Migrants flow west on Hungarian trains; 12,000 reach Austria

Refugees show the victory sign behind a bus window as they leave the train station in Saalfeld, central Germany, on Saturday. Hundreds of refugees arrived to Saalfeld in a train from Munich to be transported by busses to an accomodation center. [Associated Press]
Refugees show the victory sign behind a bus window as they leave the train station in Saalfeld, central Germany, on Saturday. Hundreds of refugees arrived to Saalfeld in a train from Munich to be transported by busses to an accomodation center. [Associated Press]
Published Sept. 6, 2015

HEGYESHALOM, Hungary — Hungary permitted migrants to use normal train services to move closer to Western Europe through its porous western border Sunday, abandoning the visa checks it previously used to prevent them from easily reaching Austria and Germany by public transportation.

The unexpected move came just a day after Hungary — buckling from the pressure of a build-up of thousands of asylum seekers at Budapest's main international railway station and on a major highway — shuttled several thousand people to its border with Austria using a fleet of buses.

Most hope to settle in Germany, which agreed take Saturday's busloads as an exceptional measure. But both Germany and Austria emphasized that Hungary must handle the cases of other asylum seekers on its own soil. Hungary likewise described the bus convoy as a once-only opportunity for migrants to avoid its own asylum system.

Yet thousands continued to flow Sunday into Austria, riding the cross-border trains previously off limits to travelers lacking legal permission to travel through Europe. Unlike Saturday's movement of asylum seekers, Sunday's train services did not require migrants to walk across the border into Austria to continue their journey. Instead, they merely needed to walk across a train platform, recently purchased train tickets from Budapest in hand.

Associated Press reporters could see train after train at the Hegyeshalom border station in Hungary disgorge passengers from Budapest, predominantly migrants, who immediately walked onto waiting trains bound for Austria. Police took no action other than ensure that all passengers disembarked quickly enough to board the Austria-bound trains, which typically left within 3 minutes of the Budapest train's arrival.

The scene represented only the latest policy change from a Hungarian government struggling to manage an unrelenting flow of Arabs, Asians and Africans traveling without permission through its territory. EU rules stipulate that asylum seekers should seek refuge in their initial EU entry point, but virtually none of the migrants want to claim asylum in Hungary and the country's government is outspoken in its desire to have them leave.

Hungary's national rail service declined to offer a spokesperson to explain how migrants were able to travel without visas on the new two-car cross-border trains operating Sunday in apparent violation of its previous policy. Ticket sellers at Budapest's Keleti station merely rolled their eyes when asked by AP why they were selling Vienna tickets to asylum seekers.

The railway did issue a statement that its previous direct services to Austria now would involve a stop and transfer to a second train at the border station.

At Keleti, confusion reigned among migrants as Hungarian charity workers tried to help them on their journey. Several migrants told the AP they had expected to be rejected, but easily bought international tickets to Vienna without visa checks.

"No check, no problem," said Reza Wafai, a 19-year-old from Bamiyan, Afghanistan, who hopes to join relatives in Dortmund, Germany. He displayed his just-purchased ticket to Vienna costing 9,135 forints ($32.50). He was traveling without a passport, carrying only a black-and-white Hungarian asylum seeker ID.

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Zoltan Nagy, an activist from a Hungarian support group called Let's Help the Refugees Together, said Keleti ticket sellers started selling Vienna tickets to asylum seekers around 11 a.m.

The week has seen back-to-back policy reversals: On Monday, Hungary permitted thousands to take trains directly to Vienna and Munich, annoying its EU neighbors with the surprise change. On Tuesday, Hungary announced that travelers would require passports and visas to travel west to other EU nations, a measure that effectively blocked all asylum seekers from using their just-purchased tickets. Then Hungary canceled all westbound international train services in a failed effort to woo migrants away from Keleti station, where they had camped in their thousands, and into state-run refugee camps.

Now, Hungary's position has quietly returned to its previous longstanding position: Hungarian police and Immigration Office staff would try to get new arrivals to register for asylum and enter state-run refugee camps, but if they decline, the border west will be wide open for them.

Sunday's bigger than expected flow could create a challenge to the asylum support structures in Germany.

Hans Peter Doskozil, police chief of Austria's easternmost Burgenland province, said more than 12,000 migrants have crossed from Hungary in the past two days, far more than expected. Only about 30 formally sought asylum protection in Austria, with nearly all planning instead to settle in Germany.

An Austrian police spokesman, Gerald Pangl, said Austria normally would require asylum seekers to complete paperwork on arrival, but there are simply too many of them to insist on that now.

"Basically we are acting according to the rules," Pangl said. "But now at this moment, in this outstanding situation, we cannot handle the procedure, we cannot register all the refugees."

The rapid influx of foreigners to Germany has exposed tensions within Chancellor Angela Merkel's three-party government. The Christian Social Union, the most socially conservative party in the coalition, is critical of Merkel's decision to open borders to migrants stuck in Hungary.

Merkel planned talks later Sunday with leaders of the Christian Social Union as well as the most liberal party in her government, the Social Democrats, who support her move but want more help from the rest of Europe.

"No decent person can remain cold and dismissive in the face of such suffering," said Thomas Oppermann, a senior Social Democrat, who called for asylum seekers to be fairly distributed among EU members.

German officials have expressed anger at Hungary for encouraging migrants to keep traveling westward, instead of providing them with adequate shelter and the chance to apply for asylum there. Arriving by the thousands by train, bus and car on Saturday, most stopped in Munich, the Bavarian capital, where authorities said some 7,000 people were registered and over half received a bed Saturday night.

Special trains also carried 570 people to the Thuringian town of Saalfeld, and more than half of this group was taken onward to Dresden, where a school for German army officers has been cleared to provide temporary shelter for 350 newcomers.

Other trains brought migrants to Hamburg in the north and Dortmund in the west of Germany, while more than 300 people traveled to the capital, Berlin, on specially chartered buses.

At each stop, the migrants received cheers, bags of food and toys for the children. Most Germans have been welcoming, but far-right groups have protested their arrival, including in Dortmund overnight.

Merkel has warned that extremist groups might try to exploit the situation by stoking people's prejudices against refugees. Authorities estimate that up to 800,000 people could apply for asylum in Germany by the end of the year.