BUDAPEST, Hungary — Thousands of migrants surged into a Budapest train station Thursday when police ended their two-day blockade of its entrance, but the surprise move produced only a new swirl of confusion and anger as some migrants found themselves tricked into taking a train to a Hungarian camp for asylum seekers.
In the morning, excited migrants piled into a newly arrived train at the Keleti station in Hungary’s capital despite announcements in Hungarian and English that all services from the station to Western Europe had been cancelled. A statement on the main departures board said no more trains to Austria or Germany would depart “due to safety reasons until further notice!”
Many migrants, who couldn’t understand either language and were receiving no advice from Hungarian officials, scrambled aboard in a standing-room-only crush and hoped for the best.
Instead, the train soon stopped northwest of Budapest in the town of Bicske, where dozens of riot police stood waiting to escort the human cargo to one of the country’s major camps for asylum seekers — an overcrowded, open-door facility that many of the migrants already had left days before. The asylum seekers refused to leave the train, and refused offers of water and food as they demanded instead to be allowed to leave Hungary.
Police had hoped to entice many more of the estimated 3,000 migrants camping outside Keleti to leave Thursday. Conditions at Budapest’s main international terminal have grown increasingly squalid despite the efforts of volunteers distributing water, food, medicine and disinfectants.
An Associated Press reporter saw one infant boy beside his sleeping parents crawling onto the pavement to eat breadcrumbs from the ground. Nearby, an unattended toddler walked to a pile of garbage and picked at discarded candy wrappers in search of a treat. Hundreds of migrants took turns washing their hair, clothes and feet and brushing their teeth at a five-faucet water supply with no sewage that was supposed to provide drinking water for the entire camp.
In Bicske, disappointed migrants started chanting “No camp!” in Arabic, some tried to flee on foot down the tracks, and one family sat down beside the tracks and appealed to journalists for help. When police told the media to move off the tracks and the family to move inside, the husband in apparent desperation lost emotional control. He threw his own wife and infant child onto the tracks, lay down beside them and started striking himself in the head as he shouted repeatedly, “We won’t move from here!”
Police in helmets and body armour surrounded the prone family and lifted the man off of his wife and child. Officers handcuffed him with his chest pressed down on the pavement. Four officers carried him away as he wailed in tears. The woman and infant were escorted off the tracks but not detained.
Other migrants scuffled with police and forced their way back on to the train’s carriages to begin a standoff in the sweltering sun. Police delivered water to the migrants, but many tossed the bottles back, expressing fears that police might have drugged the water in hopes of sedating them. Later, charity volunteers tried to offer the migrants food, but they also refused to eat it.
“We don’t need food and water. Just let us go to Germany,” one migrant said from an open train window.
The question of how to defuse the human gridlock in Hungary was being hotly debated Thursday in Brussels at a meeting between European Union leaders and Hungary’s anti-immigrant prime minister, Viktor Orban. Hungary, which for months had done little to prevent asylum applicants from heading west, this week has declared it won’t let more migrants deeper into Europe.
“We Hungarians are full of fear. People in Europe are full of fear, because we see that European leaders, among them the prime ministers, are not capable of controlling the situation,” Orban said.
Orban principally blamed Germany as he confirmed his government’s plan to send at least 3,000 troops to Hungary’s southern border with Serbia, where police patrols, razor-wire coils and a 13-foot (4-meter) high fence already seek to deter new arrivals. Orban’s top aide, Janos Lazar, said 160,000 migrants had reached Hungary this year, nearly 90,000 of them since July 6.
Orban said Hungary’s problem with migrants was really “a German problem. Nobody would like to stay in Hungary. All of them would like to go to Germany.”
He vowed that Hungary would defend its borders by fingerprinting, photographing and screening all migrants that cross into its territory. Once the proposed measures are passed in parliament, he said, migrants and smugglers alike would be warned of the tougher new deterrent measures in place, which would include increasing prison terms for smugglers and making it a crime to damage or break through the border fence.
Hungary’s parliament is expected to vote on Orban’s security and immigration reform measures Friday.
But Serbia’s prime minister, Aleksandar Vucic, warned that if Hungary stopped accepting migrants who currently can walk through police-supervised gaps in the razor-wire defences, this could create a dangerous public backlash or humanitarian crisis in Serbia, where many hundreds assemble daily before crossing to Hungary. Virtually none of the migrants claim asylum in non-EU member Serbia.
Vucic said the EU needed a region-wide plan to ensure migrants received care and support if Hungary sealed its border, “otherwise … in 12 days we can face huge problems here.”
Lazar urged Germany to help ease the situation at the Keleti train station.
“We would like Germany, where the migrants want to go, to pull its own weight,” Lazar said, suggesting the migrants go to the German Embassy in Budapest and apply for a German entry visa.
German Chancellor Angela Markel declined to respond directly to Hungary’s criticisms, but emphasized that all EU members should show the same care toward war refugees and observe the same obligations on handling asylum cases. She called for each EU nation to accept “a binding quota” of refugee applicants.
When asked by a reporter whether Hungary’s migrant problems were really Germany’s as Orban asserted, Merkel said: “Hungary is right when it says that we must protect our external border and we must register refugees and asylum seekers. That is undisputed … but of course that’s not the end of it.
“There is also an obligation to give protection to those who deserve protection. The Geneva convention on refugees applies not just in Germany but in every European member state,” Merkel said during a visit to Bern, Switzerland. “The Geneva convention obliges us to take in refugees from civil wars when they are fleeing from fear, war and horror and give them protection. Germany is doing no more and no less than this … and all countries must do this.”