AUSTRIA – Thousands of migrants were still streaming across Hungary’s border with Austria on Sunday morning, more than 24 hours after German and Austrian authorities bowed to pressure to accept one of the largest waves of displaced people since World War II.
Though the crowds of refugees at this normally open border had thinned since the first wave of asylum-seekers arrived here before dawn Saturday, Austrian police were still struggling to contain throngs of exhausted people who were pushing to board buses that would take them to a train station in Austria and onward to destinations in Western Europe.
“Get back! It’s not safe!” yelled one Austrian police official as a group of hundreds of migrants pushed against a fence to board a waiting bus a few hours after dawn on Sunday morning.
The rush of people was continuing even after Janos Lazar, the head of Hungarian prime minister’s office, said Saturday that the government’s free bus service to the border with Austria was a “one-off” measure that would be suspended.
The Hungarian authorities’ announcement left unclear how much longer the tide of migrants would continue toward the Austrian border.
By 9 a.m. on Sunday, around 8,000 migrants had arrived in Munich, since Saturday morning, said a spokesman for the city’s police service.
About 1,000 refugees spent Saturday night in Vienna, according to Austrian police. Several hundred boarded toward Salzburg and Germany earlier Sunday morning.
The arrival of the migrants, many from war-torn countries such as Syria who say they want to seek refuge in Western Europe, marked a victory for the bedraggled crowds after weeks or months on the road and complaints of maltreatment in Hungary.
On Friday, Hungary appeared on the verge of chaos, with flash points across the country. But the situation calmed as thousands of migrants simply started marching peacefully toward the Austrian border from multiple locations. Their surprisingly coordinated mobilization prompted leaders of Austria and Germany to say they would host the migrants in light of the crisis engulfing Hungary, which then transported migrants to the border by bus.
“Those willing to come to Germany can come, and those willing to stay in Austria can stay in Austria,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s spokesman Georg Streiter said on Saturday. He added that Berlin wants Hungary to follow European Union regulations that require it to register all arriving migrants and initiate asylum procedures.
Mr. Streiter also noted the decision to accept the migrants was in response to an emergency and wasn’t guaranteed to continue indefinitely.
On Saturday at the border, some migrants said their success would tip the balance in favor of those who continue to seek shelter in Europe. “What we did today, the world will know about it,” said Ehab Sukkariya, 18, a Syrian who crossed the Austrian border shortly before dawn on Saturday with his family and a few friends.
Mr. Sukkariya said he and dozens of others had been planning the walkout from the train station for about three days by gathering a critical mass who would leave with them. He was thrilled when more than a thousand people joined in the march toward the Austrian border, which was more than 100 miles away, and was even more surprised when he saw Hungarian volunteers offering food, water and supplies along the route.
“They made us tea and chicken soup. They gave us blankets,” said Mr. Sukkariya. “I felt like I was at home but I was walking.”
As migrants poured over EU borders, EU foreign ministers met Saturday in Luxembourg to discuss how to respond to the unfolding migration crisis
At the meeting, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier renewed calls for a more unified response to the migration crisis and said the European Commission—the EU’s executive body—would present a proposal for redistributing more than 100,000 refugees on Tuesday.
However, some officials were skeptical. “Quotas won’t work, people would use the first opportunity to escape to Germany,” Slovak Foreign Minister Miroslav Lajčák said.
Friday’s decision by Germany and Austria to grant entry marks a startling reversal in fortunes for thousands of migrants whose acts of defiance appeared to have forced European leaders to change their positions.
But having challenged European authorities and won, the migrants’ bold strategy could now encourage future asylum-seekers to push forcefully for access to Western Europe.
That was apparent in those setting off from Hungary toward the border on Saturday. “No hotel, no train, not any help from the Hungarian government. We’ll walk to Vienna,” said Ali Adel, a 25-year-old engineer from Iraq, traveling with three friends. Mr. Adel said he was heading to Belgium to settle there.
Some 1,000 migrants, exhausted and desperate from a day of walking from downtown Budapest, stormed a rural railway station at Biatorbagy, Hungary, on Saturday evening, some 13 miles from the capital. “Train to Germany? Train to Austria?” they asked frantically.
With no international service from the station, they boarded a train to Gyor, some 31 miles from the coveted border checkpoint to Austria. They were one of the largest groups of migrants that set out on Saturday for the trip, inspired by the success of the thousands who had reached Austria on Friday.
“We want bus! We want bus!” they chanted by the end of the day, tired and cold as temperatures fell over Eastern Europe. Police escorted them all day to clear the road and ensure the group stayed together.
The number of migrants entering Hungary this year totaled more than 167,000 by Saturday afternoon, up from 44,709 in 2014, the interior ministry said.
Hungarian authorities had struggled in recent days to contain increasingly agitated crowds at Budapest’s Keleti station and at several refugee camps in the countryside, as rising numbers of people arrived, seeking refuge from war-torn areas of North Africa and the Middle East.
Under pressure from its Western European neighbors, Hungary’s government had kept thousands of migrants at refugee camps and at the sprawling railway concourse in Budapest.
“Everything we saw in Syria, we saw in that train station,” said Sama Badawi, 20, whose family of 14, including 8 children, fled terrible violence in Syria’s Dera’a Province and had spent the past 7 days in Budapest’s Keleti station. “We were in prison. How are we supposed to feel now? Now we have freedom!”
By Matt Bradley and Margit Feher