BUDAPEST, Hungary (AP) — Thousands of exhausted, elated people fleeing their Arab and Asian homelands reached their dream destinations of Germany and Austria on Saturday, completing epic journeys by boat, bus, train and foot to escape war and poverty.
Before dawn, they clambered off a fleet of Hungarian buses at the Austrian border to find a warm welcome from charity workers offering beds and hot tea. Within a few more hours of rapid-fire assistance, many found themselves whisked by train to the Austrian capital, Vienna, and the southern German city of Munich, where onlookers cheered their arrival and children were handed candy and stuffed animals.
The surprise overnight effort eased immediate pressure on Hungary, which has struggled to manage the flow of thousands of migrants arriving daily from non-EU member Serbia. But officials warned that the human tide south of Hungary still was rising, and more westward-bound travelers arrived in Budapest within hours of an exodus from the capital’s central rail station.
The apparent futility of stopping the migrants’ progress west was underscored when Hungary announced Saturday that its bus service to the border had finished and would not be repeated. Almost immediately two groups hit the pavement to start walking to the border: about 200 people who walked out of an open-door refugee camp near the city of Gyor, and about 300 who left Budapest’s central Keleti train station, the epicenter of Hungary’s recent migrant crisis. Hundreds more were making their way independently to the border on foot and normal train services.
A spokesman for Austria’s Interior Ministry, Karl-Heinz Grundboeck, said about 6,500 asylum seekers have crossed the border Saturday from Hungary and most have traveled by train to Vienna or beyond.
German federal police spokesman Simon Hegemueller said 1,600 already had arrived at Munich’s central station and that figure was expected to reach 3,000 by closing time after midnight.
Hungarian authorities had spent most of the week trying to force those pouring into the country to report to government-run refugee centers to apply for asylum in their initial EU entry point as the 28-nation bloc’s rules require. But thousands refused – some expressing fears that Hungary would deport or detain them indefinitely – and demanded free passage overwhelmingly to Germany.
After a three-day standoff with police, thousands marched west Friday from the Keleti station along one of Hungary’s main motorways and camped overnight in the rain by the roadside. Hundreds more broke through police lines at a train station in the western town of Bicske, where police were trying to take them to a refugee camp, and blocked the main rail line as they, too, marched west.
Austria and Germany made the breakthrough possible by announcing they would take responsibility for the mass of humanity already on the move west or camped out in their thousands at Keleti. Hungary on Tuesday had suspended train services from that station to Austria and Germany, compounding the build-up there as it sought to compel the visitors to register for asylum locally.
The human rights watchdog Amnesty International welcomed the initiative to clear Hungary’s humanitarian traffic jam.
“After endless examples of shameful treatment by governments of refugees and migrants in Europe, it is a relief to finally see a sliver of humanity. But this is far from over, both in Hungary and in Europe as a whole,” said Gauri van Gulik, Amnesty’s deputy director for Europe. “The pragmatic and humane approach finally applied here should become the rule, not the exception.”
But Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orban, told reporters the opposite was more likely. He said Hungary collected and drove the migrants to the border only because they were posing a public menace, particularly by snarling traffic and rail lines west of Budapest.
“It is unacceptable for them to paralyze traffic on the highway and they are putting their own lives at risk,” Orban said at his ruling party’s annual picnic in a village near Lake Balaton. “We proved that we were able to protect both their safety and that of Hungarians.”
Orban said Hungary was determined to reduce the flow of foreigners trying to traverse the country en route to the wealthier, more immigrant-friendly West. He criticized European Union plans to reach a bloc-wide agreement at a summit Sept. 14 committing each nation to accept a new quota of foreigners to shelter, arguing that this would only spur more one-way traffic.
“What will it solve if we divide 50,000 or 100,000 migrants among us, when uncountable millions will be on the way?” Orban said.
A central Budapest rally by Hungary’s third-largest party, the anti-immigrant Jobbik, underscored why many of those seeking sanctuary in Europe wanted to get through the country as quickly as possible. Earlier in the week, many of the same activists traveled to the border with Serbia to hurl verbal abuse point-blank at newly arrived travelers.
Jobbik leader Gabor Vona told the crowd of 300 waving Hungarian and party flags that within a few years “Hungary will not be a transit country, but a destination country, because the Pakistanis, the Afghans, the Syrians will say: `Hungary is not so bad after all.’ And that’s what I want to avoid. That’s why we have to say, very clearly, that Hungary belongs to the Hungarians. We like everybody, we respect everybody – but we don’t want anybody coming here.”
Other speakers branded supporters of refugee rights “traitors” and “scum.” Activists’ placards included appeals for “Deportation, not work permits!” and “Border closures! We don’t want immigrants!”
The contrast could not have been greater in Vienna’s central train station. When the first group of 400 arrived, charity workers offered supplies displayed in labeled shopping carts containing food, water and packages of hygiene products for men and women. Austrian onlookers cheered the migrants’ arrival, with many shouting “Welcome!” in both German and Arabic. One Austrian woman pulled from her handbag a pair of children’s rubber rain boots and handed them to a Middle Eastern woman carrying a small boy.
“Austria is very good,” said Merhan Harshiri, a 23-year-old Iraqi who smiled broadly as he walked toward the supply line, where newcomers munched on fresh fruit. “We have been treated very well by Austrian police.”
“I am very happy,” said Firas Al Tahan, 38, a laundry worker from the Syrian capital, Damascus. Seated beside him on the train station’s concrete pavement were his 33-year-old wife, Baneaa, in her lap 1-month-old daughter Dahab, and beside them four other children aged 5 to 12, all smiling beside a cart containing green and red apples.
Many had been awoken by friends at Keleti around midnight with news they couldn’t easily believe after days of deadlock: Hungary was granting their demand to leave. Many feared that the scores of buses assembling at the terminal would take them to Hungarian camps for asylum-seekers. It took extended negotiation at bus doors to persuade some people to climb aboard.
Keleti appeared transformed Saturday as cleaners used power washers to clear what had become a squalid concrete camp of approximately 3,000 residents sprawling to the edge of Budapest’s subway system. Only about 10 police remained to supervise a much-thinned presence of approximately 500 campers sleeping in pup tents or on blankets and carpets.
Keleti’s transient population dwindled further in the afternoon as about 300 headed west through the city on foot. One marcher displayed a handwritten cardboard banner reading “Walking on foot to Austria.” Unlike Friday, when police tried to block marchers initially, officers this time offered practical assistance. The marchers quickly crossed a major bridge spanning the Danube River as police in two vans and on two motorcycles stopped traffic to ease the trekkers’ safe passage.
In Berlin, German officials said they felt it was necessary to take responsibility given Hungary’s apparent inability to manage the challenge. But they emphasized that Hungary, as an EU member and first port of call for many migrants, needed to do more to ensure that new arrivals filed for asylum there rather than travel deeper into Europe.
German government spokesman Georg Streiter told The Associated Press that Saturday’s acceptance of migrants represented “an attempt to help solve an emergency situation. But we continue to expect Hungary to meet its European obligations.”
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has led calls for other EU members to shelter more migrants as potential refugees, particularly those fleeing civil war in Syria, said in comments published Saturday that her country would observe “no limits on the number of asylum seekers.”
“As a strong, economically healthy country we have the strength to do what is necessary” to ensure that every asylum seeker receives a fair hearing, Merkel told the Funke consortium of newspapers.
Associated Press reporters Marko Drobnjakovic and Alexander Kuli in Budapest; Bela Szandelszky and Frank Augstein in Hegyeshalom, Hungary; Balint Szlanko and Petr Josek in Nickelsdorf, Austria; George Jahn in Vienna and Frank Jordans in Berlin contributed to this report.