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World

Hungary Builds Controversial Border Fence To Disrupt Flow Of Migrants

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Like many European countries, Hungary is trying to work out how best to cope with the skyrocketing number of refugees and asylum-seekers. For now, the government there think the solution is to keep desperate migrants from entering Hungary at all. NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson reports from a new border fence being put up by Hungarian soldiers which so far has not slowed the arrivals.

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: Mayor Laszlo Toroczkai was the first to propose the fence. The 37-year-old leader of the southern Hungarian village called Asotthalom is allied with the far-right Jobbik Party. Both take a hard line against migrants.

LASZLO TOROCZKAI: They go into the gardens. They steal fruits from the tree. They steal cars and bicycles, and sometimes they broke into the houses. So I think it's a dangerous situation. It's a not normal thing to go across the border without any control. This is a crime.

NELSON: But he doubts the $35 million barrier being built nearby is going to work without patrols which the government says it's too overwhelmed to provide. So the mayor has created his own force to intercept the migrants. One of its members is Barnabas Heredi. He says he's lost count of the number of migrants he's turned over to the police. But the number has skyrocketed despite the fence construction.

BARNABAS HEREDI: (Speaking Hungarian).

NELSON: Heredi says the migrants shouldn't be here because Hungary has its own economic problems. He takes me in his old Russian four-wheel-drive to a group of trees outside the village where two Hungarian policemen are guarding dozens of migrants who were just rounded up. Almost all are male, and many are under 18.

So where are you from?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Burma.

NELSON: Burma, and...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Baghdad.

NELSON: Baghdad.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Pakistan.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: Pakistan.

NELSON: Oh, Pakistan - OK. Where are you going?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: Going to German.

NELSON: Germany - you too?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #6: Hungary, Spain and other countries European.

NELSON: So you don't want to say here. You want to keep going.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: No, no - no stay here.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #6: Go forward.

NELSON: But for now, they are stuck. Most sit in the shade, feeling anxious and hungry as the police officers are only handing out water. One of those waiting is Hafizullah Safari, a 25-year-old from Afghanistan.

HAFIZULLAH SAFARI: (Foreign language spoken).

NELSON: He says, "we don't have money to go back. We have to keep moving." That's what Hungarians want too. The government will register them as asylum seekers, give them papers and bus them to the nearby city of Szeged. Dozens of migrants are outside the city's main train station on a recent afternoon. Hungarian volunteers, like 44-year-old Tamas Szuts give them water and sandwiches and offer free wireless Internet so they can contact relatives. He opposes the fence and says the Hungarian government should help the migrants like he does rather than try and seal the border.

TAMAS SZUTS: Maybe we can help the people to go through Hungary because they don't want to stay here.

NELSON: So do you think the fence is going to stop people from coming?

SZUTS: No, I don't think so - no, no.

NELSON: One of the migrants catching the train to Budapest is a 15-year-old Afghan named Reza who is headed to Germany. We are using his first name because he is a minor in a dangerous situation.

REZA: (Foreign language spoken).

NELSON: He says he and many others here moved up their trip by a month because the migrant smugglers in Iran told them that Hungary was building a fence. Reza predicts the fence won't stop anyone for long. They'll just find a new way to get here, he says.

The Hungarian fence ends where the border with Serbia does, in the middle of a sprawling field. This is also where the unfenced border with Romania begins. Very few migrants come here, but Robert Molnar, the mayor of the local Hungarian village here, predicts many more will come when the fence is finished.

ROBERT MOLNAR: (Through interpreter) I'm afraid the Hungarian government is just trying to tire them out. The government hopes they'll eventually go elsewhere. But whoever has walked 1,900 miles to get here won't turn around just because of a fence.

NELSON: He adds, if more migrants do show up, he will provide them with shelter, water and food. Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, in Kubekhaza, Hungary. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.