BICSKE, Hungary — Furious asylum-seekers began a long march across Hungary on Friday, after authorities tried to halt their journey to Western Europe by stopping rail traffic, penning them in migrant camps and bolstering security at the border.
From Budapest and from the train station in this idyllic town 24 miles west of it, more than a thousand men — and some women and children — began a roughly 100-mile trek to the border with Austria, whether they hope to begin new lives after fleeing war and poverty in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere. So many people were walking that by Friday evening, they had forced the closure of the country’s main highway to Western Europe.
In Bicske, asylum-seekers on a packed, surrounded train had been locked in a tense standoff with police for more than a day, defying Hungarian authorities’ attempts to detain them in a migrant processing camp. In the afternoon’s sweltering heat, hundreds rushed police lines and joined the human line along a wide highway to Austria, as Hungary’s leader warned that an influx of Muslim refugees meant that Europeans could become “a minority in our own continent.”
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 their border. Central European leaders convening in Prague said they would not support a joint German and French proposal to institute mandatory quotas that would require each European Union nation to share the burden of sheltering refugees.
At the Bicske train station, asylum-seekers said they had been tricked a day earlier by Hungarian police as they tried to reach Western Europe from the capital. Authorities allowed a train packed full of migrants to leave the city center, bound for the border with Austria. But the train made a sudden stop at the station , where a platform was packed with riot police waiting to take them to a migration processing center.
For more than a day, they remained in limbo as their desperation mounted.
Finally, hundreds of them fled, while dozens more surrendered to authorities. They fear that being registered in Hungary would keep them from making it to Western Europe, which has offered them far more generous support.
One 50-year-old man died after collapsing as he was running away, according to Hungary’s National Ambulance Service.
Most of the asylum-seekers vowed to make it to Germany, which has welcomed them, no matter how many obstacles Hungary throws in their path.
“I will get there. I need this. This is the only way,” said Fatima Hamido, 24 , who in her native Latakia, Syria, was an art and English teacher and on Friday wore baggy jeans, a black headscarf, and sneakers with pink laces. After spending two nights on the platform at the Budapest train station, she and seven others agreed to pay a smuggler to drive them all the way to Germany. They paid him $5,200, but his vehicle broke down near the Austrian border.
Hungarian authorities picked up the asylum-seekers and brought them back to the migrant processing camp near Bicske, close to where they started.
Other migrants think “that the camps are like jail. But these camps are a little bit better,” she said, looking around at the leafy campus of low, Communist-era white-washed buildings.
Hungarian authorities have shown no willingness to allow the asylum-seekers to move onward into Western Europe, a step they said would simply encourage more flows from the Middle East. As frustration grew on Friday, several hundred people walked away from Budapest’s Keleti train station, hoping to make the trek to Austria on foot if no trains would take them.
“Where is the human rights? Where is the United Nations?” said Adnan, a bearded young man in green shorts and a gray T-shirt who said he had fled with his family from Latakia, Syria, and was trying to reach Germany. He spoke at the Bicske station just in front of the halted train, which stood silently on the track on a sweltering 80-degree day.
“If we stay here, we will all die,” he said before a large group of asylum-seekers fled on foot.
Women pleaded for the world’s help. Men held crying children aloft above the chain-link fence that separated the train from the main station platform.
Adnan, who did not give his last name, said he would rather die than be sent to the Hungarian camp, where asylum-seekers fear they would face swift deportation. On the side of the train, someone had written, “No Camp, No Hungary,” in shaving cream.
On the platform were piles of bottled water, boxed juice and packaged cookies brought by the Hungarian Red Cross. For hours, nothing was distributed amid the standoff between police and the asylum-seekers, who appeared ready to start a hunger strike. But as the day’s heat kept building, the migrants relented and police started passing out the food to hungry families.
Separately, at a migrant camp near the border with Serbia, hundreds of asylum-seekers broke free from the camp’s confines. Police were pursuing them, according to the state-run MTI news agency.
“The reality is that Europe is threatened by a mass inflow of people; many tens of millions of people could come to Europe,” Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban told Hungarian national radio on Friday.
“Now we talk about hundreds of thousands, but next year we will talk about millions, and there is no end to this,” he said. “All of a sudden we will see that we are in a minority in our own continent.”
A day earlier, Orban said that “Europe’s Christian roots” were under threat. After a drowned Syrian toddler washed up on the Turkish coast, another European leader retorted that Christian values demanded helping the less fortunate.
The package of measures approved Friday by Hungary’s parliament gave Orban wide powers to deploy the military to the border with Serbia. Hungarian authorities had already built a long razor-wire fence to keep asylum-seekers out of the country. Now, crossing or damaging the barrier will be a criminal offense, punishable by up to three years in prison. Hungarian authorities will also be able to set up migrant camps right at the border, where asylum-seekers can be confined as their requests are processed.
Central European nationshave been far less willing than countries such as Germany and Sweden to take in the hundreds of thousands of asylum-seekers who have flooded Europe this year. Germany alone expects to take in 800,000 new people in 2015. Slovakia, by contrast, has said that only Christians need apply.
The pressure is rapidly building as record numbers of asylum-seekers reach Europe’s shores faster than authorities are giving them shelter and sustenance. 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. Riot police used stun grenades to push them back. Authorities believe more than 15,000 asylum-seekers are currently on the island, which usually caters to tourists, 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 fragmented European approach is causing human suffering, U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres said Friday.
“The only ones who benefit from the lack of a common European response are the smugglers and traffickers who are making profit from people’s desperation to reach safety,” Guterres said in a statement. He said Europe needed to make as many as 200,000 spots for new refugees — double what European Council President Donald Tusk was suggesting a day earlier.
Orban, Hungary’s nationalist leader who has spearheaded attempts to turn back the migrants, said he had little choice but to seal his nation’s borders.
“We Hungarians are full of fear, people in Europe are full of fear, because we see that the European leaders, among them the prime ministers, are not able to control the situation,” he said Thursday in Brussels.
The Hungarian leader blamed Germany for the crisis, saying that its open-door policy toward Syrian asylum-seekers was propelling a wave of migrants to undertake dangerous journeys toward Europe’s heart.
Hundreds of thousands of people fleeing war in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan have overwhelmed Europe’s capacity to respond in recent months, opening stark divisions. Some leaders believe that the world’s largest economic bloc — a vast territory of 503 million residents — is more than capable of accommodating refugees. Others, including Hungary’s Orban, believe the continent’s population is in a far more delicate state.
E.U. leaders including German Chancellor Angela Merkel have warned that if the crisis lingers, some of Europe’s basic principles, such as borderless movement, could be called into question.
British Prime Minister David Cameron on Friday announced that his nation would take in “thousands more Syrian refugees” from camps in the nations surrounding Syria. He said at a news conference in Portugal that he would announce more details next week. Fewer Syrians than would fit in a London subway car have been accepted this year.
France and Germany have proposed mandatory quotas that would more equitably spread refugees across the European Union.
Birnbaum reported from Brussels. Karla Adam in London contributed to this report.