Migrants threw themselves onto railway lines and scuffled with helmeted riot police trying to take them to a reception center in Hungary on Thursday, forced from a train in desperate scenes symbolic of a European asylum system brought to breaking point.
As lawmakers debated measures to effectively seal Hungary’s southern border within days, hundreds of migrants, many of them refugees from the Syrian war, clung to carriages at a provincial railway station west of Budapest, hoping to reach to Austria and western Europe.
In sweltering temperatures, riot police forced some to disembark from one of five carriages, but others resisted, banging on windows and shouting, “No camp, no camp!” One man threw himself on the tracks with his wife and small child, who were dragged to their feet by police.
They had boarded the train in the capital, believing it would take them to the border with Austria after a two-day standoff with police who had barred more than 2,000 migrants from entering the city’s main railway station.
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Police had stepped aside and let the crowd surge onto the platform, but the train was stopped some 35 km (22 miles) west of Budapest in the town of Bicske, where Hungary has a camp for asylum seekers. Many want to avoid being registered for fear of being returned to Hungary later on the journey to the richer countries of western and northern Europe.
After scenes of chaos, a fresh standoff ensued, while local media reported a second train being stopped in the north-western town of Gyor and several dozen migrants escorted off by police. In Bicske, migrants could be heard pleading for water, before police expelled journalists from the scene.
“Respect the humans in here; no respect for the humans,” said a Syrian man on the train, who gave his name as Midu. “We want to go to Germany, not here,” he said in English.
Some 140,000 migrants have entered Hungary this year on an often perilous journey to escape war and poverty in the Middle East, Africa and Asia.
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Rightwing Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban vowed on Thursday to create “a new situation” for Hungary and Europe as of Sept. 15 with a 3.5 metre-high fence and a raft of changes to migration laws.
Parliament is expected to adopt most of the amendments on Friday, providing for the creation of holding zones on the border with Serbia, where asylum seekers will be processed and those rejected potentially expelled back across the frontier. They will also introduce tougher punishment for those who cross illegally or damage the fence.
Nearing completion, the fence, with its Cold War echoes in ex-Communist eastern Europe, has become a potent symbol of a Europe groping for a solution to its worst refugee crisis since the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s, an influx that has strained European unity and fed the rise of right-wing populists.
“We create just now in the Hungarian parliament a new package of regulations, we set up a physical barrier and all these together can provide a new situation in Hungary and in Europe from 15 September,” Orban told reporters in Brussels after talks with European Parliament President Martin Schultz. “Now we have one week of preparation time.”
In an opinion piece for Germany’s Frankfurt Allgemeine Zeitung, Orban said “Europe’s own Christian values” were at stake from the influx of mainly Muslim migrants.
On Monday, Hungary had allowed migrants to board trains to western Europe, despite EU rules which bar travel by those without valid documents, but then called a halt on Tuesday.
Explaining Monday’s decision, the Hungarian government on Thursday cited Germany’s decision to relax rules for Syrian refugees, accepting their asylum claims regardless of where they entered the bloc. EU rules normally require them to register and remain in the first EU country they reach. Germany says it expects to receive 800,000 asylum seekers this year.
Referring to the chaos at Budapest’s main railway station, Orban’s chief of staff, Janos Lazar, told a news conference: “This is because Germany ... more than a week ago told Syrians that Germany awaited them, inviting them to the laid table.”
Over 1,000 remained at the Keleti terminus in Budapest on Thursday afternoon, camped out in an underpass. Orban said Hungary was simply following the rules.
“The problem is not a European problem. The problem is a German problem,” he said “Nobody would like to stay in Hungary, neither in Slovakia, nor Poland, nor Estonia. All of them would like to go to Germany. Our job is only to register them. So if the German chancellor insists that nobody can leave Hungary without registration towards Germany, we will register them. It's a must.”
But at the Budapest train station, 17-year-old Ysra Mardini from the Syrian capital Damascus, said she feared being taken to a detention camp.
“We want to go to Germany but that train in the station, maybe it goes nowhere. We heard it may go to a camp. So we will stay out here and wait.”
(By Marton Dunai; Additional reporting by Krisztina Than and Sandor Peto in BUDAPEST; Writing by Matt Robinson; editing by Janet McBride and Philippa Fletcher)