SUBOTICA, Serbia (AP) — Thousands of migrants, many from Syria, poured into Hungary on Tuesday as soldiers frantically tried to finish a border fence to keep them out — the latest flashpoint as Europe struggles to handle a torrent of asylum seekers.
The rush over the border by migrants fleeing war and poverty in the Middle East, Africa and Asia followed Macedonia's decision to lift a three-day blockade of its border with Greece after thousands of migrants simply stormed past the Macedonian police who tried to stop them with force.
Nearly 10,000 migrants, including many women with babies and small children, have crossed into Serbia over the past few days and then headed up north toward European Union-member Hungary. Once inside the 28-nation EU, they seek to reach more prosperous Western European nations such as Germany, The Netherlands or Sweden.
The so-called Balkan corridor for migrants is becoming increasingly popular as migrants seek to avoid the dangerous boat crossings in the Mediterranean from North Africa to Italy.
About 140,000 migrants have reached Hungary already this year, over three times as many as in all of 2014. According to Hungarian police data, 2,093 migrants were detained while crossing illegally Monday, the highest figure so far this year. Over the past week, the average was nearly 1,500 people a day.
So far the Hungarian border fence consists of three layers of razor wire, which the government says will be completed this month along its 174-kilometer (109-mile) border with Serbia. But there's no wire over railroad lines and roads and there are doors on the fence where the migrants can enter and formally seek asylum.
Once they do, they can easily slip from Hungarian asylum centers and head further west and north.
Hungary, beleaguered by the influx and facing a right-wing backlash, has been rushing to build the fence both as a physical barrier and a symbol of its tough anti-foreigner stance. The government's anti-migrant billboard campaign and efforts to link migration with terrorism have drawn sharp criticism from the U.N. and others, who say it vilifies refugees and promotes xenophobia.
Hundreds of migrants, including a pregnant woman holding the hand of a small boy, children, and one man pushing another man in a wheelchair, walked along the railway tracks Tuesday leading into Hungary.
About a dozen migrants from Syria, including men, women and a child, were seen by AP journalists as they walked with their backpacks through a cornfield to the border fence. An elderly woman managed to cross over the wire fence, then two Hungarian policemen showed up and stopped the rest, telling them to go to an open gate instead.
The group hesitantly walked into Hungary one by one, escorted by the police.
After entering, the migrants are taken to processing stations where they are registered and then sent by train to refugee centers around the country. The majority request asylum, but most quickly leave for other EU countries before their claims are settled.
Hungarian government spokesman Zoltan Kovacs said Tuesday that the migrant flow needs to be better controlled. Besides the border fence and the increased police presence, Hungary is preparing laws to make it a crime to cut through the fence or to enter Hungary illegally and is increasing the penalties for human traffickers.
"It is in the interest of all of us, Hungarians and Europeans, to develop some kind of order," Kovacs said in an interview, warning that otherwise many European cities could face unsustainable situations.
A U.N. migrant expert, however, said building physical barriers to stop migrants was futile.
"Building fences, using tear gas and other forms of violence against migrants and asylum seekers, detention ... will not stop migrants from coming or trying to come to Europe," said Francois Crepau, the U.N. special rapporteur on the human rights of migrants. "Let's not pretend that what the EU and its member states are doing is working. Migration is here to stay."
Abdul Munir Rahimi, a 33-year-old from Kabul, Afghanistan, said he and his family were aiming to go to Germany. His brother, his sister-in-law and their two children were hoping to take a taxi to the Hungarian border later in the day.
"No security in Afghanistan, no security," he said. "We have relatives in Germany."
Pablo Gorondi reported from Budapest, Hungary. AP writers Dusan Stojanovic, from Belgrade, Serbia, and Amer Cohadzic, from Gevgelija, Macedonia, contributed.