BUDAPEST, Hungary — Tempers flared among the thousands trapped in a makeshift refugee camp in the heart of Budapest on Wednesday as Hungary played hardball with its unwelcome visitors for a second day, blocking train ticket-clutching migrants from travelling deeper into Europe.
The migrants, who have swamped every nook and cranny of public space outside the city’s Keleti train station, threatened to walk the 105 miles (170 kilometres) to the Austrian border if police don’t let them board trains to their desired destinations in Austria and Germany.
“I will walk the whole way if I must,” declared 28-year-old Ahmed Shamoun, who deserted Syria’s army three months ago, leaving nine brothers and eight sisters behind in Damascus. “I could pay a taxi 500 euros ($550) to take me to Austria, but the police might stop me. I could wait here forever before Hungary lets me take the train.”
Hungary tantalizingly opened the way Monday, allowing more than 1,000 migrants to pack westbound trains — and inspiring a migrant surge to the capital — before it withdrew the option 24 hours later. The question of how to defuse the human gridlock in Hungary is set to dominate meetings in Brussels on Thursday between EU leaders and Hungary’s anti-immigrant prime minister, Viktor Orban.
Hungary, which for months had permitted most applicants to head west after short bureaucratic delays, now says it won’t let more groups deeper into the European Union and has cited EU backing for the move. Police blocking migrants from entering the capital’s main international train hub also stopped them from marching around the station, sparking scenes of anger but no violence.
Migrants “are not entitled to move freely within the European Union even after entering Hungary,” government spokesman Zoltan Kovacs told The Associated Press.
The tent city outside Keleti has steadily grown to an estimated 3,000 migrants camped out on the concrete plaza and subway entrances. Men sleep tightly packed together, using backpacks for pillows, as young children play in their midst, coloring with crayons or swerving around the carpet of bodies on tricycles. Rumors in shouted Arabic spread quickly, fueling surges of excitement and fury as people are told that the train station soon will reopen for migrants, or that police are about to attack and detain them.
Conditions around the transportation hub have grown increasingly squalid despite the efforts of volunteers distributing water, food, medicine and disinfectants. Local restaurants demand cash to let migrants use their restrooms. A lone city fire hose provides water from a faucet, where a sign in English prohibiting the washing of feet is ignored.
The fate of Europe’s asylum seekers, more than 330,000 of whom have arrived so far this year, is dividing Hungary as illustrated by two profoundly different demonstrations Wednesday night.
Around 5,000 people marched in Budapest in support of combating racism and strengthening state support for the new arrivals from the Middle East, Asia and Africa.
“The government is carrying out policies which are inhumane, un-Christian and lack solidarity,” said Veronika Kramer, a 35-year-old lawyer who took part in the rally along with her husband and sons, aged 5 and 7. Earlier, she had taken her boys to Keleti to meet migrants and give them bottled water.
“The boys needed to see them,” she said. “One of their kindergarten classmates told them that he hated the migrants because they spread disease.”
Some 110 miles (175 kilometres) to the south, on Hungary’s border with Serbia, such anti-immigrant hatred was on graphic display. Leaders of the neo-fascist Jobbik party — the third-largest in Hungary — led some 300 supporters on a march that confronted the newest migrant arrivals with xenophobic verbal abuse.
Waving Hungarian and party flags, the Jobbik activists shouted into the faces of migrants walking into Hungary along train tracks that pass through Hungary’s border security barriers. The migrants, many of whom had just walked for hours from Serbia, appeared terrified.
Police positioned on the rail line typically marshal the new arrivals into asylum registration centres. But on Wednesday night, fearful that the extremists might assault the group of about 50 foreigners, police formed protective circles around them and told them to run into a farm field.
Hundreds more migrants remained on the Serb side until the rally dispersed.
“Hungary has to be able to turn back everyone who arrives at the Hungarian borders as an illegal migrant — everyone without distinction,” Jobbik leader Gabor Vona told supporters in a speech on the border.
“There is a real humanitarian catastrophe taking place here, but the humanitarian catastrophe is not about what will happen to the poor immigrants. The humanitarian catastrophe is what will happen to poor Hungary. This is what everyone should be asking,” he proclaimed to applause.
Hungary’s government says it will pass a bill soon that creates new prison-style migrant holding centres near the border that allow for fast-track decisions, limited rights of appeal and easier deportations back to Serbia.
“We have to reinstate law and order at the borders of the European Union, including the border with Serbia,” said Kovacs, the Hungarian government spokesman. “Without re-establishing law and order, it will be impossible to handle the influx of migrants.”
Elsewhere on the long route into Europe, 13 people died when two boats ferrying them from Turkey to the Greek island of Kos capsized. Turkish media said 12 drowned, including a woman and three children, while another person died later in a hospital.
The Greek coast guard also recovered the body of a man south of the island of Kalolimnos. It wasn’t clear whether the death was connected to the capsized Turkish boats about 14 miles (22 kilometres) to the northeast.
Meanwhile, the Czech Republic announced it no longer intended to prevent Syrians who had already claimed asylum in Hungary from travelling via its territory to Germany. The Czechs previously had detained Syrian migrants, as well as those from other nations, for up to 42 days. The new policy could allow Syrian migrants to travel more freely to Berlin because the most direct Hungarian trains to Germany’s capital pass through the Czech Republic.
The clampdown on train travel from Budapest has had an immediate effect in the migrants’ primary target country, Germany. German police reported Wednesday that only about 50 migrants arrived on the morning trains to Munich, compared to 2,400 on Tuesday.
The Greek coast guard, meanwhile, said it had rescued 1,058 people in 28 Aegean Sea locations over the past 24 hours. More than 200,000 migrants have reached Greece this year, chiefly from neighbouring Turkey, where more than 1 million live in refugee camps after fleeing warfare in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.
Greek police also arrested six suspected smugglers in northern Greece after finding 103 migrants, including 19 children, hidden in a truck.
And in Vienna, police interrogated the 30-year-old Romanian driver of a truck that was discovered Tuesday containing 24 Afghans on the outskirts of the Austrian capital. Police spokesman Thomas Kleibinger said the vehicle’s rear doors had been padlocked to keep the Afghan men, aged 16 to 20, trapped inside, and the windows were sealed, preventing fresh air from getting inside. He said the men were in good health because they had spent relatively little time inside.
In France, cross-Channel trains resumed normal service Wednesday after serious overnight disruptions triggered by reports of migrants running on the tracks and trying to climb atop trains.
Passengers aboard one Paris-to-London train said their service was suspended because migrants trying to climb aboard the train had damaged fire safety equipment. In tweets, passengers also described seeing migrants running along the roofs of another train near the French port of Calais.