First refugees arrive from Hungary after Austria and Germany open borders
The first of thousands of refugees reached early on Saturday morning after busloads left Hungary in a sudden exodus when the Austrian and German governments agreed to receive them.
About 1,200 people had set off westwards through early on Friday evening, on foot and in cars, while many more remained at Budapest’s Keleti railway terminus. But then Hungarian authorities announced they would provide buses to take the refugees to the Austrian border and a rapid embarkation began in Budapest, where many were camped at Keleti railway station.
By 3am local time news channels and social media were showing people being met by Austrian authorities at Nickelsdorf as the first buses arrived. There were scenes of hot drinks being handed out in cups from an outdoor kitchen to passengers from the buses, while other footage showed police explaining what would happen next. Later they were ushered into shelters where more food and stretcher beds awaited.
Austrian police said on Saturday that about 4,000 people had arrived at the border, with many more likely to follow during the day. Trains were running every 30 minutes to take people from the border town of Nickelsdorf to Vienna as well as a fleet of buses.
In Hungary on Friday there had been initial confusion, then suspicion at where they were being taken, but most of the refugees eventually boarded the buses. Many smiled, bidding goodbye to Hungarian volunteers who had brought food and water in recent days. Several thousand people had been left camped in front of the central railway station after authorities cancelled all trains heading to Austria and .
Faymann, the Austrian chancellor, confirmed on Friday that Austria and Germany would allow them in. “Because of today’s emergency situation on the Hungarian border, Austria and Germany agree in this case to a continuation of the refugees’ journey into their countries.”
He added that Hungary was still expected to meet its obligations to accept the return of people who had sought asylum there before crossing into another country. But he indicated Austria’s willingness to take a greater share of the burden of accommodating the refugees.
The Austrian Red Cross said it expected between 800 and 1,500 refugees to arrive at a reception centre at the country’s border with Hungary in the early hours of Saturday.
“We are getting beds, shelter, food and hot drinks ready for them, and there will also be medical care available if needed,” said spokesman Thomas Horvath.
On board one of the buses to Austria, exhausted migrants veered between concern and relief. Many were nervous after Hungary tried to transport a trainload of migrants heading for Austria into a camp on Thursday.
“I was not comfortable leaving the Keleti railway station,” said 26-year-old Syrian Mohammed. But he relaxed as he caught a glimpse of the Danube river through the window: “I had heard about it but I’ve never seen it,” he said. “It’s beautiful.”
Between 800 and 3,000 migrants were expected to arrive at the Austrian border in the pre-dawn hours, said police spokesman Werner Fasching, adding that law enforcement and workers from the Red Cross were there to receive them.
Some 600 beds had been made available in Nickelsdorf for the new arrivals and neighbouring regions were mobilising to ensure they were provided with food and medical care, he said.
In Hungary, at one point along the road, a group of stragglers waited in the drizzle for a bus after falling behind the main pack of people who had set off on foot. “Some of them were vomiting,” says Kolozs, a 39-year-old Hungarian engineer who tied a blanket between a tree and a car to shelter the refugees. “They are women and children – I’m amazed they got this far.”
Some people cruised past in cars shouting abuse, calling them “Saddam Hussein” and “scum”. The Syrians were restrained in response. “People are people,” said Manoli, a 19-year-old electrical engineering student. “You can’t convince some of them.” Some of the Syrians remained to be convinced whether the promised bus would really take them to Austria. “Who’s organising it, the Hungarians?” asks one Syrian. “Forget it, I’m walking.”
Meanwhile as the Keleti camp in Budapest rapidly emptied out, the handful still remaining kept asking: “Is it a trick?”
“They say they take us to Austria, but won’t they just take us to a camp like they did with the train?” said Hadi Rostani, a 24-year-old from Afghanistan’s south-west. Several of his friends had thought they were getting a train to Germany, only for it to be stopped near a refugee camp that Hungarian authorities tried to corral passengers without papers into.
Others did not need to be asked twice. “I feel like a baby that has been given a new toy,” said Akhmad Alfarhan, a 23-year-old from Damascus travelling with a group of friends just before his bus set off.
“I will learn German and then I can go back to college and finish training as a dentist,” said 20-year-old Sara Mardini, grinning widely. “I thought it was a joke when they woke me up to tell me there were buses.”
As the buses slipped away into the dark drizzle of Saturday morning many inside smiled and waved at everyone outside despite the strange hour. Their goodbye party was a mix of volunteers, aid workers, riot police and a few bemused tourists and football hooligans who had drifted down from a match at a nearby stadium.
“Thank you! Thank you!” they shouted as the fast-emptying square slipped behind them. Most of the crowd had been asleep when news spread that the march of hundreds to the border had forced the Hungarian government’s hand.
None complained about the abrupt nature of their departure, or the rickety old city buses that had been pressed into service for the long commute. Most had spent days camping out in miserable limbo on the station forecourt, subsisting on handouts, afraid of death on the roads after more than 70 people suffocated in a smuggler’s van, but barred from crossing the border on trains.
The Hungarian government seemed relieved to see them go. Before the first bus even pulled out, clean-up teams began disinfecting and removing the eight squalid portable toilets that hundreds of travellers had been forced to share.
By the time the first of them reached Austria the square in Budapest was nearly empty, dotted only with tents, sleeping mats and other detritus left behind by families who feared they could not carry them, or hoped they would no longer need them.
Earlier, Angela Merkel said Germany could cope with a record-breaking influx of people this year without raising taxes. But the German chancellor repeated her call that the refugees should be distributed more equally across the EU member states, as part of a common strategy to cope with Europe’s unprecedented migration crisis.
“The whole system needs to be redesigned,” said Merkel, adding that tasks and burdens should be distributed more fairly.
The country is the EU’s biggest recipient of refugees from the Middle East and economic migrants from south-eastern .
A record 104,460 asylum seekers entered the country in August, and the country expects about 800,000 refugees and migrants this year – four times last year’s level.
In light of the influx, the government plans to introduce a supplementary budget to free up funds for the refugees and to help towns in the frontline which are already struggling to pay for accommodation and fund medical care for the new arrivals.
“We won’t raise taxes. And we still have the goal of posting a balanced budget without taking on new debt,” Merkel told several local newspapers.
The leeway in the country’s budget that will allow it to spend an extra €5bn (£3.68bn) was created by higher than expected tax revenues and windfall gains from the sale of mobile phone frequencies, officials said.
Merkel’s coalition is expected to agree on a series of measures on Sunday, including cutting red tape to facilitate the construction of new asylum shelters, speeding up asylum procedures and increasing funds for federal states and towns.
In Hungary a government spokesman, Zoltan Kovacs, said Hungary would continue to abide by rules, which includes an obligation to register all asylum seekers at the first EU point of entry. Hundreds continued to flow through Hungary’s southern border with non-EU member Serbia daily, and tens of thousands of more were travelling through Greece and the Balkans.
“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.
On 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 were decided within eight days. Migrants would have limited rights to appeal those decisions.
In Geneva the UN refugee agency said on Friday that nearly 5,600 people crossed from Greece to Macedonia a day earlier, roughly double the already high 2,500 to 3,000 per day in recent weeks.
Antonio Guterres, the head of the UN 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 are mulling plans to create 120,000 more spaces beyond the 32,000 already agreed.