This year alone, hundreds of thousands of migrants have made their way from troubled nations into the European Union seeking asylum. The wave of newcomers has strained resources and political relations, and could trigger a backlash.

Share story

ROSZKE, Hungary — Fraying tensions snapped along Hungary’s southern border Monday as thousands more migrants staggered into the country from Serbia and European leaders scrambled to figure out what to do with them and how to stanch the flow.

Hungary’s inability to control the flow of people across its southern border with Serbia was on graphic display as crowds, who had grown tired of waiting for buses at Hungary’s first migrant holding center near the border village of Roszke, tore down flimsy police tape, advanced down a country road and walked around and straight through rows of police trying to block them.

Police shoved individual migrants and fired jets of pepper spray, but it had little effect as about half of the 500-strong crowd reached the M5 highway that connects Serbia and Hungary. They headed north along the shoulder, raising their arms and chanting “Germany! Germany!”

Some had been waiting in Roszke for more than two days, with temperatures falling into the 40s overnight. Still more arrived, in bedraggled clusters of 10 or 20, along the railroad tracks that sliced a gap in the razor-wire fence Hungary is constructing along the 108-mile Serb border.

“At night, it is so cold,” said Mahmoud Alatrash, 29. “I think we will never leave. I think we will die here.”

Police finally walked beside them as a lone helicopter monitored the marchers’ progress north as darkness fell. The highway was blocked for nearly 30 miles as a precaution. A few hours later, as the marchers paused by the roadside to try to sleep in the cold on the pavement, police delivered buses and requested they board for delivery to a refugee camp. Most refused.

With pressure building on European countries to accept more of the migrants and many countries, notably Hungary, resisting that pressure, President François Hollande of France announced Monday that his country would take in 24,000 asylum seekers over two years. To relieve the burden on Germany, he told Chancellor Angela Merkel that France would take in 1,000 of the migrants who have just arrived from Hungary. Most say they are fleeing the 4-year-old civil war in Syria.

German officials say they are prepared to accept as many as 800,000 asylum seekers this year — a number equal to 1 percent of the population. The government announced Monday that it would set aside $6.7 billion next year to deal with the influx.

British Prime Minister David Cameron said his country would take in 20,000 Syrian refugees within the next five years.

Merkel said the public outpouring of donations and assistance to refugees who arrived by the thousands in Germany over the last few days ought to make her compatriots feel “proud and grateful.”

But there’s unease in Germany as well: over how far the country’s resources can be stretched, over the backlash already brewing in some areas and over Germany’s being a leader and an outlier in the crisis, even if laudably so.

“Germany is very reluctant in accepting a leadership role,” said Alexander Goerlach, editor of the European magazine here in Berlin. “This is due to Germany’s past. We are haunted by the ghosts and demons of the nationalistic era of the 19th century that in one way or another laid the ground for the two world wars.”

Merkel is working with the EU’s other main power, France, to come up with a solution to the biggest migrant crisis to hit the region since World War II. The two partners have agreed on a proposal, to be unveiled Wednesday, to distribute 120,000 asylum seekers among EU nations based on each country’s size and economic strength.

But agreement among all 28 EU members appears elusive, with several Central and Eastern European states saying categorically that they do not want to accept any refugees.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, whose heavy-handed treatment of asylum seekers has drawn international criticism, dismissed the quota plan Monday, saying that residents’ right to free movement within the EU would make country-specific numbers unenforceable.

Orban has repeatedly said that Hungary has the right to protect its Christian traditions by refusing to accept large numbers of Muslims and that many of the arrivals making their way to Germany and other prosperous nations did not deserve asylum.

Yet strains were beginning to show in the Hungarian government. On Monday, Csaba Hende, Hungary’s defense minister, resigned after a national-security meeting, the state news agency reported. Hende had been responsible, along with the minister of the interior, for construction of the border fence.

Orban had asked that the fence be completed by the end of August, but only a first stage, a line of razor wire lying on the ground, had been completed by then, with the bulk of the 13-foot barrier still being built.

Those arriving Monday in Roszke could hear, as they walked along the rail tracks through the gap in the fence, the clang of a piledriver sinking metal poles into the ground just a few hundred yards away.

Already this year alone, more than 150,000 migrants have requested asylum in Hungary. The latest figures from the government show that the largest number, 53,467, came from Syria, with 41,094 from Afghanistan, 24,554 from Kosovo and the rest from Iraq, Pakistan, Eritrea and other troubled nations.

The opening of a new relocation camp in Roszke on Sunday not far from the muddy field where the latest arrivals were being held is only the first step in a coming crackdown on illegal migration, Orban promised.

A series of revisions to Hungary’s refugee laws, set to take effect Sept. 15, will give the authorities greater powers to contain the flow and punish those who contribute to it.

But Hungary was not the only flash point Monday.

More asylum seekers, many from Syria and Iraq, also continued to land in Europe on one of Greece’s eastern islands. More than 230,000 have come ashore to date, including 61 rescued Monday from the sea off the coast of the hard-hit island of Lesbos. Among those plucked from the waters were a baby and more than a dozen other children.

More than 15,000 refugees and migrants are living in squalid conditions on Lesbos, waiting to be processed. A Greek official said about two-thirds of them would be ferried to the Greek mainland this week. Athens has appealed to the EU for emergency aid to deal with the influx.

Videos from the unfolding crisis