NICKELSDORF, Austria — Thousands of Syrian asylum-seekers who had been stuck in Hungary for days reached Austria on Saturday, as Hungary’s hard-line authorities backed down from a confrontation with the refugees that they said were overrunning Europe.
Packed city buses ferried men, women and children from the center of Budapest, where people fleeing war in Syria and Iraq had set up a tent city after Hungarian authorities blocked their passage to Western Europe earlier this week. The squalor highlighted Europe’s inability to come up with a plan to deal with the growing wave of asylum-seekers, with Germany and Sweden opening their doors but many other countries barring them.
After trying to round up the asylum-seekers into camps, Hungarian authorities gave up late Friday after thousands of people departed Budapest on foot to try to make the 100-mile trek to the border. Instead, officials had dozens of blue buses pick them up in the night to transport them to Austria. They reached the main border crossing by early morning, and people — many of them bleary-eyed or limping — walked across the frontier, where Red Cross workers waited with blankets and tea.
The chaos in Hungary “opens our eyes to how far the situation has proceeded in Europe,” Austrian Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz said on Saturday, who said that he was happy that the crisis had been “solved humanely.”
Hours earlier, Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann said that he had spoken to German Chancellor Angela Merkel and to Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban to reach the agreement. But he suggested that it was a one-time deal, leaving the broader issue unresolved.
Once in Austria, asylum-seekers were being given a choice of going to Vienna or taking trains and buses to Germany. German officials have said they expect to take in up to 800,000 asylum-seekers this year, especially Syrian refugees. German police said Saturday that they expected as many as 10,000 arrivals that day alone.
Hungary’s late-night offer of bus transportation came after days of efforts to repel migrants fleeing war and poverty who have streamed into Hungary in a bid to reach Western Europe, where they hope to begin new lives. Orban had painted his hard-line approach against the mostly Muslim asylum-seekers as a stand to preserve Europe as a Christian continent.
But after a column of migrants more than a mile long streamed onto Hungary’s main highway to Austria, it appeared that authorities felt they had no alternative but to pass the challenge to their neighbor, another country that has been ambivalent about the influx.
By early Saturday morning, the first asylum seekers began to walk across the border into Austria after having been dropped off by buses on the Hungarian side. The buses had picked people up at Budapest’s main train station. After initial hesitation, the crowds began to climb on board, relieved to be en route out of Hungary.
“What has been happening in Hungary since last night is a consequence of two things: first, a failure of migration policy of the European Union,” said Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto, ahead of a meeting of E.U. foreign ministers in Luxembourg to discuss the crisis. He also blamed “some irresponsible statements made by European politicians,” a reference to German willingness to take in large numbers of Syrians, which Hungarian leaders have said sparked an even-larger pilgrimage to Europe’s borders.
At Keleti train station in Budapest, where thousands of migrants had camped out for nearly a week, the central plaza was nearly empty on Saturday morning except for a maintenance crew hosing down the site. Other asylum-seekers remained underground, but their numbers were far fewer than in recent days, and they were expected to take buses out of Hungary later in the day.
The Hungarian decision to take the asylum-seekers to the border underlined the half-measures taken so far to address the challenge facing Europe, which has failed to come up with a unified response to the mounting numbers on its borders. The plans merely shifted the crisis to another state, leaving the fundamental problem — a bloc of 503 million people unable to agree whether and how to house several hundred thousand refugees — to burn for another day.
He said that the decision had been made to clear the roads to ensure the country’s transportation security.
In recent days, Hungary had tried to halt the asylum-seekers’ journey by stopping rail traffic, penning them in migrant camps and bolstering security at the border. When Hungarian officials gave in on Friday, they said they did so to ensure their own security after asylum-seekers travelling by foot blocked key transportation routes to Western Europe.
Amid the chaos, the debate over how to respond to Europe’s refugee crisis continued to escalate. Hungarian lawmakers, fearful of the influx of asylum-seekers from conflict-torn Middle Eastern nations, approved measures Friday that gave authorities sweeping powers to seal the border and detain migrants who crossed the 108-mile razor-wire fence recently erected across the frontier with Serbia.
“The reality is that Europe is threatened by a mass inflow of people. Many tens of millions of people could come to Europe,” Orban said Friday on Hungarian national radio.
“Now we talk about hundreds of thousands, but next year we will talk about millions, and there is no end to this,” the prime minister said. “All of a sudden we will see that we are in a minority in our own continent.”
Hungarian leaders had said they were simply following E.U. regulations in their harsh response, so tough that they declined U.N. offers of emergency aid for the migrants. But the rules have proved inadequate for the situation because they place most of the burden of dealing with asylum-seekers on the first E.U. country they enter. That has forced poorer countries such as Greece, Hungary and Italy to the forefront as richer ones have taken a back seat.
The vast majority of asylum-seekers arriving in Hungary want to reach Germany and Sweden, but leaders there have said they cannot shoulder the full burden of the arrivals.
Hungary’s nationalist government enjoys broad public support. But not all citizens are opposed to the asylum-seekers.
“My stomach is shaking when I see these little kids,” said Attila Gadl, who drove his minivan to the roadside late Friday to hand out loaves of bread, water and reflective vests to the crowds straggling by.
Many countries have refused to commit to mandatory targets for taking in refugees. Central European leaders convening in Prague said Friday they would not support a joint German and French proposal to institute quotas that would require each European Union nation to take a designated number of refugees. Many nations have been less willing to accept asylum-seekers than Germany, which has said it expects 800,000 this year. Slovakia, for example, has said it will take only Christians.
On Friday, British Prime Minister David Cameron reversed a pledge not to take more refugees, citing “the scale of the crisis and the suffering of people.”
He said that his nation would accept “thousands” from packed camps in Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan, where millions of people have been displaced by Syria’s civil war, and that he would offer more details next week.
The measures approved Friday by Hungary’s parliament made crossing or damaging the border fence a criminal offense, punishable by up to three years in prison. Hungarian authorities will also be able to set up migrant camps at the frontier, where asylum-seekers can be confined as their requests are processed. Orban aims to seal the border by Sept. 15.
The pressure is rapidly building as record numbers of asylum-seekers reach Europe’s shores faster than authorities can decide what to do with them. Riots broke out Friday on the Greek island of Lesvos, where more than 1,000 migrants tried to board a packed ferry for mainland Greece. Police used stun grenades to push them back. Authorities think that more than 15,000 asylum-seekers are on the tourist island, but there are facilities for far fewer.
The U.N. refugee agency said Friday that nearly 5,600 people crossed from Greece to Macedonia a day earlier, double the figures that had been seen in recent days. Those numbers were already unprecedented. The agency said that Europe needed to make as many as 200,000 spots for new refugees. Plans circulating in Brussels appear far less generous.
Birnbaum reported from Brussels. Karla Adam in London and Andras Petho in Budapest contributed to this report.