Austria, Germany open borders to thousands of migrants

Austria and Germany opened their borders Saturday to thousands of migrants traveling by bus or train or on foot to cross Austria and continue their journey to Germany.

However, Hungary’s police chief said that authorities there would no longer provide bus transportation for migrants to the Austrian border, specifying that the service had been offered on a one-time-only basis.

The European Union member countries have been divided in the face of an unprecedented migrant influx. EU foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini warned that migrant inflow was “here to stay” and called for a unifying European approach to effectively respond to it.

Austrian Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz said that the migrants’ plight and the growing human cost was a “wake-up call” for Europe to resolve its biggest refugee crisis since World War II.

Trains filled with thousands of refugees arrived Saturday in Germany after days of delay at Hungary’s Keleti train station in Budapest.

The first trains had left Austria for Germany just hours after the people were bused from Budapest to the Austrian border.

Hungary had been refusing to let the refugees board westward trains, in an effort to comply with European Union regulations that require they be registered in the first EU country they get to.  But the refugees refused to go to processing centers, hoping to move on and register somewhere else where the economy is stronger.

The movement of the trains was a breakthrough after a week of uncertainty about the status of refugees seeking asylum inside the borders of the European Union.

Austrian officials said Saturday that several thousand refugees had been given  aid packages and a place to sleep.

‘Unhindered entry’

Austria’s chancellor said his country and Germany would grant the migrants unhindered entry.  Chancellor Werner Faymann announced the decision early Saturday after talking with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Faymann said the decision was prompted by the “present emergency situation on the Hungarian border.”

From the scene in Hungary

Just a few hundred migrants were left behind at the Keleti station Saturday when the buses stopped running. Some set out for the Austrian border on foot, while others — those with money — were hiring cars to take them to the border.

Hungarian authorities had put out portable toilets and faucets for washing and a screen for children to watch cartoons. The sanitary facilities were removed while janitors cleaned the station, then were returned.

But aid workers at the train station said they expected more refugees to come to Budapest from the Serbian border. It was not possible to say how many.

Earlier, when the station was still packed with people, it was a scene of desperation. Families were sprawled out across the floor, and young men were wondering what their next step was going to be. They spoke of their hopes of reaching Austria and Germany, where they would be safe.

Tariq’s ordeal

Tariq, a 25-year-old university student from a suburb of Damascus, said the ordeal was showing no signs of ending.

He made it to Austria several days ago, but the car he was in crashed when the driver fell asleep. Austrian police sent him to a hospital for treatment and then returned him to Hungary.  With his face and one arm in bandages, he said he was resting and had missed the last bus. And wth $278 left in his pocket, he was unable to pay the fares that taxi drivers were charging refugees to drive them to the border.

“Now I don’t know what I have to do,” he said. “I can’t go via train, I can’t go via taxi. I can’t go. I’m very tired.”

After Hungarian leaders were initially reluctant to help the refugees, aid organizations and ordinary Hungarian citizens began showing up with bags of food. Volunteers turned out to help feed and comfort the refugees.

For some Hungarians, the memory of times when they had been refugees  influenced their decision to help.

“It can all happen to me, too. Just like it has happened to my relatives. They also had to flee, to be able to live their life,” said Miholy Kohut, an unemployed toxic waste technician who has been volunteering to read to the refugees.  “It’s an obligation for me to help if our government doesn’t do that.”

Refugees or migrants?

Many Hungarians agree their country should provide humanitarian assistance to the refugees, but some say allowing them to stay here is not an option.

“Refugees and migrants are two different things. The refugees are welcomed here, but the migrants are not,” said one Hungarian traveler, rushing to catch a train Saturday.

Workers cleaning up Budapest's Keleti station after Hungary started bussing migrants to the Austrian border. Photo: Luis Ramirez VOA
Workers cleaning up Budapest’s Keleti station after Hungary started bussing migrants to the Austrian border. Photo: Luis Ramirez VOA

Tariq said he did not want to stay in Hungary and that his goal was to reach Germany, where he has a Syrian friend.

He hopes German social programs may enable him to continue his education, which was interrupted by war in his homeland. “Germany helps people if they need to study, if they need to make a new life,” he said. “Hungary does not give you money.”

Germany, he said, will be different. There, he said, “everything is easy.”

It is that hope that keeps him going on a journey that has been all but easy.