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Migrants trek to Vienna after Austria suspends trains

Author: The Associated Press
Published: Updated:

VIENNA (AP) – Desperate to head west even after Austria cut the number of border trains, a trickle of migrants marching toward Vienna swelled into a torrent Friday as thousands made their way toward the city on foot.

But the Austrian capital has only been a transit point for many of those arriving over the past week. Most have gone on to Germany, which saw its efforts to get fellow European Union nations to help share the burden firmly rejected Friday by four Central European nations.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier had urged fellow EU nations to give more help to those seeking safety in Europe, describing the influx as “probably the biggest challenge for the European Union in its history.”

“No single country can resolve such a challenge alone – we need European solidarity,” he told reporters in the Czech capital of Prague.

Despite his warning, he failed to persuade his Czech, Slovak, Polish and Hungarian counterparts to drop their objections to a proposed EU-wide quota system to help migrants already in the EU’s most overburdened nations. Steinmeier then left a joint news conference early, allegedly due to a busy schedule.

Germany has already seen 450,000 migrants enter the country and is expecting at least 800,000 this year, the most in Europe.

“We need to have control over how many (migrants) we are capable of accepting,” said Czech Foreign Minister Lubomir Zaoralek, who hosted the meeting.

The plan to share 120,000 refugees now in Greece, Italy and Hungary among the EU’s 28 nations was unveiled Wednesday by European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and will be debated Oct. 8 during an emergency EU interior ministers’ meeting. An earlier plan to share 40,000 other asylum-seekers among EU nations is expected to get the ministers’ final approval on Monday.

Tens of thousands of people, many from war-torn Syria, have traveled across the eastern flank of Europe this summer, from Turkey to Greece by sea, over land in Macedonia, Serbia, Hungary and Austria. Tense bottlenecks have developed at those borders, especially since Hungary began building a fence to keep the migrants out.

Friday’s foot march began after rail traffic to Vienna from the Nickelsdorf crossing was sharply reduced due to overcrowding. Buses and taxis then were called to Nickelsdorf to take migrants to the Austrian capita, but thousands decided not to wait.

Hungarian police spokesman Helmut Marban said a “group dynamic” started, with a few people beginning to walk toward Vienna from the border, inspiring thousands of others to join them on the 40-mile (60 kilometer) trek.

Police briefly closed the A4 expressway to vehicles because of the potential dangers posed by the migrants.

The trek petered out a few hours after it began with police and emergency crews persuading those wanting to push on to the Austrian capital that there would be enough buses for them eventually.

Hans Peter Doskozil, the police chief of eastern Burgenland, said on Thursday alone 7,500 people had crossed into Austria at Nickelsdorf – a number that apparently overwhelmed the Austrian Federal Railways.

Regularly scheduled trains from Nickelsdorf continued Friday to other Austrian destinations, including Vienna, with three departures scheduled. But the railway company announced an end to special shuttles for the migrants between Nickelsdorf and Vienna that had been running for days.

The rail company on Thursday had already suspended all train service toward Vienna from the Hungarian capital, Budapest, where thousands of migrants and refugees have overwhelmed the train station.

In Munich, the first arrival point in Germany for most of those traveling from Austria, authorities said more than 40,000 people have arrived over the past six days.

Bracing for the continued influx, the U.N. refugee agency announced the deployment of hundreds of pre-fabricated homes to central and southeastern Europe. UNHCR spokesman William Splinder said his agency estimates over 380,000 people have arrived in Europe across the Mediterranean so far this year. The International Organization for Migration has put the figure at more than 432,000.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has been criticized by other EU leaders and human rights groups for what they say is gross mismanagement in housing, feeding and processing the thousands of arriving migrants.

Human Rights Watch on Friday released video footage from inside a holding facility at the Hungarian border town of Roszke. Metal fences surrounded clusters of tents and border guards were shown throwing food into the air for desperate migrants to grab. Peter Bouckaert of the rights group claimed migrants and refugees were “kept in pens like animals, out in the sun without food and water.”

Orban, who has ordered his country’s border with Serbia to be turned into a razor-tipped fortress, shrugged off the criticism, saying Friday the solution to the migration crisis lies in Greece.

“We have to take care of the problem where it exists,” Orban told a Budapest news conference. “If Greece is not capable of protecting its borders, we need to mobilize European forces to the Greek borders so that they can achieve the goals of European law.”

More than 250,000 people have reached Greece so far this year, the vast majority arriving on its eastern islands from the nearby Turkish coast, especially the island of Lesbos. Few, if any, want to remain in financially stricken Greece.

In Budapest, a Hungarian camerawoman caught on video kicking and tripping migrants near the Serbian border offered a qualified apology Friday for her behavior.

In a letter published by the daily Magyar Nemzet newspaper, Petra Laszlo said she was “sincerely sorry for what happened,” but added: “I was scared as they streamed toward me, and then something snapped inside me.”

The 40-year-old was fired by the right-wing N1TV online channel after footage went viral on social media.

Police have released Laszlo without charges after questioning her on suspicion of disorderly conduct. They say the investigation is continuing.