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Thousands Of Migrants Stranded In Serbia After Hungary Seals Border


Today, asylum-seekers trying to get from Serbia to Hungary were blocked by razor wire. Hungary had been planning to close off its border for weeks, ever since tens of thousands of migrants - mostly from the Middle East - started trying to get to Western Europe through Hungary. Reporter Lauren Frayer has been on both sides of the Hungary-Serbia border today. She joins us now from Hungary. Welcome to the program, Lauren.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Thanks for having me.

CORNISH: So this fence was finished last night. What's been happening as a result along the border?

FRAYER: Well, the day started with aid agencies packing up this massive disaster relief camp that they'd constructed in a cornfield next to the border. Hungary bussed nearly all of the migrants and refugees who had been sleeping here for days off to the Austrian border. So there was no one left here to help. And with Hungary's border closed, no one else was coming in from Serbia. Well, it turns out there are still people to help and they're stuck on the other side of the border now. And those are the people who have started a hunger strike. Hundreds of people pressing up against the border fence, yelling at guards to open it; others held signs saying, Europe, shame.

CORNISH: But you were able to cross that border. How is that possible?

FRAYER: So it was frustrating because I was on the Hungarian side of the fence and I could see those people - maybe a football field away - in front of me, but I couldn't reach them. Authorities had shut down all traffic on the main highway between Serbia and Hungary. I tried to drive across the border. Police pulled me over. I tried to walk through and was turned back. And I ended up driving more than an hour west to go through another border crossing to enter Serbia, far from where those migrants were protesting. And this border was supposed to be an orderly place, where normal travelers could go back and forth, where commerce could continue to pass, and, more importantly, where migrants could approach and request asylum in a humane way. And in fact, the border has been turned into a military zone, which is still currently blocking a major European highway - Hungary's M5.

CORNISH: Right, Hungary has declared a full state of emergency. What effect has that had on the events there?

FRAYER: So new laws are in effect today that criminalize border crossing. Anyone who crosses the border outside of an official border post can go to jail for three years. I was driving back from the Serbian border post where I crossed, and as night fell, I started to see shadows on the side of the road. And it was groups of refugees and migrants emerging from the woods, whereas a few days ago, they marched down Hungary's highways, flooded train stations. It was almost sort of a happy procession, you know, marching to freedom somehow. And now they're deemed criminals by the Hungarian government, and they're forced both literally and figuratively into the shadows. At one point, I pulled over on the side of the road and I talked to a group of Iraqi men who just emerged from the forest. They looked absolutely exhausted. They looked hungry. They told me they had crawled under some barbed wire and into Hungary undetected. But they don't know where to go now. They know that they're deemed criminals here. They asked me for a ride. But as of today, it's a crime in Hungary to be a migrant and also to give an illegal border crosser a lift in your private car.

CORNISH: And that's not all. Hungary is talking about extending its border fence, right, to include part of its frontier now with Romania. What's going on there?

FRAYER: Well, people are amassing on the Serbian side of the border, and they really have two options - east or west - so Romania or Croatia. This new fence on the Romanian border is an attempt to preempt them from simply, you know, walking around the corner. But the significance is huge because this would be a fence between two European Union countries. Serbia is not in the EU, but Romania is, so it's a big challenge to the European Union - I mean, barriers being erected dividing, again, East and West within Europe. And that's why Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany and her Austrian counterpart have called for an emergency EU summit next week in Brussels.

CORNISH: That's reporter Lauren Frayer in Hungary. Lauren, thank you.

FRAYER: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lauren Frayer covers India for NPR News. In June 2018, she opened a new NPR bureau in India's biggest city, its financial center, and the heart of Bollywood—Mumbai.
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