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World

Hungary Works To Strengthen Anti-Migrant Fence On Serbian Border

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Hungary was one of the first countries to fortify its border during last year's mass migration into Europe. It deployed the army to help police the border and to build a controversial razor wire fence to keep out asylum seekers.

Few migrants or refugees are heading to Hungary these days, but the government insists there is still a threat from what it calls uncontrolled Muslim migration. And as NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson reports, Hungary is recruiting an armed civilian militia to patrol its border.

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: Three thousand so-called border hunters are being recruited at public events like this recent dressage competition in Budapest. A large poster featuring a barrel-chested bearded man with binoculars urges those passing by that you should be a border hunter, too. The head recruiter at the dressage event is Hungarian riot police officer Jozsef Kismandor.

JOZSEF KISMANDOR: (Speaking foreign language).

NELSON: He says the migration crisis has created an urgent need for border hunters and that after training, each one will earn the equivalent of $780 a month. That's more than junior teachers and doctors get here in Hungary. Kismandor says border hunters will also be issued handguns, batons and pepper spray while they help overworked police patrols assigned to the 110-mile-long fence.

On this afternoon, there aren't many takers save for military veteran Andras Szabo, who picks up an application for his son.

ANDRAS SZABO: (Speaking foreign language).

NELSON: Szabo says more guards and fences are needed to stop what he perceives as a horde of men walking here from Africa and the Middle East. Never mind that EU and Hungarian officials report few migrants who are actually entering Hungary these days.

SZABO: I choose I'd close this whole border, so...

NELSON: You would close the border if it was...

SZABO: Yeah.

NELSON: ...Your choice?

SZABO: Yeah, yeah.

NELSON: That's something Prime Minister Viktor Orban wants, too. He says it's the only way to keep Hungarian society from being destroyed by Muslims. Over fellow EU leaders objections, he started building fences last year to keep migrants out, first along the Serbian border and later along the Croatian one.

Orban recently vowed to build a second fence along the Serbian border, although for now his government is busy fortifying the existing one. Government spokesman Zoltan Kovacs says that's because Hungary as an EU border country is obligated to protect the rest of the bloc.

ZOLTAN KOVACS: Even with the fence, we have experienced over 20,000 requests for political asylum in this country. It shows that what is happening at the southern borders of the European Union - that is mass migration on an intercontinental level - is going to continue.

NELSON: But international refugee agencies say the migrants aren't coming to Hungary where only 500 people were granted asylum last year. Groups like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch also accuse Hungarian authorities of mistreating migrants who they catch breaching the fence.

Mayor Robert Molnar of the southern Hungarian village of Kubekhaza says the criticism, which he shares, hasn't slowed work on the border fence with Serbia.

ROBERT MOLNAR: (Speaking foreign language).

NELSON: He shows me where workers have dug trenches for the cables that will power lamps, cameras and motion detectors. They are being installed near the fence that ends just outside his village. Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Kubekhaza, Hungary. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.