Nickelsdorf, Austria/Luxembourg (dpa) – Thousands of refugees streamed Saturday into Austria and on to Germany after being allowed to leave Hungary, putting further strain on EU unity as the bloc struggles with its biggest influx of migrants since World War II.
Buses and trains ferried exhausted migrants from the Austrian border town of Nickelsdorf to Vienna or Salzburg, where train connections to the German cities of Munich or Frankfurt were available.
Austrian police said they were anticipating 10,000 arrivals out of Hungary on Saturday, while authorities in Berlin said they expected some 7,000 of those to travel onwards into Germany.
In Munich, locals came out to greet refugees at the city’s main train station, waving signs saying “Welcome” and applauding as the passengers exited the trains.
Their journey began early Saturday when Hungary organized 104 special bus transports to the Austrian border. The migrants were left to cross into Austria on foot.
Hungary’s decision to bus the migrants to the border was a surprise turnaround after the government this week attempted to block them from traveling further west, citing EU rules that require refugees to file for asylum in the first member state they arrive in.
That move led to chaotic scenes in at Budapest’s Keleti train station, which at times resembled the squalid conditions of a makeshift refugee camp.
Many of the migrants are fleeing war-torn countries such as Syria and Afghanistan, and thus qualify for international protection. But EU countries disagree on how to best handle the surge.
Germany became the prime destination after it decided to no longer turn away Syrian asylum seekers. It also has the strongest economy in the EU.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who has drawn fire from the EU for his anti-migrant stance, spoke by phone on Saturday.
They concurred that the onward journey of migrants to Germany on Saturday was an exceptional case undertaken in light of the emergency situation in Budapest.
“They agreed that Hungary, as well as Germany, must meet its European obligations, including those of the Dublin Convention,” German government spokesman Georg Streiter, referring to the EU’s asylum processing rules.
It was unclear what would happen to the some 1,000 newly arrived migrants who had gathered at the Budapest train station by late Saturday. About 300 others began making the 100s-kilometre-long walk to the Austrian border.
At Austrian train stations, the migrants were being supplied with water, food and medical care. After weeks and months of perilous travel, many were suffering from exhaustion, cardiovascular issues and psychological stress.
“We have multiple medical emergencies,” Walter Grashofer of the Austrian Red Cross said. “Many have blisters on their feet, infections or are suffering from the cold.”
He added that many were not dressed properly for the weather or the long journey, wearing only sandals, shorts and light shirts.
This week’s migration chaos laid bare divisions in the European Union over how to handle the migration surge, with member states flinging criticism and blame at one another.
“What has been happening in Hungary since last night is the consequence of … a failed migration policy of the EU and … a series of some irresponsible statements made by European politicians,” Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto charged.
He took part in a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Luxembourg on Saturday, which the bloc’s top diplomat described as not “easy.”
“I do have hope, I always have hope, but I have to admit that the discussion today was a difficult one,” EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said.
There is conflict primarily over the question of whether asylum seekers should be divvied up among EU countries, rather than leaving nations at the frontline of the migration surge to handle them all.
Eastern European countries are resisting a mandatory refugee-redistribution scheme which is expected to be proposed by the European Commission next week.
Polish Prime Minister Ewa Kopacz warned on Saturday that her country would not up a prior pledge of taking in 2,000 refugees, so that Poland’s economic and social safety would not be “destabilized.”
EU interior ministers are due to discuss the new redistribution proposals on September 14. German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier called on Saturday for EU leaders to also hold a migration summit in early October.
The EU has implemented other measures to tackle the migration surge, including a military mission targeting migrant smugglers in the Mediterranean Sea. Mogherini said Saturday that there is consensus among ministers to ratchet up that mission so that smugglers’ vessels can be searched and seized in international waters.