October 15, 2015 / 5:02 PM / 2 years ago

Interview: Hungary ready to seal off Croatian border to keep out migrants

Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto addresses attendees during the 70th session of the United Nations General Assembly at the U.N. headquarters in New York, October 3, 2015.Eduardo Munoz

BUDAPEST (Reuters) - Hungary will close its border with Croatia to stem the flow of thousands of migrants arriving daily unless European Union leaders agree on a joint task force to halt them at Greece's border, Hungary's Foreign Minister told Reuters.

Prime Minister Viktor Orban's government has already built a steel fence to shut down the migrant route over Hungary's southern border with Serbia. That just diverted the flow towards Croatia.

Orban, one of Europe's most vehement opponents of immigration, says he is protecting the EU's Schengen zone and Hungary with its Christian values against mass migration that could bring millions of migrants to Europe.

If the border with Croatia is sealed, the migrants could turn towards tiny Slovenia. Or they might be stranded in Croatia, where the weather is getting colder and the authorities are already struggling with the scale of the influx.

According to Hungarian police data, 5,000 to 8,000 migrants crossed the Croatian border each day in recent weeks and were shipped in an organised way by police to the Austrian border.

This could quickly come to a halt now as Hungary's fence is finished on the Croatian border as well.

"We have urged Greece and the European Council to put together a joint European force to protect the external Schengen border," Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto said in an interview on Thursday.

"Unfortunately, this decision has not been made. If this decision is not made during the European Council meeting today and tomorrow, we really have to put it into serious consideration to protect the Schengen zone at the Croatian-Hungarian border," he said.

Szijjarto said sealing off the border would create a clampdown to the situation on the Serbian border, where the migrants headed for Croatia. He said Hungary had informed its southern neighbour, Slovenia, as well as Austria and Germany about the plans.

"It would exactly look like the practice on the Serbian border. It would (be) exactly the same," he said, adding that there would be no "corridor" for migrants towards the west.

"If we seal off the green border, it is only going to be possible to come into Hungary in a regular way, through border crossing stations and in case of absence of valid travel documentation by submitting the request for asylum," Szijjarto said.

Hungary had created two so-called transit zones on its border with Serbia, where migrants can submit an asylum request, but most such requests are rejected, because Hungary considers Serbia a safe country for refugees. It has also clamped down on illegal crossings of the border fence, punishing migrants with expulsion in court.

Szijjarto said that if Croatia as an EU member sticks to European regulations and registers asylum seekers, they will have to stay in Croatia until their request has been processed.

"If Croatia does not register these asylum seekers, then they have to submit their request for asylum at the Hungarian-Croatian border in case of absence of travel documentation. It is going to be a totally changed situation," he said.

"With a strict protection of our southern borders ... we give the message that it does not make sense to hit the road."

He said Croatia should be ready for the border's being closed, as its prime minister had issued a statement claiming that "they can handle the situation better than Hungary."

"If this is a statement we have to believe him, because he is the prime minister," Szijjarto said.

"Austria is also aware that this might happen. I talked to my German colleague and the Germans are aware that we could make this kind of decision," he added.

Reporting by Krisztina Than and Gergely Szakacs, editing by Larry King

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