BUDAPEST/VIENNA Hungary on Tuesday suspended European Union asylum rules requiring it to take back refugees who have travelled through Hungary to other countries, and Brussels immediately called on it to clarify its action.
"Hungary's asylum system is overburdened, the most overburdened among EU member states affected by illegal immigration," a Hungarian government spokesman said. The asylum rules, known as the Dublin Regulation, were first drafted in the early 1990s. They require people seeking refuge to do so in the European country where they first set foot.
So far this year, more than 60,000 immigrants have crossed into Hungary illegally, the government said.
The European Commission called on Hungary to explain immediately why it had stopped taking back asylum seekers from other states in defiance of EU rules.
"As the Dublin rules do not foresee the suspension of transfers by the receiving member states, the Commission has asked Hungary for immediate clarification on the nature and extent of the technical failure, and on the measures taken to remedy the situation," a Commission spokeswoman said.
Budapest cited "technical reasons" for its suspension for an indefinite period.
"Hungary has used up the capacities at its disposal," the government statement said. "The situation requires fast action; in this escalated situation Hungary needs to take a move ahead of EU decisions."
A week ago Hungary announced plans to build a fence along its southern border with Serbia to stem the flow of illegal migrants who enter Europe through the Balkans from the Middle East and Africa. Most move on to wealthier western Europe.
This week sees an EU summit where leaders are to discuss proposals to redistribute asylum seekers from Greece and Italy. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has said such a plan "borders on insanity".
Suspending the Dublin Regulation particularly affects countries neighbouring Hungary, such as Austria. A spokesman for the Austrian Interior Ministry said it was pushing "to find a solution as quickly as possible".
Austria itself has stopped processing asylum requests in an effort to pressure other EU countries to do more to help absorb waves of refugees pouring into the continent.
It had 21,000 asylum requests in the first five months of the year, the interior ministry said. It had around 17,000 requests in all of 2013 and 28,000 in 2014.
(Additional reporting by Alastair Macdonald in Brussels; Editing by Andrew Roche)