Germany introduced border controls on Sunday, and dramatically halted all train traffic with Austria, after the country’s regions said they could no longer cope with the overwhelming number of refugees entering the country.
Interior minister, Thomas de Maizière, announced the measures after German officials said record numbers of refugees, most of them from Syria, had stretched the system to breaking point. “This step has become necessary,” he told a press conference in Berlin, adding it would cause disruption.
Asylum seekers must understand “they cannot chose the states where they are seeking protection,” he told reporters.
All trains between Austria and Bavaria, the principal conduit through which 450,000 refugees have arrived in Germany this year, ceased at 5pm Berlin time. Only EU citizens and others with valid documents would be allowed to pass through Germany’s borders, de Maizière said.
The decision means that Germany has effectively exited temporarily from the Schengen system. It is likely to lead to chaotic scenes on the Austrian-German border, as tens of thousands of refugees try to enter Germany by any means possible and set up camp next to it.
German police began patrolling road crossing points with Austria at 5.30pm on Sunday. These checks may be rolled out to the borders with Poland and the Czech Republic. Chancellor Angela Merkel agreed the details in a conference call on Saturday with her Social Democrat coalition partners. The Czech Republic said separately that it would boost controls on its border with Austria.
The emergency measures are designed to give respite to Germany’s federal states who are responsible for looking after refugees. There is also discussion inside the government about sending troops to the road and rail borders with Austria to reinforce security, Der Spiegel reported.
The move comes amid extraordinary scenes at Munich’s main train station over the weekend and a growing backlash inside Germany over the decision last week by Merkel, to allow unregistered refugees to enter the country. The numbers exceeded all expectations.
On Saturday, 13,015 refugees arrived at the station on trains from Austria. Another 1,400 came on Sunday morning. The city’s mayor, Dieter Reiter, said Munich was “full”, with its capacities completely exhausted. Some refugees slept on the station concourse on Saturday night.
Germany’s stunning ad hoc move sets the stage for a bitter showdown on Monday at a meeting of EU interior ministers in Brussels. Hungary’s president Viktor Orbán welcomed the decision and said it would protect “German and European values”. He and other east European leaders are insisting they will not accept a plan set out last week by the European commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker for mandatory refugee quotas.
De Maizière said Germany had reintroduced border controls for reasons of security but added pointedly that they were also “a signal to Europe”. Germany, Austria and France support Juncker’s proposal which would see 160,000 asylum seekers shared out across all 28 EU states. The refugees would be allocated to each country on the basis of its size and wealth.
There has been implacable opposition from other EU states includingHungary, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Poland and Romania. On Sunday, the Czech prime minister, Bohuslav Sobotka, said: “I think it is impossible to retreat. Our position is firm.”
Previously Orbán has blamed Berlin for the crisis, and Merkel’s decision to open Germany’s borders. Budapest is racing to complete a fence on its border with Serbia, where 4,330 people crossed on Saturday. On Tuesday, it introduces tough laws which make crossing the border punishable with jail.
“These migrants are not coming our way from war zones but from camps in Syria’s neighbours. So these people are not fleeing danger and don’t need to be scared for their lives,” Orbán told Germany’s Bild newspaper. European leaders were “living in a dream world”.
Orbán’s hardline populist stance has exasperated his neighbours. Austria’s chancellor, Werner Faymann, said Hungary’s harsh treatment of refugees was reminiscent of the second world war. “Piling refugees on trains in the hopes that they go far, far away brings back memories of the darkest period of our continent,” he told Der Spiegel.
Faymann suggested that if no consensus was reached on Monday in Brussels, Germany and its allies could try to force through a vote on quotas with a qualified majority.
He said Austria and Germany – both net contributors to the EU budget – would consider sanctions against countries stubbornly refusing to share the refugee burden. This might include axing some EU structural funds from which “east European states profit most of all”.
As well as quotas, Juncker’s proposal includes establishing hotspots at EU frontiers, including Greece and Italy, where refugees can be registered under a unitary system.
The UN’s refugee agency, the UNHCR, called on the EU to avoid fragmenting into a patchwork of countries with different border rules, which would plunge thousands of refugees into “legal limbo”. Decisions by a meeting of EU interior ministers on Monday would be “even more critical”, the agency said.
Greek authorities said on Sunday that 28 people drowned, half of them children, when their wooden smuggling boat capsized in the Aegean sea. The incident happened before dawn off the Greek island of Farmakonisi. The Greek coastguard pulled 68 people out of the water. Another 30 managed to swim to land.
Germany’s federal regions, meanwhile, have said that they are struggling to cope with an unprecedented human influx. Berlin’s city government has commandeered two sports halls next to the Olympic stadium to house new arrivals. It is considering making use of a velodrome, empty hangars in a trade fair building and the Tempelhof airport.
The CSU, the Bavarian sister party to Merkel’s Christian Democrat CDU, has accused the chancellor of making an “unparalleled historical mistake” in opening Germany’s borders. On Sunday, Christoph Hillenband, the president of Upper Bavaria, said the system for dealing with refugees was close to collapse, with 63,000 people arriving in Munich since late August.
Dedicated trains were now taking refugees north to other parts of Germany, with regular passengers shunted on to alternative services. “It’s not feasible for us to take in the equivalent of a small town’s population every day. It’s simply not doable logistically any more,” Hillenbrand said.
Mustafa Alomar, a refugee from Manbej, near Aleppo in Syria, said he had sympathy with Europeans who said the refugee crisis was not their problem, but added: “If you stay in Syria you will be killed. That’s true regardless of whether you are poor, middle class or rich.”
Alomar, a former student of English literature at Aleppo University, is living at a refugee hostel in Berlin, while his familyis in a camp in Syria near the Turkish border. He said three of his friends drowned after their boat from Libya to Italy sank. He was the only one who survived.
“We are not angels or Satan. We are simply human beings,” he said.