BUDAPEST, Hungary » After misery, delivery.
More than 1,000 people from the Middle East and Asia, exhausted after breaking away from police and marching for hours toward Western Europe, boarded scores of buses provided by Hungary’s government and arrived before dawn Saturday on the border with Austria. The breakthrough became possible when Austria announced that it and Germany would take the migrants on humanitarian grounds and to aid their EU neighbor.
Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann announced the decision early Saturday after speaking with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Hours before, Hungary had announced it would mobilize a bus fleet to scoop the weary travelers overnight from Budapest’s main international train station and from the roadside of Hungary’s main highway and carry them to the Austrian border.
In jubilant scenes on the border, hundreds of migrants bearing blankets over their shoulders to provide cover from heavy rains walked off from buses and into Austria, where volunteers at a roadside Red Cross shelter offered them hot tea and handshakes of welcome. Many collapsed in exhaustion on the floor, smiles on their faces.
Janos Lazar, chief of staff to Hungary’s prime minister, said authorities had reversed course and stopped trying to force migrants to go to state-run asylum shelters because the migrants’ movements were imperiling rail services and causing massive traffic jams. “Transportation safety can’t be put at risk,” he said.
The asylum seekers chiefly from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan often have spent months in Turkish refugee camps, taken long journeys by boat, train and foot through Greece and the Balkans, then crawled under barbed wire on Hungary’s southern frontier to a frosty welcome. While Austria, on Hungary’s western border, says it will offer the newcomers asylum opportunities, most say they want to settle in Germany.
Since Tuesday morning, Hungarian authorities had refused to let them board trains to the west, and the migrants balked at going to processing centers, fearing they would face deportation or indefinite detention in Hungary. Government officials said they changed course because Hungary’s systems were becoming overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of unwanted visitors.
Government spokesman Zoltan Kovacs told The Associated Press that the government was providing buses to move migrants west as an exceptional measure. He said Hungary would continue to abide by European Union rules, which includes an obligation to register all asylum seekers at the first EU point of entry. Hundreds continue to flow through Hungary’s southern border with non-EU member Serbia daily, and tens of thousands of more migrants traveling through Greece and the Balkans soon could reach Hungary.
“The situation at Keleti train station, on the highways and on the train lines threatened to shut down part of Hungary’s transportation system, which led to the decision to take the migrants to the Hungarian side of the border,” Kovacs said.
Abdullah Baker, a 26-year-old physician from the war-ravaged city of Aleppo in Syria, said he wants to work at a hospital in Freiburg, southwest Germany, where a friend is already employed. Baker left his parents and four sisters behind. He and two friends were among the few Syrians on an Austrian-bound bus carrying about 50 people.
“My family had tears of joy when I told them about the bus,” Baker said. “We always fear the unknown but I long for closure.”
Mohammed, a 35-year-old Syrian man who was packing his belongings in the sunken plaza of Keleti train terminal and informing other migrants about the buses, said he was happy to be leaving Hungary.
“The situation is so ugly here and I want to send (a) message to all Syrian people and all refugee people: Do not come to Hungary,” he said.
Such comments reflect the reality that asylum seekers see limited opportunities and a less welcoming atmosphere in Hungary than in Germany, Sweden and other Western nations.
In what local media branded a “day of uprisings,” about 350 people broke through a police cordon Friday at a railway station in Bicske, Hungary, and began heading to Austria, 135 kilometers (85 miles) to the west, on tracks leading away from the station. Surprised riot police scrambled for their helmets as the crowd, who had refused to leave the train and enter a nearby asylum center, launched their surprise breakout from the front carriages of the parked train.
One man, a 51-year-old Pakistani, collapsed about 800 meters (yards) from the station after paramedics failed to revive him.
Police did block about 200 of the passengers, mostly women and children. Hours later they were boarded onto buses and taken to Bicske asylum center, an open-door compound of large multi-bed residences with sports grounds. Charity workers aiding the migrants said smugglers had lied to them that Hungary’s asylum centers were prisons and deportation centers.
Hours before the Bicske breakout, about 2,000 people walked out of Budapest’s Keleti station, which in recent weeks had become a dysfunctional refugee camp, to start a planned 171-kilometer journey (106-mile) hike to Austria. At first police tried to block them, but they quickly gave up. By nightfall, the fast-moving marchers had covered about 25 kilometers (15 miles), snarling motorway traffic all the way.
Along the way, some locals marveling at the scene offered gestures of support, offering water bottles or making V-for-victory signs.
Other Hungarians made clear they were pleased to see the foreigners leave. “Go home already,” one man shouted in Hungarian from a passing car.
Also Friday, the Hungarian parliament voted to tighten its immigration rules, approving the creation of so-called “transit zone” facilities on the Hungarian border with Serbia where migrants would be kept until their asylum requests would be decided within eight days. Migrants would have limited rights to appeal those decisions.
One man leaving Budapest on foot said he expected the journey to Austria to take three days. Osama Morzar, 23, from Aleppo, Syria, was so determined not to be registered in Hungary that he removed his fingerprints with acid, holding up totally smooth finger pads to an AP reporter as proof.
“The government of Hungary is very bad,” said Morzar, who studied pharmacology at Aleppo’s university. “The United Nations should help.”
A couple from Baghdad, Mohammed and Zahara, who marched with a toddler, said they had been in a Hungarian asylum camp and got roughed up by guards because they refused to be fingerprinted. Zahara said she has relatives in Belgium and was determined to seek asylum there. They would not give their last names.
Saleh Abdurahman, a Palestinian refugee from Syria who marched from Budapest, said he was set on escaping a Middle East made intolerable by wars that he blames on the United States and Europe.
“We don’t want to go to their countries because we’d like to be rich,” he said. “We only need to be human beings.”
Hungary faces an unrelenting wave of humanity coming from the south.
In Geneva, the U.N. refugee agency said Friday that nearly 5,600 people crossed from Greece to Macedonia a day earlier. That’s roughly double the already high 2,500 to 3,000 per day in recent weeks.
“That is a dramatic number,” said UNHCR spokeswoman Melissa Fleming, saying it was the highest she’s heard yet.
Antonio Guterres, the head of the U.N. refugee agency, urged the EU to create a “mass relocation program … with the mandatory participation of all EU member states.”
He said a “very preliminary estimate” would be for the creation of at least 200,000 places to be added across the bloc. EU leaders currently are mulling plans to create 120,000 more spaces beyond the 32,000 already agreed.
Associated Press reporters Mstyslav Chernov in Bicske, Alexander Kuli in Budapest and George Jahn in Vienna contributed to this report.