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GENEVA (AP) — Countries like Hungary that have blocked desperate migrants from traveling by train in Europe "push them right into the hands of smugglers," with potentially deadly consequences, the head of the International Organization for Migration said Monday.
IOM Director General William Lacy Swing spoke in an interview with The Associated Press just days after 71 migrants likely suffocated in the back of a truck in Austria and about 200 people were feared drowned off Libya trying to reach Europe. He lamented a "fear factor" espoused by some politicians, who he says overlook the benefits that migrants can bring.
Swing, a longtime U.S. diplomat, said his 157-member intergovernmental body that often partners with U.N. agencies is ready to better help the European Union manage an influx of more than 320,000 migrants — many from war-torn Syria — to European shores this year.
The IOM will put up some of its own money, Swing said, but the aid groups overall "need the support of the governments to say, 'We need your help.'" He joined a chorus of U.N. officials praising German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose country has welcomed tens of thousands of refugees, for taking the high ground on a tough political issue.
Some government policies, like blocking migrants from boarding trains, drive them to dangerous options, he said.
"If you — as they have just done in Hungary — if you deny them, although they have a paid ticket and you don't let them to get on board, you push them right into the hands of smugglers," Swing said, alluding to the migrants found dead in Austria. "So they get into vans and into trucks and they die."
"And because of the fear factor, governments have been driven to impose much stricter visa regimes than in the past," he said, noting that Syrian neighbors like Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan have faced a far greater burden in taking in many of the estimated 4 million refugees from Syria than has Europe.
Swing urged governments to ease restrictions on migrants' movements, improve reception centers and crack down on smugglers such as by ensuring safe, legal means of travel.
"Politicians are winning votes on the backs of migrants," he said.
Hungarian government spokesman Zoltan Kovacs stressed that Hungary was protecting external EU borders — not just its own.
"If we do not succeed in restoring order and legality here, illegal migration — including that of refugees, who are truly in need of protection — will become completely unmanageable," he said. The influx of tens or hundreds of thousands of people "illegally ... is unacceptable," he said.
About 160,000 migrants have been detained already this year in Hungary, more than three times the figure recorded in all of 2014. Many apply for asylum but quickly leave the financially-strapped country for richer EU countries like Germany and Austria before their requests are decided.
Merkel has also praised some efforts by Hungary, saying it has registered refugees "very thoroughly."
Hungary is one of several countries including Greece, Serbia, Macedonia and Austria facing challenges with the influx. On Monday, Austria's federal rail operator blocked two express trains arriving from Budapest on the border with Hungary, citing "overcrowding."
Albania and Serbia are two non-EU countries along the "western Balkans route" used by many migrants that have already sought IOM help. Last week, IOM sent advisers to help evaluate the countries' needs. More than 95 percent of IOM's staff of 9,000 is in the field, including in European countries most affected by the influx.
EU governments want more to be done. Germany, France and Britain are seeking better processing of migrants arriving in Italy and Greece — the main landing spots in the EU for migrants fleeing violence, poverty or persecution back home. EU interior and justice ministers will hold a special meeting on the migration question on Sept. 14.
The IOM, which has a budget of about $1.5 billion and counts 157 countries as members, has experience in registering migrants and operates in over 400 sites worldwide. One of its initiatives, known as the Displacement Tracking Matrix, assembles records to help count and locate migrants so that humanitarian groups can get aid where it is needed.
Pablo Gorondi contributed to this report from Budapest, Hungary.