HEGYESHALOM, Hungary — Hungarian police stood by as thousands of migrants hopped cross-border trains Sunday into Austria, taking advantage of Hungary’s surprise decision to stop screening international train travelers for travel visas, a get-tough measure that the country had launched only days before to block their path to asylum in Western Europe.
Fourteen trains from Hungary’s capital of Budapest arrived at the Hegyeshalom station near the Austrian border, disgorging migrants onto the platform. Police didn’t check documents as passengers, mostly migrants, walked a few yards (meters) to waiting Austria-bound trains, which typically left less than 3 minutes later. Austrian police said more than 13,000 migrants have passed through their country to Germany over the past two days, far more than expected.
Arabs, Asians and Africans who often have spent weeks traveling through Turkey, Greece and the Balkans to reach Hungary, a popular back door into the European Union, found to their surprise they were permitted Sunday to buy tickets to take them all the way into Austria and Germany. Hungary had insisted last week they would no longer be allowed to do this.
Ticket sellers at Budapest’s Keleti station merely rolled their eyes when asked by AP why they were selling Vienna tickets to asylum seekers. Several migrants told the AP they had expected to be rejected, but easily bought international tickets to Vienna without visa checks.
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“No check, no problem,” said Reza Wafai, a 19-year-old from Bamiyan, Afghanistan, who hopes to join relatives in Dortmund, Germany. He displayed his just-purchased ticket to Vienna costing 9,135 forints ($32.50). He was traveling without a passport, carrying only a black-and-white Hungarian asylum seeker ID.
EU rules stipulate asylum seekers should seek refuge in their initial EU entry point. But virtually none of the migrants want to claim asylum in Hungary, where the government is building border defenses and trying to make it increasingly hard for asylum seekers to enter.
Hungarian government spokesman Zoltan Kovacs told The Associated Press that Hungary had decided to drop visa checks on train ticket customers, a measure introduced only Tuesday, because of the sudden drop in migrant numbers made possible by Germany and Austria’s breakthrough decision to take thousands of asylum seekers stuck in Hungary. The country used 104 buses to clear Budapest’s central Keleti train station and Hungary’s major motorway of more than 4,000 migrants and deliver them to the border.
Sunday’s free movement for migrants on trains represented an effort “to return to normality, whatever that is,” Kovacs said.
“Last week the security situation was such that we had to step up in-depth checking,” Kovacs said, referring to Hungary’s effort to require suspected migrants to show valid travel visas when trying to buy train tickets. The rule effectively blocked every migrant from a cross-border train.
“Now anybody can buy a ticket again, and this is normal. Police typically do not check tickets and railways do not check visas,” Kovacs said.
But complicating the ever-changing picture, Austria’s railway company told the AP it plans to end its connections to Hegyeshalom on Monday. Direct Vienna-Budapest services will take their place, spokeswoman Sonya Horner said. It remains to be seen whether Hungarian or Austrian police will screen those services for migrants traveling without visas.
Hungary, for its part, is making a concerted effort to make it harder for asylum seekers to reach its territory from non-EU member Serbia. Serbia Railways said Hungarian authorities refused Sunday to permit two passenger trains to travel into Hungary citing, for the first time, large groups of migrants aboard.
Serbia Railways said in a statement that migrants refused to disembark from the train before reaching Hungary, the typical practice in recent months. One train was canceled and its legal passengers permitted to enter Hungary by bus, while the second train entered Hungary after migrants aboard were isolated on two carriages that were decoupled and left behind, forcing the migrants to walk to the border.
The week has seen rapid policy reversals: On Monday, Hungary annoyed its EU neighbors by permitting thousands of migrants to storm aboard trains bound for Vienna and the German cities of Munich and Hamburg. On Tuesday, Hungary announced that travelers would require passports and visas to travel west by train to other EU nations, frustrating thousands more migrants who had just bought tickets. On Thursday, Hungary canceled all westbound international services in a failed effort to woo migrants away from Keleti, where they had camped in their thousands, and into state-run refugee camps.
Now Sunday’s bigger than expected flow could create a challenge to the asylum support structures in Germany.
Hans Peter Doskozil, police chief of Austria’s easternmost Burgenland province, said more than 13,000 migrants have crossed from Hungary over the past two days, far more than expected, and only 90 or so formally sought asylum in Austria, with nearly all planning instead to settle in Germany.
An Austrian police spokesman, Gerald Pangl, said Austria normally would require asylum seekers to complete paperwork on arrival, but there were far too many transients passing through for this to be practical. “At this moment, in this outstanding situation, we cannot handle the procedure, we cannot register all the refugees,” he said.
The rapid influx has exposed tensions within Chancellor Angela Merkel’s three-party government. She met Sunday with leaders of the Christian Social Union, who are critical of her decision to welcome migrants stuck in Hungary, as well as Social Democrats, who support her move but want more help from the rest of Europe.
Pope Francis on Sunday set an example for Catholic parishes, convents and monasteries across Europe, saying the Vatican will host two refugee families and urging others to commit to sheltering at least one each.
“Faced with the tragedy of tens of thousands of refugees who are fleeing death by war and by hunger, and who are on a path toward a hope for life, the Gospel calls us to be neighbors to the smallest and most abandoned,” Francis told pilgrims and tourists in St. Peter’s Square.
They arrived by the thousands in Germany, by train, bus and car. Authorities scrambled to register them and provide shelter, and at each stop, migrants received cheers, food and toys for the children. Most Germans have been welcoming, but far-right groups have protested their arrival.
Frontex, the EU border agency, says more than 340,000 asylum seekers have entered the 28-nation bloc this year, the majority fleeing war and human rights abuses in Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia and Eritrea.
Pogatchnik reported from Budapest. Associated Press reporters Frank Jordans in Berlin, Pablo Gorondi and Alexander Kuli in Budapest and George Jahn in Vienna contributed to this report.