RÃ–SZKE, Hungary, Sept 10, 2015 (AFP) – Record numbers of migrants streamed through the Balkans into Hungary on Thursday, forcing Austria to suspend cross-border train services as Europe remained bitterly divided over how to cope with the refugee crisis.
Germany — itself under fire from eastern neighbours over its willingness to take in refugees — warned that an EU plan to distribute 160,000 new arrivals among member states was a mere “drop in the ocean”.
Hungarian police said 3,321 people had entered in just 24 hours, hurrying to cross before harsh new anti-migrant laws take effect, an imposing new fence is completed, and the weather worsens.
Across the border in Serbia, state television reported that a record 5,000 people had arrived at the frontier.
Further south, on Macedonia’s border with Greece, AFP journalists saw some 50 buses transporting around 2,500 migrants and three trains packed with 3,000 people departing from the town of Gevgelija.
The UN’s refugee agency on Tuesday warned that at least 42,000 migrants were expected to enter Hungary by next week.
Many have endured treacherous sea journeys across the Mediterranean — most fleeing war and poverty in Syria, Afghanistan or Pakistan and hoping to reach Germany.
– ‘Massive overcrowding’ –
Once inside Hungary, overstretched police have struggled to control and register the new arrivals who mostly board trains and buses bound for the border with Austria.
Hundreds have broken through Hungarian police lines in recent days near the flashpoint border village of Roszke after waiting for hours to get on buses.
Emergency measures allowing migrants to enter Austria after the arrival of 15,000 last weekend remained in place. Overnight, 3,700 more crossed the border, Austrian police said.
But Austria’s train operator on Thursday suspended services with Hungary because of “massive overcrowding”, calling on bus companies and volunteers to stop bringing migrants to stations.
Denmark’s trains, which had been suspended Wednesday, were due to start running again, and police said they were letting refugees travel freely towards Sweden, another preferred destination.
However, a busy ferry crossing from Rodby, south of Copenhagen, remained closed to trains a day after 340 refugees arriving from its southern neighbour Germany refused to disembark, demanding to continue to Sweden.
– ‘A first step’ –
In an effort to control the crisis, European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker on Wednesday unveiled a new plan to for the bloc to share out 160,000 refugees to ease the burden on frontline states.
But Germany, which said it has already welcomed 450,000 migrants and refugees this year, wants the 28-nation bloc to go further.
Europe’s biggest economy wants compulsory long-term EU quotas with no limits on numbers, with Deputy Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel on Thursday likening Juncker’s proposals to “a drop in the ocean”.
“The distribution of 160,000 refugees across Europe is a first step, if one wants to be polite,” he said.
But binding quotas are already facing fierce resistence from eastern members of the EU, with Slovakian Prime Minister Robert Fico saying his country would not “bow down” to Berlin.
“We say no to mandatory quotas. I don’t want to wake up one day and have 50,000 people here about whom we know nothing,” Fico said on Wednesday.
The EU quota plans must be approved by a majority of EU states, and Berlin said it was open to a special EU refugee summit ahead of the next scheduled summit on October 14.
Juncker’s proposals also include a possible revision of the EU’s much-criticised Dublin Treaty, under which asylum claims must be processed by the first country that refugees arrive in.
Some help may be on the way from outside, with US Secretary of State John Kerry on Wednesday seeking to drum up support for the country to accept more refugees.
Washington has accepted only around 1,500 Syrians since the four-year-old conflict erupted, a tiny proportion of the 15,000 Syrians the UNHCR has referred to it for resettlement.
Australia said it would take an additional 12,000 Syrians and Iraqis and several South American countries also agreed to help.
– Walking for hours –
Meanwhile, on the Greek island of Lesbos, another flashpoint, the boats kept arriving.
Hundreds — perhaps thousands — were making a gruelling 50-60 kilometre walk from their landing place to the main town where they must go to receive registration papers.
“We have been walking for four hours. There is no bus, no taxi, no water, no anything,” said Mohammed Yassin al-Jahabra, a 23-year-old English literature student, surrounded by a crowd of anxious and exhausted friends and family.
Earlier this week, officials on Lesbos registered a staggering 15,000 refugees in just over 24 hours after a huge backlog had built up, leaving people stranded on the island for days in filthy conditions.
But the boats are still arriving at an astonishing pace, with six landing in the space of an hour on Wednesday and four more in the distance, each carrying 40-60 people, AFP correspondents said.
“As soon as I put my feet down (on dry land), I stopped feeling tired,” said Feras Tahan, a 34-year-old Syrian graphic designer, his shoes and trousers soaked.