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Not just Hungary: Migrant mess in Budapest reflects larger EU confusion

Hungary locked down the Keleti station in Budapest on Tuesday. The drastic move deepened concerns over Europe's erratic response to the migrant crisis. 

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    Migrants demonstrate at the Keleti train station in Budapest, Hungary, on Tuesday after the police stopped them from getting on a train to Germany and evacuated the station.
    Tamas Kovacs/MTI/AP
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Budapest’s Keleti train station has not only emerged as the latest flashpoint in Europe’s migration crisis, but as a symbol of how confused Europe’s refugee policy has become under the strain of an unprecedented wave of newcomers.

On Tuesday, authorities announced at Hungary’s railway station, which services trains to Germany and Austria, that they were suspending services temporarily as hundreds of migrants scrambled for seats on westbound cars. Dozens of riot police, wielding batons, cordoned off the entrance, as about 1,000 migrants, most of them from war-torn Syria, demanded, “Open the station!” and “We want to go to Germany!”

Their anger and desperation, after a perilous trek through southeastern Europe, illustrates the stress points across the European Union, where 332,000 migrants and refugees have arrived this year alone.

But the chaos and confusion is also a window onto how easily migrants bypass Europe’s refugee policies – often aided by a blind eye from countries on the front lines. The result puts pressure on just a handful of nations, while the rest of the European Union resists getting involved.

One Syrian migrant, Omran (who declined to give his last name), says he spent 1,000 euros for five tickets to Hamburg but that when he tried to board the train he was told it was rerouted and that he wouldn't be able to travel. “They’re treating us like animals, not like people. Only Germany can help us,” he says.

As the station's main entrance remained closed during the afternoon, authorities allowed only non-migrants to access the building via a side door. In most cases, a certain appearance or the ability to speak Hungarian was all that was needed to pass through the checkpoint. One police officer, who was not authorized to speak on the record, said that the refugees were being barred from moving on because they did not have identification or visas.

The closure appears to be a reversal from the day prior when Hungary was accused by Austria of allowing hundreds without documents to board Germany- and Austria-bound trains. Austria said yesterday it saw the biggest number of arrivals in a single day, with 3,650 reaching Vienna’s Westbahnhof station. “That they are simply getting on board in Budapest and they make sure they will travel to the neighboring country [Austria] – what sort of politics is that?” Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann was quoted by The New York Times as saying.

Inconsistent policies

But Hungary is certainly not the only country that has been accused of inconsistently complying with EU rules.

While those who live and travel legally in the 26-nation Schengen zone can travel passport free, other EU rules, known as the Dublin Regulation, require that asylum seekers are registered in the first country that they enter. They must stay until their claims are processed, unless they have a special visa.

Those rules are often overlooked by the migrants and the countries on the front lines. Most migrants say they want to get north, where there are jobs and a warmer welcome. The periphery countries like Italy and Greece in the south or Hungary in the east have seen a surge in migration this year. 

The migratory pressures have caused deep rifts within the EU, as leaders struggle between a humanitarian obligation to give refugees a safe haven and a populist backlash and more widely shared concerns about inadvertently letting in economic migrants.

Some also want other EU nations to share the burden, so that not all migrants end up in Germany or Sweden, which take the majority of refugees. Many countries have refused mandatory quotas for refugees, including Hungary, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, and Poland, which are meeting Friday to coordinate their response.

The EU as a whole is meeting on Sept. 14 in an emergency summit to address the migration crisis.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has condemned the lack of humanitarian spirit, urged leaders to come together on a common policy. “We must push through uniform European asylum policies,” she said Tuesday. “We observe through practical experience every day that the current legal framework is evidently not being practiced.”

'No one here wants to stay'

But it was Germany itself that has lent to some of the chaos in Budapest, after a tweet last week by the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees suggested that the Dublin procedure wouldn’t apply to Syrians, raising Syrian refugees' hopes of easier passage throughout Europe.

The German government has since insisted that it was still abiding by the Dublin regulation. "Whoever comes to Hungary must get registered there and go through the asylum procedure there," a German Interior Ministry spokesman said.

It is for this reason that Hungary said it was halting train service to Austria and Germany for migrants without the right paperwork. “Hungary is trying to enforce EU law accordingly, requiring anyone who wishes to travel within Europe to hold a valid passport and a Schengen visa,” said government spokesmanZoltan Kovacs in an emailed statement. He said he expects further information on Germany’s stance.

For now, Keleti station has turned into a temporary refuge, with entire families camping outside the station, many children among them.  

Omran says all of his family’s documents were lost or damaged in war back home. He traveled via Turkey, Greece, Macedonia, and Serbia to get this far – but his journey is not over, he hopes. “No one here wants to stay in Hungary,” he says.

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