Crowds of migrants built up at a razor-wire fence clamoring for entry into the European Union on Tuesday, but faced swift rejection under a crackdown by Hungary on the bloc's inundated eastern frontier.
A day after two decades of frontier-free travel across Europe unraveled in the face of an unprecedented influx of people seeking refuge from war and poverty, ex-communist Hungary effectively sealed this entrance to the EU in scenes carrying echoes of the Cold War.
Having spent the night in the open, families with small children sat in fields beneath a new 3.5-metre high fence running almost the length of the EU's external border with Serbia, halted by a right-wing government that hailed a "new era".
Others pressed against gates, confused and demanding passage. More still sat on the main highway from Serbia to Hungary. "I will sit here until they open the border. I cannot go back to Syria. Life in Syria is finished," said a Kurd from Syria who gave his name as Bower.
The government said it was aiming to deal with asylum requests within a matter of hours, exercising the right to reject them almost immediately on the grounds that Hungary - as of July - considers Serbia a 'safe' country for refugees.
Long queues formed in no-man's land at metal containers built into the fence, where migrants were expected to register, stranded in what the government has dubbed a 'transit zone' and denied official entrance into Hungary. No one appeared to have crossed the border.
"Once their data is entered into the computer system, the decision can be issued very fast, saying 'you came through Serbia, Hungary considers Serbia safe, so your asylum claim is inadmissible,'" said Marta Pardavi of the Hungarian Helsinki Committee rights body.
"(Language) Interpretation will be over the phone," she said. "Those who apply for legal remedy will have to wait in this transit zone, or no-man's land."
Nine Syrians and seven Afghans were detained by police and face possible imprisonment on suspicion of breaching the fence, the first arrests under the new rules.
The influx of hundreds of thousands of migrants and refugees from the Middle East, Africa and Asia has triggered discord and recrimination in Europe.
EU ministers failed to break a deadlock on Monday over sharing out responsibility for some of those seeking asylum. Austria and Slovakia followed Germany in re-establishing border controls and Austria said it would dispatch armed forces to guard its eastern frontier with Hungary.
At least 200,000 migrants have crossed Hungary so far this year, streaming north through the Balkan peninsula having hit Greek shores by boat and dinghy from Turkey.
More than 9,000 entered on Monday, a record for the year, and the flow continued unabated over Greece's northern border into Macedonia on Tuesday, threatening to create a dangerous bottleneck in the impoverished and volatile Balkans.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, one of Europe's most vociferous opponents of immigration, has vowed to stop the flow. His government on Tuesday declared a "state of crisis" in two southern border counties, making it easier to mobilize resources.
The prospect of a long wait at the Hungarian border, possible imprisonment or expulsion back to Serbia may force many to seek alternative routes.
They could go west into Serbia's fellow former Yugoslav republic Croatia, or east into Romania, both members of the EU like Hungary but not of Europe's Schengen zone of border-free travel.
"Maybe we'll try Croatia, then Slovenia and from there to Vienna and Germany," said Emad, a refugee from the Syrian capital Damascus as he entered Macedonia from Greece. "I don't know if it's a good plan, but we have to try."
Migrants wait to board a train to Serbia at a transit camp in Gevgelija, Macedonia, after entering the country by crossing the border with Greece, September 15, 2015. Photo: Reuters/Ognen Teofilovski
Others may bide their time at the fence, where the razor wire and soldiers resembled the borders of eastern Europe during the Communist era.
"I don't know what I will do," said 40-year-old Riad from Aleppo, once Syria's commercial hub reduced in many parts to rubble since war broke out in 2011 and put to flight millions of Syrians. "I will wait to see. We have lost everything to reach this point."
Serbia, an impoverished ex-Yugoslav republic years away from joining the EU, says it is readying more temporary accommodation, but warned it would not accept anyone turned back from Hungarian territory.
"That's no longer our responsibility," Aleksandar Vulin, the minister in charge of policy on migrants, told the Tanjug state news agency. "They are on Hungarian territory and I expect the Hungarian state to behave accordingly towards them."
The United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, reiterated on Tuesday that it advised against sending refugees back to Serbia. "Safe third country" status implies refugees have a fair chance of being granted asylum and would receive the necessary protections and support.
Rights groups say Serbia meets none of the criteria and is still finding homes for thousands of its own refugees from the collapse of Yugoslavia in the 1990s, the last time Europe confronted displacement of people on such a scale.
"We're on the street now," said Mouz, a 22-year-old Syrian, who slept on the border. Asked if he might consider another route, he replied: "I don't know. I'm from Syria. I cannot go back."