MORAHALOM, Hungary (AP) — Using materials prepared by inmates in Hungarian prisons, 900 soldiers will build a fence along Hungary's border with Serbia by December to stem the torrent of migrants, officials said Thursday — a project critics are comparing to Communist-era barriers like the Berlin Wall.
Hungary says it has a duty to protect itself and the rest of the 28-nation European Union from the unprecedented number of people — now often more than 1,000 a day — arriving on foot through routes across the Balkans.
Work on the 4-meter (13-foot) -high fence will take place at 10-12 locations simultaneously along the 175-kilometer (109-mile) border, Defense Minister Csaba Hende said Thursday near the southern town of Morahalom, where a sample section of the fence is being built to experiment with different building materials and techniques.
"The Hungarian defense force is ready to complete this task," he declared as soldiers wrestled with barbed wire and metal posts.
Interior Minister Sandor Pinter said the fence is the only immediate solution Hungary could find to stop the flow of migrants — which stands at 81,300 already this year. Inmates in Hungarian prisons are already assembling the basic elements of the fence, and workers in a government job scheme could help if needed, he said.
Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic on Thursday called the move to build the fence an "unfortunate decision" by Hungary. Others from Serbia, a candidate for EU membership, have been more emphatic.
"We are absolutely and fiercely against their (Hungary's) decision to build a fence," Serbian Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic said last month. "I thought the Berlin Wall has fallen, but now new walls are being constructed."
While the EU acknowledges Hungary's right to apply its own border management system, Dimitris Avramopoulos, the EU commissioner for migration, says unilateral steps like the fence are not the answer.
"(The fence) will only shift the problem to the next neighboring country, it will not solve it," Avramopoulos said.
On Thursday, Janos Lazar, head of the prime minister's office, said Hungary will seek to make illegal border crossings a crime, as opposed to a minor offense.
"This is a clear message to human traffickers," Lazar said. "It will be much more difficult, expensive and risky to head toward Hungary."
He also said Hungary is going to set up temporary tent camps in rural areas to accommodate the large number of asylum-seekers and will seek to close down its regular migrant housing.
Prime Minister Viktor Orban says Hungary does not want any migrants from outside Europe. But over the past months, 80 percent of the refugees requesting asylum in Hungary have come from war-torn countries like Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. Most leave within days to richer EU countries like Germany before their asylum claims are settled.
The government's anti-immigrant billboard campaign and a questionnaire sent to voters linking migration with terrorism have been criticized by the U.N.'s refugee agency, among others.
Gorondi reported from Budapest. Jovana Gec in Belgrade, Serbia, also contributed to this report.