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Thursday, December 8, 2016

By Krisztina Than and Madeline Chambers

BUDAPEST/BERLIN (Reuters) – Hundreds of angry migrants demonstrated outside Budapest’s Eastern Railway Terminus on Tuesday demanding they be allowed to travel on to Germany, as the biggest ever influx of migrants into the European Union left its asylum policies in tatters.

Around 1,000 people waved tickets, clapping, booing and shouting “Germany! Germany!” outside the station. Later they sat down, staring at a police blockade erected at the entrance.

A refugee crisis rivaling the Balkan wars of the 1990s as Europe’s worst since World War Two has polarized and confounded the European Union, which has no mechanism to cope with the arrival of hundreds of thousands of poor and desperate people.

Germany is likely to accept by far the largest share. In the case of those fleeing the Syrian civil war it has effectively suspended an EU rule that asylum seekers must apply in the first EU country they reach. But it insisted on Tuesday that the rule was nevertheless still in force and urged other EU countries to abide by it.

The vast majority of refugees fleeing violence and other migrants escaping poverty arrive on Europe’s southern and eastern edges but are determined to press on and seek asylum in richer and more generous countries further north and west. That means illegally crossing a bloc that has no internal border controls to stop them.

Hungary has emerged as one of the main flashpoints of the crisis as the primary gateway for migrants traveling over land through the Balkans and into the EU.

Hungarian authorities shut the Budapest train station altogether on Tuesday, then reopened it but barred entry to migrants. About 100 police in helmets and wielding batons guarded the station. Dozens of migrants who were inside were forced out.

Hungary’s decision to bar the migrants from westbound trains was a reversal from the previous day, when Hungary and Austria let trainloads of undocumented migrants leave for Germany, a violation of EU rules they now have little power to enforce.

European laws, known as the “Dublin rules”, require asylum seekers to apply in the country where they first enter the EU and remain there until their applications are processed, even though the 26 members of the bloc’s Schengen zone maintain no border controls between them.

The countries where most first reach the bloc – Italy, Greece and Hungary – say they have no capacity to process applications on such a scale.

Germany announced last month it would allow Syrians arriving from elsewhere in the EU to apply for asylum without being sent back to the country where they entered the bloc. It insisted on Tuesday that this did not change the law, and other states must demand migrants register where they arrive. Other countries, including Austria, have demanded clarification from Berlin.

“The decision, driven by practical considerations, by the (German) Office of Migration and Refugees … not, in most cases, to enforce the sending back of Syrian asylum seekers to other EU member states underlines the humanitarian responsibility of Germany for these particularly hard hit refugees,” a German Interior Ministry Spokesman said.

“Germany has not suspended Dublin. Dublin rules are still valid and we expect European member states to stick to them.”

WHERE SHOULD WE GO?

European leaders want the 28-member EU to do more to organize the unprecedented influx.

“For those refugees who are being persecuted or have fled war, there should be a fair distribution in Europe based on the economic strength, productivity and size of each country,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel told a joint news conference in Berlin with Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy.

She and Rajoy both said the bloc’s executive European Commission should draw up a list of safe countries, making it easier to send home migrants who were not genuine refugees.

The crisis has polarized a continent which is committed to the principle of providing refuge for those in danger but has a growing sector of public opinion that believes too much immigration drives down wages and dilutes national cultures.

Thousands of migrants have drowned this year attempting to reach Europe across the Mediterranean in rickety vessels, while the peril of the overland journey was hammered home when 71 dead bodies were found in an abandoned truck in Austria last week.

Political parties that oppose immigration have gained ground across Europe, not least in Hungary where the government has reinforced the border with a razor wire fence and deployed thousands of extra police. More than 140,000 people have crossed into Hungary from Serbia this year alone.

Antal Rogan, the parliament caucus leader of Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s ruling centre-right Fidesz party, said on Tuesday “the very existence of Christian Europe” was under threat.

“Would we like our grandchildren to grow up in a United European Caliphate? My answer to that is no,” Rogan told the pro-government daily Magyar Idok.

German Labor Minister Andrea Nahles said the influx of refugees and migrants would mean an additional 240,000-460,000 people would be entitled to German social benefits next year, costing the state an extra 3.3 billion euros ($3.7 billion).

Hungary let migrants board westbound trains on Monday before unexpectedly shuttering the station again on Tuesday morning. Government spokesman Zoltan Kovacs said the closure was an attempt to enforce EU law.

Marah, a 20 year-old woman from Aleppo, Syria, said her family had bought six tickets for a RailJet train scheduled to leave for Vienna at 9 a.m. on Tuesday.

“They should find a solution,” she told Reuters. “We are thousands here, where should we go?”

(Reporting by Budapest and Berlin bureaus; Writing by Peter Graff; Editing by Gareth Jones)

Photo: Migrants rest in an underground station near the main Eastern Railway station in Budapest, Hungary, September 1, 2015.  REUTERS/Laszlo Balogh