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European Response To Asylum-Seekers Remains Inconsistent

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

As asylum seekers continue to arrive in Europe, the response of European nations remains inconsistent and confusing. Croatia has become the latest hotspot in the crisis. At least 15,000 asylum-seekers are now stranded there, having entered from Serbia after Hungary closed its borders. Reporter Lauren Frayer has spent the past two weeks covering the migrant crisis, and she joins us now from Budapest.

Lauren, it seems like Croatia went from welcoming refugees to trying to keep them out. You've just come from Croatia. Why the change of heart there?

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: In short, it's volume - tens of thousands of people arriving in a country of only a little more than 4 million. And Croatia's U-turn on this issue seems pretty typical of a larger shift in the crisis over the past two weeks, with the exception of Hungary, which has consistently had a hard-line toward migrants. Two weeks ago, it was almost like a march to freedom here, you know, refugees walking down European highways, accepting charity from strangers. But now, the welcome mat seems to be pulled back a bit, and it's bewildering for the refugees. Many of these people left their homes in the Middle East just five or 10 days ago. And at that point, they were seeing television footage of people being welcomed into Europe so they set off. Now they get here, and it's a pretty different picture.

SIEGEL: You've mentioned Hungary, which has built fences along its borders. Why do the Hungarians seem to be the most resistant?

FRAYER: So here's a little detail that I think says a lot of. In Hungary, especially in villages and rural areas, the church bells ring every day at 12 noon, and it's to commemorate a battle in the 15th century when Hungarian fighters expelled the Turks - so Muslim rulers - from their territory. And many Hungarians, also, especially in rural areas, have never met a Muslim. The only Muslims they know are from this story. And now they literally have Muslim migrants and refugees emerging from the cornfields in their backyards. Hungary is a homogenous country that's at the crossroads of east and west in Europe. It's been occupied by one foreign power after another - the Ottomans, the Habsburgs, the Nazis, the Soviets. And so Hungarians want to protect their unique culture, ethnicity and language after all of that. And right-wing prime minister here, Viktor Orban, certainly plays on that in a lot of his anti-immigrant rhetoric.

SIEGEL: You've spent two weeks with migrants and refugees in Central Europe. What do you think will be your lasting impressions of them?

FRAYER: Well, you think you have an idea of what a refugee looks like, and then you meet these middle-class, tech-savvy people - they could be you or me - who never thought they'd be in this situation. And they're delivering themselves onto the doorstep of another continent in full realization of the political, moral, economic problems this causes. And while there's tragedy all around, there are also moments of levity. I'm smiling as I tell you about this one couple I spent time with this morning - Syrian Christians from Damascus. They're newlyweds. And they said they always wanted to see Europe, but they didn't think it would quite be like this. They pulled out their smartphones and showed me all the selfies they'd taken of themselves crammed on a raft from Turkey to Greece, smiling, walking through a forest in Macedonia, beaming. And so they're fleeing war, but they're also talking about getting master's degrees and starting a new life. So people are embarrassed, and dignified and desperate.

SIEGEL: That's reporter Lauren Frayer in Budapest.

Lauren thanks.

FRAYER: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.