Refugees march on Austria amid Hungarian standoff; EU forced into action

UN says response will be bloc's 'defining moment'; UK bows to pressure and OKs more asylum numbers

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A tense standoff between refugees and police in Hungary continued into a second day Friday, with desperate asylum seekers embarking on a 100-mile plus march to the border after being blocked from traveling by rail. The dramatic scenes came as EU leaders scrambled to find a coherent policy to accommodate growing numbers of people fleeing war and poverty.

Train cars that made it out of Budapest’s main station on Thursday were halted in Bicske, a town shy of the Austria border. Many of the passengers remain on the train, having defied attempts to forcibly remove them and take them to a detention center.

Hungarian authorities say a refugee died at the train station, collapsing as he fled a train on which he had been stuck for two days. The man was among about 350 refugees who broke through a riot police cordon in the northern town to head west to Austria. 

On Friday, signs were held aloft at the site stating: “No camp, no Hungary, freedom train,” whiles others chanted “no food, no water.”

Meanwhile frustration among refugees kept in limbo at Budapest’s main Keleti station led hundreds to form a column of marchers setting out from the capital on foot. Their destination is the border with Austria, some more than 100 miles away.

Men, women and children carrying backpacks and bags snaked through Budapest in a line about a half-mile long. Authorities later said that buses would be offered to the marchers to transport them to the Austrian border.

The scenes in Hungary, the suffocation deaths of 71 refugees found decomposing in a truck in Austria last week, mass drownings in the Mediterranean as well as an outpouring of sympathy generated by photos of a young Syrian boy’s body washed up on a Turkish shore is beginning to force Europe’s hand.

In a further reminder of the rising death toll from the crisis, the International Organization for Migration said Friday that at least 50 refugees had drowned off the Libyan coast after their overcrowded dinghy began to sink. Around 120 to 140 people were on board the flimsy vessel when it deflated, sparking panic and tipping people overboard.

In the U.K., a public campaign and days of front pages carried by the country’s newspapers have forced Prime Minister David Cameron to announce that Britain would take in “thousands” more Syrian refugees. A government spokeswoman refused to provide more details, but Melissa Fleming from the U.N. refugee agency said Britain would take in 4,000 people from refugee camps in the Middle East.

It represents an abrupt U-turn for the U.K. leader, who had previously said accommodating more people was not the answer, instead focusing on the root cause — Syria’s civil war.

“We will do more,” said Cameron, who had come under attack for not only the U.K.’s response — to date it has granted asylum to around 5,000 Syrians that have made their way to Britain and around 200 through the U.N.-back relocation scheme — but also for his tone, having previously referred to the people fleeing war and poverty as a “swarm.”

Ireland likewise announced that it would resettle more refugees, taking in at least 1,800 refugees, tripling its earlier commitment of accepting about 600 people over the next two years.

Antonio Guterres, the U.N.’s high commissioner for refugees said the EU's response to the crisis would be a "defining moment" for the bloc, warning that a divided EU would benefit only smugglers and traffickers.

An EU official on Friday said the bloc was crafting a plan to distribute an additional 120,000 refugees across its 28-nation membership, including the relocation of 54,000 refugees from Hungary, 50,400 from Greece and 15,600 from Italy.

But a consistent plan from the EU is far from assured; countries are still deeply split over how to respond.

Britain’s stance has been unfavorable compared with that of Germany, which plans to receive 800,000 refugees this year and has budgeted billions in additional welfare spending for them.

Number of asylum applications to select European countries (Jan. to June 2015) 

Source: UNHCR 

And the position of richer EU members in north and west Europe has contrasted to that in the east. The leaders of Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary held a meeting Friday in Prague to discuss their response.

In a joint statement, the prime ministers of the countries rejected any EU quota system for accepting refugees.

The four leaders said the bloc's approach should include "preserving the voluntary nature of EU solidarity measures." They insisted "any proposal leading to introduction of mandatory and permanent quota for solidarity measures would be unacceptable."

Hungary in particular has come under sustained attack, notably from France, over its harsh policy toward refugees. It is in the process of completing a 11.5-foot fence on its southern border with Serbia to keep out migrants.

And yesterday Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban risked inflaming the situation further by suggesting that Muslim refugees would not be welcomed.

“We don't want to, and I think we have a right to decide that we do not want a large number of Muslim people in our country,” Orban said. “We do not like the consequences of having a large number of Muslim communities that we see in other countries, and I do not see any reason for anyone else to force us to create ways of living together in Hungary that we do not want to see. That is a historical experience for us.”

The parliament in Hungary is scheduled to meet on Friday and Monday in two sessions to discuss new laws on migrants and refugees.

Other EU states are also likely to strongly resist a system that would require them to take in large numbers of refugees.

But Austria's foreign minister, whose country is also a popular destination for the refugees, backed the quota system idea and called for a greater sense of urgency over the crisis.

“It's unfathomable that during the financial crisis it was possible to meet all the time and find a common solution, and with this refugee crisis nothing is happening for weeks or months,” Sebastian Kurz told Reuters.

With wire services

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