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Hungary buses first migrants to Austrian border

The first buses carrying migrants who have been stranded in the Hungarian capital set off for Austria and Germany early Saturday after they agreed to receive thousands of refugees desperate to start new lives in Western Europe.

With tensions growing across the European Union about how to handle the escalating crisis on its borders, buses laid on by the Hungarian authorities left the Keleti train station carrying people who have been stuck for days in makeshift refugee camps.

Minutes earlier, the first vehicles began to pick up members of a crowd of some 1,200 people who set off on foot for the Austrian border some 175 kilometres (110 miles) away earlier in the day, Hungary’s official MTI agency reported.

The mass march came as the father of Syrian toddler Aylan Kurdi, whose drowning has shocked people around the world and underlined the human cost of Europe’s escalating refugee crisis, buried his family in their war-torn hometown of Kobane.

Germany urged an end to “recriminations” as Britain said it would take in thousands more Syrian refugees — but only directly from camps, not those already in overstretched Hungary, Greece and Italy, who are demanding their EU partners do more to help.

Hungary has become the newest flashpoint as thousands of migrants try to get to Western Europe, particularly Germany, which has said it will no longer deport Syrian refugees and will take in 800,000 people this year.

On Friday evening, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s chief-of-staff Janos Lazar said Budapest would lay on around 100 buses to take migrants to the Austrian border if they wanted, saying: “The top priority is that Hungary’s transport should not be crippled.”

Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann subsequently announced that Vienna and Berlin had agreed to receive the migrants due to arrive at the Hungarian border in the coming hours.

He told Austria’s APA agency that Orban had been informed “in consultation” with Merkel of the decision motivated by “the current emergency at the Hungarian border”.

Earlier, a crowd of migrants estimated by police at 1,200 — including people in wheelchairs and on crutches — set off from Budapest, some flashing victory signs as they walked along the motorway while others carried pictures of German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

– Clashes outside camp –

“We are very happy that something is happening at last. The next stop is Austria. The children are very tired, Hungary is very bad, we have to go somehow,” 23-year-old Osama from Syria told AFP as he set off for the neighbouring country.

Poor camp conditions and slow registration procedures for asylum-seekers appear to have contributed to rising tensions at Hungary’s refugee facilities.

Earlier Friday, about 300 people had busted through a fence at a Hungarian refugee camp and clashed with police, while another 300 escaped from a collection point for migrants intercepted at the border.

Meanwhile in the town of Bicske, 40 kilometres west of Budapest and home to one of Hungary’s main refugee camps, up to 350 migrants escaped from a train guarded by police and headed westward along the tracks.

A 51-year-old Pakistani among them died after he was found lying close to the railway track, police said. The cause of death was not immediately clear.

Right-wing Orban has sparked anger by saying his country did not want more Muslim migrants and warned that Europe would lose its Christian identity.

Hungarian lawmakers also passed tough new anti-immigration measures, including criminalising unauthorised border crossing and any vandalism to a razor-wire fence recently erected along the border with Serbia.

Some 50,000 migrants entered Hungary last month via the western Balkans, with a record 3,300 arriving on Thursday, according to UN figures.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres warned the 28-member bloc faced a “defining moment” and called for the mandatory resettlement of 200,000 refugees by EU states.

Around 350,000 migrants have crossed the Mediterranean so far this year, with 2,600 dying when rickety boats, many supplied by ruthless people smugglers in North Africa, sank.

– Toddler’s funeral –

In a tragedy that has brought home the urgency of the crisis, Aylan’s father Abdullah Kurdi returned Friday to the Syrian border town of Kobane to lay his son to rest along with Aylan’s brother and mother.

“I will have to pay the price for this the rest of my life,” he told mourners, after carrying his sons’ bodies to Kobane’s Martyrs’ Cemetery.

The family were driven out of Kobane in June after fierce fighting between Kurdish militants and Islamic State jihadists.

Photos showing the little boy’s body lying in the surf of a Turkish resort, washed up after the boat taking the family to Greece sank, has galvanised opinion on the need to help the migrants.

EU foreign ministers met in Luxembourg to discuss the crisis ahead of a “State of the Union” address next week by European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, when he will lay out new measures that could well exacerbate divisions in the bloc.

Juncker has proposed mandatory quotas for resettling 160,000 refugees, after an earlier plan for 40,000 met stiff opposition, notably from Hungary, and attracted offers of places for only 32,000.

Germany and France back the system but Hungary, the Czech Republic, Poland and Slovakia together rejected any quotas in a statement on Friday.

If some governments are wary, many ordinary Europeans were taking the initiative and providing all the help they can, from social media campaigns in Austria to street protests urging government action in Spain.

Charities across Europe reported a surge in donations from people shocked by the heart-rending images from Turkey — UNICEF said donations had more than doubled.

“There is an enormous response from the public, the tide of indifference is shifting,” Christian Peregrin, spokesman for the Malta-based Migrant Offshore Aid Station, told AFP.

However at least 30 more migrants were feared to have drowned off Libya after their dinghy began to sink, the International Organization for Migration said.