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ASOTTHALOM, Hungary – With the Mediterranean Sea becoming too treacherous and other routes blocked by barbed-wire fences, would-be migrants are taking a new route into the Europe Union: through Hungary.
Coming from as far away as Afghanistan and Syria and as near as Kosovo and Albania, thousands of migrants a week are crossing into Hungary and requesting asylum, turning the country into an EU transit hot spot.
The surging number of immigrants has encouraged far-right and anti-Islam movements across Western Europe. It is also causing strains in remote places like Asotthalom, a Hungarian village near the border with Serbia, where a trickle of migrants three years ago has turned into a flood.
The situation this year "has become practically unbearable," said village mayor Laszlo Toroczkai.
This summer he formed a team of rangers who spend most of their time picking up migrants, who are taken to a police station in the city of Szeged where most apply for asylum in Hungary. Then — just as migrants entering the EU from Italy do — they continue on to Germany, Sweden or elsewhere in Western Europe where they hope to make new lives or join relatives who have already made it.
"A lot of people come and they want to be caught," said Kitty McKinsey, spokeswoman for the UNHCR Regional Representation in Central Europe. "They file for asylum and they go to what are called open reception centers and then a lot of them do frankly disappear into Western Europe."
Lt. Col. Gabor Eberhardt, chief of the border police in Szeged, said this year proceedings were launched against more than 26,000 people of 61 nationalities for illegal border crossings in his territory. That compares to 34 in 2004, the year Hungary joined the EU.
Hungary has seen 35,000 asylum requests so far this year — compared to 18,900 in 2013 — and the flow of migrants has soared in the last few months. There were 683 asylum requests in March but 9,125 in November and a projected 12,500 in December.
About half of these asylum requests were migrants from Kosovo, south of Hungary's border with Serbia.
"I have left since I want to find my feet in life," said Albana Shabani, 22, who fled Kosovo with her husband. Both unemployed, they felt they had no prospects of finding jobs in Kosovo, one of the poorest countries in Europe.
They traveled by bus to Subotica in northern Serbia. Then, guided by the GPS of their mobile phone, they made a three-hour trek into Hungary and were caught by the rangers in Asotthalom.
Like many other Kosovars, they are headed to Germany, one of Europe's strongest economies. Some Kosovo migrants were even born there or lived there already as war refugees but were deported after 2010 when Kosovo was considered safe enough for their return.
The second-largest asylum group to Hungary this year was 7,400 people from Afghanistan, followed by 6,600 from war-torn Syria.
On a visit this week to the border, Associated Press reporters saw many groups of migrants. One man who identified himself only as a Palestinian from Syria said in broken English that he had left Damascus in August and walked most of the way. An Afghan boy who looked no older than 12 was getting his foot bandaged at the Szeged police station.
According to refugee officials, migrants heading to Hungary often use smuggling rings to travel across Turkey and up through the Balkans. Once they make it into Hungary, which belongs to the EU's free travel area known as Schengen, they face borderless travel across most of the 28-member bloc.
Frontex, the EU's border agency, says the Western Balkan route into Hungary has grown more attractive after Greek authorities greatly increased their vigilance at the Evros land crossing with Turkey two years ago. Bulgaria this year also installed a 20-mile (33-kilometer) barbed-wire fence on its border with Turkey, bringing down the number of illegal crossings.
The Western Balkan route "has gained importance, particularly as people are aware of the dangers they are facing in crossing the Mediterranean," said Marta Pardavi of the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, which provides free legal assistance to asylum seekers.
The UNHCR estimates over 3,400 migrants have died this year trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea, as a rising tide of migrants encourages smugglers to use even more unseaworthy boats and lawlessness in Libya allows human trafficking to flourish.
Faced with such an overwhelming increase, the Szeged border police have been getting help from rangers and volunteers, who detain the migrants until they are transferred to a makeshift holding center. There, the migrants, who rarely carry identification, are fingerprinted, given a medical checkup and treatment if needed, fed and housed. Those who request asylum — about 95 percent of them, Eberhardt said — are sent to the migration office, which later decides their fate.
Locals complain about the trash the migrants leave behind — toothbrushes, wet clothes, tattered shoes — and the fires they set in the surrounding forests while waiting overnight to be picked up by smugglers.
Of the 18,900 asylum requests in 2013 made to Hungary, over 11,000 were abandoned, supporting the notion that most migrants are moving on to other destinations.
"A lot of people want to go to join their families in Western Europe, but a lot of people would stay in Hungary if there were better prospects to integrate .... if they could get jobs," McKinsey said, urging the government to better help those who want to begin a new life in the country.
That is not likely to happen. Prime Minister Viktor Orban has said he was against "liberal migration policies."
Marta Pardavi of the Hungarian Helsinki Committee said refugee programs like those run by her group are very dependent on EU funds and get little money from Hungary. Orban's government, she says, is deliberately working "not to have a country that offers anything that would be attractive to illegal migrants or asylum seekers."
Out on the border, Asotthalom ranger Vince Szalma expects a large number of migrants to arrive just in time for Christmas.
He said Kosovo migrants told him "their whole village of 2,500-3,000 people is on the move" toward Hungary.
Vanessa Gera in Warsaw contributed to this report.