Austria smuggler crackdown as Europe divided over migrant crisis

31st August 2015, Comments 0 comments

The hunt for people smugglers led to a security crackdown and massive tailbacks on Austria's border with Hungary on Monday, as Europe struggled to present a united front on the huge influx of migrants and refugees.

Austria's tightened security followed the discovery of the decomposing bodies of 71 migrants, four of them children, in an abandoned lorry near the Hungarian border last week.

Since the checks on vehicles began late on Sunday, more than 200 migrants have been picked up and five suspected people smugglers arrested.

Trains packed with hundreds of migrants arrived in Vienna from Hungary's capital Budapest late Monday, after they had been stopped at the Austrian border for several hours.

After pulling into the Westbahnhof station, many of the migrants boarded a train to Salzburg, on the border with Germany, while others climbed onto another one headed for Munich, as police looked on.

"I'm going to Germany!" cried one grinning migrant from Afghanistan standing by the doors of a packed train, munching on a banana and holding half a watermelon.

In a show of support, 20,000 people took to the streets of Vienna on Monday evening to protest the ill-treatment of migrants while senior government officials attended a church service for the victims of the truck tragedy.

Five suspected people smugglers, four Bulgarians and an Afghan, have been arrested in Hungary over the deaths of the migrants, all thought to be Syrian.

- Last train to Munich -

Much-flouted EU rules stipulate that refugees should be processed in the first country they reach, but Hungary -- like Austria, a country of transit for migrants heading to northern Europe -- says it cannot host record numbers of newcomers.

Authorities in Budapest allowed hundreds of migrants, who had been stuck for days in makeshift refugee camps at the city's train stations, to board trains heading west, despite many lacking EU visas.

An AFP correspondent at Budapest's main station described scenes of chaos as throngs of migrants surged forward to catch the last Munich-bound train via Vienna on Monday evening.

Many had spent their day queueing for tickets to Austria and Germany.

"I can't believe I'm finally leaving Budapest, it's been very difficult," said Ephran, an 18-year-old Syrian, clutching a rucksack as he waited with his two brothers and mother.

Meanwhile, some 400 travel-weary migrants who had departed Hungary earlier in the day arrived by train in Bavaria, southern Germany, where they were taken to refugee centres in Rosenheim and Munich.

- 'Like we are animals' -

Europe is struggling to cope with the biggest movement of people since World War II, with more than 300,000 arriving this year.

Most are fleeing war, persecution and hardship in the Middle East and Africa, and at least 2,500 have died trying to make the treacherous journey across the Mediterranean Sea this year.

EU interior ministers will meet on September 14 in Brussels on the crisis.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel warned against damaging Europe's "close link with universal civil rights" in the handling of refugees.

Implicitly criticising countries like Slovakia that said they would reject migrants from majority Muslim countries, she said: "if we start saying 'I do not want Muslims' ... that cannot be good".

Her comments echoed those of French Prime Minister Manuel Valls in the French port of Calais, who said "too many countries are refusing to play their part. It goes against the European spirit and we can't accept it."

Valls said France would build a new reception camp for migrants in Calais by early 2016.

Meanwhile, Austria called for EU funding for states refusing to take their share of migrants to be cut.

Polish Prime Minister Ewa Kopacz said her country could increase the number of refugees it had been willing to accept.

- 'Breach of Europe's values' -

Most of the migrants land in Italy or Greece, then make for the wealthier countries of northern Europe.

Transit countries in eastern Europe and the Balkans, like Macedonia, Serbia and Hungary, are struggling to cope with the crowds.

Hungary, which has seen 50,000 new arrivals this month, has built a razor wire fence along its border with Serbia to try keep migrants out, and is also building a four-metre (13 feet) fence to be policed by border guards and sniffer dogs.

Criticised by French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius as a breach of "Europe's common values", the barrier has so far proved ineffective, with police saying 3,080 migrants crossed on Saturday, the second-highest daily total.

European Council President Donald Tusk said the EU needed "a way between the chaotic mess symbolised by the dramas in Calais... or the tragedies in the sea or recently in Austria, and drastic actions like those taken by Hungary".

While those migrant routes into Europe are now well-trodden, some people are coming up with ever-more novel methods of getting in.

A group of intrepid Syrian migrants travelled through Russia into Norway's Arctic, some of them cycling across the border.

Norway is not a member of the European Union but belongs to Europe's passport-free Schengen Area.


© 2015 AFP

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