Refugee influx puts Schengen at risk

Migrants sit at the far end of a platform at Vienna's train station (Westbahnhof) in Vienna on September 13, 2015. Austria's state-owned rail company announced Sunday it will suspend train services with Germany as Europe tries to cope with a massive surge of refugee arrivals. The announcement came as Germany said it was reinstating "temporary" controls at the border with Austria. (AFP)

European ministers will hold emergency talks Monday on plans to distribute migrants around the continent, after Germany reintroduced border controls admitting it could no longer cope with the influx.

The dramatic reinstatement of border checks Sunday signalled a U-turn on Chancellor Angela Merkel's earlier decision to throw open the country's borders to Syrian refugees.

"The German decision of today underlines the urgency to agree on the measures proposed by the European Commission in order to manage the refugee crisis," the EU said Sunday.

A plan to distribute 160,000 refugees to relieve pressure on "frontline" states such as Italy, Greece and Hungary, faces strong resistance from countries including the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Romania.

Hungary, which is building a fence along its border and says it will arrest illegal migrants from this week, wants much stricter controls around the edges of the EU.

And Czech Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka has insisted his country would never accept compulsory quotas, saying the system "won't work", while Slovakia said it would try to block any such binding measures.

Border controls back

Germany's reintroduction of border controls threatens to undermine the so-called Schengen system, which allows passport-free travel among many nations in the bloc.

"The aim of this measure is to stop the current influx to Germany and to return to an orderly process," Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere said Sunday.

Migrants must understand "they cannot choose the states where they are seeking protection," he told reporters, as Germany also temporarily halted all train traffic to and from Austria.

Germany's actions were welcomed by Hungary's hardline Prime Minister Viktor Orban.

"We understand that this decision was necessary in order to defend Germany's and Europe's values," he told Bild newspaper.

Hungary, which reported a record 4,330 newcomers on Saturday alone, is racing to finish a controversial anti-migrant fence on its frontier by Tuesday, when tough new laws will take effect.

For those already in Hungary, confusion reigned late Sunday over whether they would be able to enter Germany, the preferred destination of many of the migrants.

"I do not want to stay in Hungary," Yusuf, a Syrian in his twenties, told AFP at a refugee transit camp in the border town of Roszke.

"We thought that Germany was the only country that would treat us like human beings," 27-year-old Hatem Ali Ahaj told AFP, adding that he and his 16-year-old brother and their cousin had been walking through Europe for 22 days.

The developments came as tragedy struck again off the coast of Greece, with 34 more migrants -- including four babies and 11 children -- drowning when their overcrowded wooden boat capsized in high winds.

End of Schengen?

Under EU rules, the first country of entry is required to deal with an asylum seeker's request for protection, but Germany had waived the rule for Syrian refugees.

While earning praise for its welcoming stance, German regional authorities have buckled under the sudden surge of migrants.

In Munich, overwhelmed local officials said they were stretched to capacity, with more than 13,000 people arriving in the city on Saturday alone.

Merkel, whose country expects to receive 800,000 asylum seekers this year, bluntly warned last month that the passport-free Schengen zone of 26 countries was under threat if the EU failed to work together on coping with the inflow.

"If we don't arrive at a fair distribution then the issue of Schengen will arise -- we don't want that," she said.

The International Organisation for Migration said Friday that more than 430,000 people have crossed the Mediterranean to Europe this year, with 2,748 dying en route or going missing.

The 57-member Organisation of Islamic Cooperation meanwhile urged the United Nations on Sunday to consider a peacekeeping force for Syria to help stem the flow of people trying to reach Europe.

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