NICKELSDORF, Austria – Thousands of Syrian asylum-seekers who had been stuck in Hungary for days reached this pastoral Austrian border town on Saturday, as Hungary’s hard-line authorities temporarily relented in a confrontation with the refugees that they said were overrunning Europe.
Exhausted asylum-seekers – many of them soaked by September rains – walked over the border into Austria after days in which they had been stuck in squalid conditions in neighboring Hungary. The confusion and desperation of the past week highlighted Europe’s inability to come up with a plan to deal with the growing wave of asylum-seekers, with Germany and Sweden opening their doors but many other countries barring them.
But the solution on Saturday appeared unlikely to last for long, as fresh groups of people fleeing war and poverty continued to arrive at Hungary’s southern border: more than 2,500 since the beginning of Friday, according to Hungarian border police. The newcomers were being allowed to take local trains to the Austrian border.
After trying to round up the asylum-seekers into camps, Hungarian authorities gave up late on Friday after thousands of people departed Budapest on foot to try to make the 100-mile trek to the border. Instead, officials had dozens of blue buses pick them up in the night to transport them to Austria. They reached the main border crossing by early morning, and people – many of them bleary-eyed or limping – walked across the frontier, where Red Cross workers waited with blankets and tea.
“I had a smile to both my ears. I was finished with Hungary,” said Omar Mansour, a 24-year-old Syrian physical education teacher, who was sitting on a large stone in the border-station parking lot, warming himself against the September chill with a green sleeping bag. Drinking coffee from a plastic cup, he said he had spent the last week at Budapest’s main train station, where a makeshift refugee camp built up after authorities barred migrants’ paths to Western Europe.
Elsewhere, migrants who had failed to catch the buses were being assisted by police officers to find their way to train stations. It was a stark change from a day earlier when authorities had tried to force the asylum-seekers into detention camps.
There was such a large flood of asylum-seekers being received on the Austrian side of the border, authorities there had to shut down traffic for hours, sending a miles-long backup into Hungary.
The chaos in Hungary “opens our eyes to how far the situation has proceeded in Europe,” Austrian Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz said Saturday. He was happy that the crisis had been “solved humanely.”
Hours earlier, Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann said that he had spoken to German Chancellor Angela Merkel and to Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban to reach the agreement. But he suggested that it was a one-time deal, leaving the broader issue unresolved.
Once in Austria, asylum-seekers were being given a choice of going to Vienna or taking trains and buses to Germany. German officials have said they expect to take in up to 800,000 asylum-seekers this year, especially Syrian refugees. German police said on Saturday that they expected as many as 10,000 arrivals that day alone.
“It feels like a little war here,” said Andreas Zenker, a spokesman for the Austrian Red Cross who was distributing aid at the Austrian border on Saturday. “They came in and they were injured. Small children with barely any food. It’s crazy.”
He said that about 10 people were so badly hurt that they were transported straight to a hospital. Many more needed medical treatment but were so determined to move on to Germany that they refused it, he said. Some had eye injuries, apparently from flash bombs thrown by Hungarian authorities. Others had fresh bullet wounds.
Nour al-Qattan, a 29-year-old accountant from Damascus, said she had walked along the highway for more than 10 hours before Hungarian buses pulled up early Saturday.
“I had doubts because I thought they would take us to a camp in Hungary. I thought it was a trick,” she said as she waited to be taken further into Western Europe.
Hungary’s late-night offer of bus transportation came after days of efforts to repel migrants fleeing war and poverty who have streamed into Hungary in a bid to reach Western Europe, where they hope to begin new lives. Orban had painted his hard-line approach against the mostly Muslim asylum-seekers as a stand to preserve Europe as a Christian continent.
“The supply of immigrants is endless,” he told his ruling party’s annual picnic on Saturday. “If everyone is admitted, it will destroy Europe.”
He said that security considerations had forced authorities to clear the asylum-seekers off the highway after they departed in a large column on Friday. But he has blamed German and other leaders for appearing to encourage an even larger pilgrimage to Europe’s borders by saying that most Syrians will not be turned away.
Merkel on Saturday reiterated Germany’s offer, saying that “the right to political asylum does not have a limit on the number of asylum seekers.”
“As a strong, economically healthy country we have the strength to do what is necessary,” she told the Funke media consortium.
Most of the asylum-seekers were quickly passing through Austria in a bid to get to Germany, said Austrian Interior Ministry spokesman Alexander Marakovits.
The Hungarian decision to take the asylum-seekers to the border underlined the half-measures taken so far to address the challenge facing Europe, which has failed to come up with a unified response to the mounting numbers on its borders. The plans merely shifted the crisis to another state, leaving the fundamental problem – a bloc of 503 million people unable to agree whether and how to house several hundred thousand refugees – to burn for another day.
In recent days, Hungary had tried to halt the asylum-seekers’ journey by stopping rail traffic, penning them in migrant camps and bolstering security at the border. When Hungarian officials gave in on Friday, they said they did so to ensure their own security after asylum-seekers travelling by foot blocked key transportation routes to Western Europe.
Amid the chaos, the debate over how to respond to Europe’s refugee crisis continued to escalate. Hungarian lawmakers, fearful of the influx of asylum-seekers from conflict-torn Middle Eastern nations, approved measures Friday that gave authorities sweeping powers to seal the border and detain migrants who crossed the 108-mile razor-wire fence recently erected across the frontier with Serbia.
The crisis has challenged one of Europe’s crowning achievements: borderless travel that has helped stitch together its patchwork of nations. On Saturday, the migrants were streaming into an old Austrian border crossing post that lay disused for years.
Austria has a long history of taking in people displaced by conflict – first by World War II, then by Hungary’s 1956 uprising, and then by the fall of the Iron Curtain and the Balkan Wars of the 1990s. But the recent absence of physical borders in Europe has not led to political unity about how to handle crises such as this one.
But the rules have proved inadequate for the situation because they place most of the burden of dealing with asylum-seekers on the first E.U. country they enter. That has forced poorer countries such as Greece, Hungary and Italy to the forefront as richer ones have taken a back seat.
The vast majority of asylum-seekers arriving in Hungary want to reach Germany and Sweden, but leaders there have said they cannot shoulder the full burden of the arrivals.
Many countries have refused to commit to mandatory targets for taking in refugees. Central European leaders convening in Prague said on Friday they would not support a joint German and French proposal to institute quotas that would require each European Union nation to take a designated number of refugees. Many nations have been less willing to accept asylum-seekers than Germany, which has said it expects 800,000 this year. Slovakia, for example, has said it will take only Christians.
The U.N. refugee agency has said that Europe needs to make as many as 200,000 spots for new refugees. Plans circulating in Brussels appear far less generous.
Birnbaum reported from Brussels. Washington Post correspondents Karla Adam in London and Andras Petho in Budapest contributed to this report.