Chaos in Europe over the daily influx of thousands of migrants and refugees deepened Tuesday as authorities in Hungary briefly shut down the main railway station in Budapest and European leaders sparred over who was to blame for worsening the crisis.
Hundreds of migrants hoping to travel to Germany protested outside the central train terminal in Budapest after police in the Hungarian capital barred them from entering and boarding trains. Authorities closed down the station for a short period, then took to letting in only passengers with proper documentation allowing travel on to other European Union nations.
“Germany! Germany!” frustrated migrants – many of them Syrians fleeing the civil war in their country – chanted outside the imposing 19th century terminal in downtown Budapest.
Under intense sun that sent temperatures climbing into the 90s, the angry would-be passengers were kept back from the terminal by police officers in red caps into the evening. Some waved the tickets that had cost them several hundred dollars while others held aloft placards pleading for Germany to send help.
Germany has become the preferred destination for countless refugees hoping for more generous benefits and a faster asylum process. The government in Berlin says that it is expecting 800,000 asylum seekers this year and that it will expedite applications from Syrians who arrive in Germany regardless of where they first entered Europe.
But what some see as an act of compassion, other European leaders see as fuel for a crisis they’re ill-equipped to handle. Officials in Austria and Hungary, in particular, complain that Berlin has opened the floodgates to a tide of humanity that courses through their countries first, overwhelming their ability to process new arrivals under European Union regulations and choking transport routes into Germany.
The Hungarian government said Tuesday that more than 156,000 migrants had already crossed into Hungary this year. Many arrive after having made landfall first in Greece and then making their way up through the Balkans.
Hungarian Defense Minister Csaba Hende said that sending in as many as 3,500 troops to the border with Serbia, to help prevent migrants from entering, was a possibility. Hungary has already erected a barrier of razor wire across most of the nearly 110-mile-long border, but plenty of people have breached it.
The finger-pointing casts doubt on whether the EU can agree on a unified approach to the crisis when justice and interior ministers from all 28 member states convene for an emergency meeting in two weeks. The current patchwork of asylum and refugee policies has sown confusion and tension among both migrants and the countries faced with their arrival.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel gave indications Tuesday of what she would like to see happen on a Europe-wide level. At the same time, she brushed off accusations that Germany’s welcoming attitude to those in need was aggravating matters.
“I see no responsibility on Germany’s part,” Merkel said after a meeting with Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy. “It has been said that those arriving in Germany are most likely to receive asylum or status as a refugee fleeing civil war. That’s no surprise given the situation in Syria, and this should be the case in all other EU countries.”
Merkel said she would press for an equitable distribution of asylum seekers “according to the size and economic power of each EU country.”
Richer nations should help out the poorer ones, Merkel said, especially along Europe’s southern fringe, where most migrants first come ashore after perilous crossings of the Mediterranean. Those countries are increasingly feeling the financial strain of being on the front lines of the migrant crisis. Debt-stricken and depression-hit Greece, for example, reported rescuing nearly 1,200 migrants between Monday and Tuesday morning.
Merkel said more reception centers should be set up quickly in Italy and Greece. She also proposed drawing up an agreed list of “safe” countries whose citizens would not be eligible for asylum, reflecting concern in some official quarters that many of the migrants come from Balkan and other nations in search purely of better economic prospects and not to escape persecution or violence.
“Those without a right to stay should be sent back to the countries,” Merkel said.
The idea of a quota system for taking in refugees has, however, met with fierce resistance from several Eastern and Central European countries, such as Hungary and the Czech Republic, and Western European nations such as Britain and France.
Rajoy, the Spanish leader, demurred from supporting a quota system after his meeting with Merkel.
He said that he favored spreading the burden but that he would not, at this point, increase the number of Syrian refugees his government had already pledged to take. That number is 2,739 – about 0.003% of the number Germany is expecting.
Unless Europe comes up with a collective approach to the crisis, some countries’ commitment to passport- and customs-free travel within most of the EU could unravel, some European officials warn. Such frictionless movement is one of the pillars of the EU’s existence.
In addition to the temporary shutdown of the Budapest train station, traffic was backed up for miles at the Austria-Hungary border, where Austrian authorities reinstituted spot checks of vehicles.
The inspections were the result of the horrific discovery last week of the bodies of 71 migrants in a truck found abandoned by the highway connecting Budapest and Vienna. The victims, who apparently suffocated, were believed to be Syrian refugees hoping to reach either Austria or Germany.
In 2011, France and Italy called for the reimposition of emergency border controls out of alarm over a potential surge of refugees fleeing violence in North Africa. The request met with a storm of protest from other EU members.
But four years later, faced with the biggest influx of migrants into Europe since World War II, more EU countries could find the idea a relief.
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