Thousands of Syrian asylum-seekers who had been stuck in Hungary for days reached Austria on Saturday, as Hungary’s hard-line authorities backed down from a confrontation with the refugees that they said were overrunning Europe.
Packed city buses ferried men, women and children from the center of Budapest, where people fleeing war in Syria and Iraq had set up a tent city after Hungarian authorities blocked their passage to Western Europe earlier this week. The squalor 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.
After trying to round up the asylum-seekers into camps, Hungarian authorities gave up late 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.
“On the basis of today’s emergency at the Hungarian border, Austria and Germany are allowing an onward journey of the refugees into their countries in this instance,” said Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann.
He 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. Germany has said it expects to take in up to 800,000 asylum-seekers this year, and it has thrown open its doors to taking Syrian refugees in particular.
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.
But after a column of migrants more than a mile long streamed onto Hungary’s main highway to Austria, it appeared that authorities felt they had no alternative but to pass the challenge to their neighbor, another country that has been ambivalent about the influx.
By early Saturday morning, the first asylum seekers began to walk across the border into Austria after having been dropped off by buses on the Hungarian side. The buses had picked people up at Budapest’s main train station. After initial hesitation, the crowds began to climb on board, relieved to be en route out of Hungary.
At Keleti train station in Budapest, where thousands of migrants had camped out for nearly a week, the central plaza was nearly empty on Saturday morning except for a maintenance crew hosing down the site. Other asylum-seekers remained underground, but their numbers were far fewer than in recent days, and they were expected to take buses out of Hungary later in the day.
The Hungarian decision to take the asylum-seekers to the border did little to resolve the challenge facing Europe, which has failed to come up with a unified response to the mounting numbers on its borders. Instead, 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.
“The European Union has proved to be inadequate to address the situation,” Janos Lazar, the Hungarian prime minister’s chief of staff, said in a late-Friday address in parliament. He said that the decision had been made to clear the roads to ensure the country’s transportation security.