Europe opens its arms to refugees arriving in Germany and Austria

Thousands of exhausted, elated refugees and migrants have reached their dream destinations of Germany and Austria, completing epic journeys by boat, bus, train and foot to escape war and poverty.

Before dawn, they clambered off a fleet of Hungarian buses at the Austrian border to find a warm welcome from charity workers offering beds and hot tea. Within a few more hours of rapid-fire aid, many found themselves whisked by train to the Austrian capital, Vienna, and the southern German city of Munich.

The surprise overnight effort eased immediate pressure on Hungary, which has struggled to manage the flow of thousands of people arriving daily from non-EU member Serbia.

The apparent futility of stopping people’s progress west was underscored when Hungary announced that its bus service to the border had finished and would not be repeated.

Almost immediately two groups hit the pavement to start walking to the border: about 200 people who walked out of an open-door refugee camp near the city of Gyor, and about 300 who left Budapest’s central Keleti train station, the epicentre of Hungary’s recent migrant crisis.

Austrian police spokesman Helmut Marban said more than 5,000 asylum seekers crossed into Austria from Hungary by the afternoon and most had travelled by train to Vienna or beyond. Germany said more than 600 of those have reached Munich. And officials in both Austria and Germany said the unregulated flow of people from Hungary meant that up to 10,000 might reach Austria by nightfall.

When the first 400 migrants and refugees arrived in Vienna, charity workers offered a wide choice of supplies displayed in separately labelled shopping carts containing food, water and packages of hygiene products for men and women.

A mixed crowd of friends and Austrian onlookers cheered their arrival, with many shouting “welcome!” in both German and Arabic. One Austrian woman pulled from her handbag a pair of children’s rubber rain boots and handed them to a Middle Eastern woman carrying a small boy.

Earlier in jubilant scenes on the border, about 100 bus loads of migrants and refugees disembarked on the Hungarian side of the border and walked a short distance into Austria, where volunteers at a roadside Red Cross shelter welcomed them with tea and handshakes. Many of the travellers slumped in exhaustion on the floor, evident relief etched on their faces.

Many travellers have spent months in Turkish refugee camps, taken long and risky journeys by boat, train and foot through Greece and the Balkans, and crawled under barbed wire on Hungary’s southern frontier to a generally frosty welcome in this country with strong anti-immigrant sentiments.

Since Tuesday morning, Hungarian authorities had refused to let them board trains to the west, and the migrants and refugees baulked at going to processing centres, fearing they would face deportation or indefinite detention in Hungary. Government officials said they changed course because Hungary’s systems were becoming overwhelmed by the sheer numbers.

The human rights watchdog Amnesty International welcomed the initiative to clear Hungary’s humanitarian traffic jam.

“After endless examples of shameful treatment by governments of refugees and migrants in Europe, it is a relief to finally see a sliver of humanity. But this is far from over, both in Hungary and in Europe as a whole,” said Gauri van Gulik, Amnesty’s deputy director for Europe. “The pragmatic and humane approach finally applied here should become the rule, not the exception.”

German chancellor Angela Merkel, who has led calls for other EU members to shelter migrants and potential refugees, particularly those fleeing civil war in Syria, said that her country would observe no legal limit on the number of asylum seekers it might take.

Ms Merkel told the Funke consortium of newspapers that “the right to political asylum has no limits on the number of asylum seekers”.

“As a strong, economically healthy country we have the strength to do what is necessary” and ensure that every asylum seeker gets a fair hearing, she was quoted as saying.

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