caption Vast areas of land are being prepared for the barrier

Earth-moving machines have already carved a brown scar through the woods from Tiszasziget, a village on the border just south of Szeged, at one end of the border with Serbia, to Hercegszanto at the other end.

I asked government spokesman Zoltan Kovacs how effective he really expected the fence to be.

Surely determined asylum seekers will just go round your fence and enter Hungary over the 443km-long Romanian border, I said. Or across the 329km long border with Croatia?

"If necessary, we will build barriers there too," he said. Busy times beckon for the prisoners in Steelville.

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