Migrants in Hungary, many of them Syrian refugees, broke out of a border camp, fled from a stranded train and struck out on foot for western Europe on Friday as a crackdown by the country’s right-wing government faltered in the face of overwhelming numbers.
In chaotic scenes, hundreds chanting “Germany, Germany” streamed down the main highway from Budapest to Vienna; others sprinted down railway tracks, escaping a packed train held back by police for two days, while in the south they broke down barriers and wrestled with helmeted riot officers at an overcrowded border camp near Serbia.
The chaos contrasted with a vow by Prime Minister Viktor Orban to get to grips with Europe’s worst migrant crisis since the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s; parliament tightened laws that his government said would effectively seal Hungary’s southern border to migrants as of Sept. 15.
Orban hailed “a different era”, but Friday brought more desperate scenes in a crisis that has left Europe groping for unity. A Pakistani man died, police said. State television said he had stumbled and hit his head as he ran down train tracks.
Hungary has emerged as the main entry point for migrants reaching the EU by land across the Balkan peninsula, nearly all of them seeking to press on to richer and more generous countries further north and west, especially Germany.
The government in Budapest says it is implementing EU rules by forcing all of the migrants to register in the first EU country they reach. Orban, one of Europe's most outspoken critics of mass immigration, took to the airwaves to issue caustic warnings that Europeans could become a minority on their own continent.
But his government's plans for a crackdown appeared to be breaking down in the face of such large numbers headed for Germany, which has said Syrian refugees can register there regardless of where they enter the EU, suspending EU rules.
More than 140,000 migrants have been recorded entering Hungary so far this year through the EU's external border with Serbia, where Orban's government is building a 3.5 meter high wall. Countless others may have entered without registering.
On the border, police gave chase and halted traffic on a nearby motorway after some 300 migrants fled a crowded reception center in Roszke near Serbia.
They were eventually caught, police said, but hundreds broke out again despite a ring of hundreds of officers in full riot gear, clutching shields. Some were bussed to other camps.
In Budapest, about 500 migrants led by a Syrian refugee with one leg set out on foot from a sprawling campsite outside the Keleti railway station, where all trains to western Europe have been halted for days to prevent migrants from traveling. Clutching pictures of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, they broke through a police barricade on the main road west to Vienna.
In Bicske, west of Budapest, a two-day standoff ended after some 300 migrants managed to escape from a train held up by police demanding they disembark and go to a nearby reception center. The remainder went voluntarily.
“No camp. No Hungary. Freedom train,” someone had written with shaving foam on the side of the train.
On Friday, lawmakers adopted some of a raft of measures creating “transit zones” on the border, where asylum seekers would be held until their requests are processed and deported if denied.
The measures introduce jail terms for those who cross the border without permission or damage the fence, and may eventually provide for the use of the army. Serbia appealed for EU funds to address a potential bottleneck of migrants.
“We don’t know what’s going on,” said Ahmed Mahmoud, a 60-year-old Iraqi who said he was trying to reach his daughter in Belgium but had been stopped at the Bicske railway station.
“The police told us, get fingerprinted or face jail time. So we gave our fingerprints and they told us we can go. But we can’t go to the west. I just want to see my child in Belgium.”
The European Union normally allows free movement between the 26 countries of its Schengen border-free zone, but its rules require asylum seekers to register in the first country where they arrive and remain until they are processed.
Over 1,000 had been camped outside Budapest’s Keleti railway station after Hungary canceled trains to western Europe.
Hungary has hit out at Germany, which expects to receive 800,000 asylum seekers this year, for accepting requests from Syrians regardless of where they enter the EU. Orban's government says this is spurring the flight, which he says poses a threat to Europe’s “Christian values”.
"Now we talk about hundreds of thousands but next year we will talk about millions and there is no end to this," Orban told public radio in a regular Friday interview. "All of a sudden we will see that we are in a minority in our own continent."
(By Krisztina Than; Additional reporting by Marton Dunai and Balazs Koranyi; Writing by Matt Robinson; Editing by Peter Graff)