Thousands of refugees from Syria, elsewhere arrive in Austria and Germany

Published September 5th, 2015 - 04:25 GMT

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.

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.

Hungary this week attempted to block migrants from traveling further west, citing EU rules that require refugees to file for asylum in the first member state they arrive in.

But the move led to chaotic scenes in the capital Budapest, with migrants intent on moving on to other EU countries - notably Germany - refusing to cooperate with Hungarian authorities.

After migrants rebuffed attempts to move them to refugee centers - with hundreds setting off on foot towards the Austrian border - Germany, Austria and Hungary jointly agreed to let them move on.

Hungary organized special bus transports to the border for much of Saturday morning, but left the migrants to cross into Austria on foot. Government spokesman Zoltan Kovacs said this was an exceptional programme to relieve migration pressures.

"We have addressed an acute emergency situation. In this case, Germany and Austria agree to let the refugees journey on," German government spokesman Georg Streiter told dpa.

"At the same time, we maintain that the Dublin system of course still applies," Austrian Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz said at EU talks in Luxembourg, referring to the asylum processing rules.

Austrian police said they were expecting 10,000 arrivals out of Hungary on Saturday. By midday, 6,500 refugees had already arrived.

"Almost all want to go to Germany," the Austrian Interior Ministry wrote on Twitter. "The onwards journey is being facilitated."

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.

Police in the southern German state of Bavaria were preparing Saturday for the arrival of between 5,000 and 7,000 people.

Buses and trains were ferrying 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. The German rail company Deutsche Bahn added extra cars and called in more staff to cope with the increased demand.

At Austrian train stations, the migrants were being supplied with water, food and medical care. Many were suffering from exhaustion, cardiovascular issues and psychological stress, according to the Vienna medical service.

"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.
By Alexandra Mayer-Hohdahl and Boris Babic

© 2021 dpa GmbH

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