Desperate migrants poured into the Keleti train station in Budapest on Thursday but were prevented from traveling to Germany as Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orban, said that the migration crisis was a “German problem” and that Europe had a moral duty to tell migrants not to come.
The comments by Orban, and the scenes of chaos at Keleti, which has emerged as a potent symbol of Europe’s struggle to come to terms with the migration crisis, highlighted Europe’s lack of preparedness to cope with an influx of migrants from Africa, the Middle East and elsewhere.
In recent days, more than 2,000 migrants waited outside the 19th-century station, stranded after perilous journeys that many had hoped would end in Germany, the favored destination.
On Wednesday, the image of a dead Syrian boy who washed up on a beach in Turkey spread across the Internet, and advocates for migrants are hoping that the boy’s death will bring about a change in public opinion that will force European leaders to act.
U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron faced increasing pressure Thursday to let in more refugees from Syria after British newspapers were dominated by a photograph of a dead child on a Turkish beach.
Cameron, who said that “there isn’t a solution that’s simply about taking people,” found himself under attack from lawmakers in his own Conservative Party, religious leaders and the political opposition. Britain has resettled 216 of the estimated 4 million refugees from Syria under its “vulnerable persons” program, while more than 4,000, some of whom were already living in Britain, have been granted asylum.
“Anyone who saw those pictures overnight could not help but be moved and, as a father, I felt deeply moved by the sight of that young boy on a beach in Turkey,” Cameron said in a pooled television interview. “Britain is a moral nation that always fulfills its moral obligations,” he said. “We are taking thousands of Syrian refugees and we will continue to do that.”
The next move for the migrants remaining in Budapest was unclear because Hungary’s railroad operator said that no direct trains were heading to Western Europe from Keleti, the city’s main rail station.
When one intercity train with about 500 migrants was stopped in Bicske, about a half-hour west of Budapest, all Hungarians were told that they could get off, but non-Hungarians remained locked inside the train without drinking water. Riot police officers fended off migrants hanging out of windows and chanting that they wanted to go to Austria and Germany.
“Nobody gets off! Nobody gets off!” the police shouted.
Some migrants managed to get off the train and lie on the tracks before being removed. Eventually, the migrants were allowed to leave the train and to remain on the platform, which the police blocked off.
The opening of Keleti station in the morning prompted a mad rush, and fights broke out in some train cars as migrants pushed and clawed their way inside.
“Where is this train going?” asked a Syrian man. “This isn’t going to Germany, is it?”
“No, this is a local, man,” someone answered as he walked past the train. “It’s going to the camps,” he added, referring to reports that the migrants would be sent to detention centers where requests for asylum are processed, a procedure that can take months.
Others began to speak of a trick played by the police. Soon, an underground concourse that had been transformed into a makeshift sanctuary and encampment was once again swelling with migrants, some of whom had apparently been unable to get onto trains.
Officers “left and let people come into the station, but now they’re back,” said Mohammad al-Bekaai, a 23-year-old Syrian who had traveled to Hungary from Jordan. “They’re going to pen these people inside and take them to the camp.”
Some of the migrants, appearing tired and defeated, were aware that trains might be headed to detention centers and were resigned to their fate. “Even if they take us to the camp, it’s better than staying in the station,” said Ali al-Taai, a Syrian from Deir al-Zour. “I’ve been there for six days without food and water. I’ve had enough.”
Speaking at a news conference in Brussels, where he was meeting with European Union leaders, Orban defended his government’s handling of the migration crisis and criticized European proposals that would require member states to accept migrants based on quotas.
His words received a cold reception from Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, which represents EU leaders. Tusk called for much greater solidarity among EU leaders and for the “fair distribution of at least 100,000 refugees” among the 28 member states – far more than had been previously suggested.
But Orban countered that, without stringent border controls, such a proposal was an “invitation” for migrants to come to Europe. He added that they were using countries like Hungary as a stopping point on the way to Germany, whose prosperity makes it a favored destination.
“Nobody would like to stay in Hungary,” he said. “All of them would like to go to Germany.” If the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, insists that “nobody can leave Hungary without registration,” he said, then “we will register them.”
Merkel gave a pointed rebuke to Orban during a visit to Switzerland. “Germany is doing what is morally and legally obliged,” she said. “Not more, and not less.”
The New York Times and Bloomberg contributed to this report.