Refugees set off on foot from Budapest to Austria

Update: Hundreds of refugees have set off on foot from Budapest's main railway station, planning to walk to Austria after the Hungarian authorities suspended international train services.

Refugees set off on foot from Budapest to Austria
Syrian refugees outside Budapest's main railway station. Photo: Youtube screenshot

The crowd includes people in wheelchairs and on crutches, as well as parents carrying children on their shoulders, all prepared to march 175 km to the border.

Some flashed victory signs while others waved images of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who recently announced that Berlin was easing asylum restrictions for Syrians.

“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.

Police watched the silent migrants walk through the Hungarian capital but did not intervene, an AFP correspondent said, adding there was no sign of conflict at the moment.

The march was causing traffic jams on the main route into the city from the western Buda area.

An estimated 2,000 refugees have been stuck in makeshift camps at Budapest's Keleti railway station hoping for trains to Austria and Germany, but international services have been suspended from the station.

Railway authorities have blocked refugees from boarding trains to Austria and Germany because they lack EU visas. Currently passengers wishing to travel to Austria have to change trains at Hegyeshalom.

Austrian Railways (ÖBB) head Christian Kern has said that trains are on stand-by at the Hungarian border, equipped with beds, and will be prepared to take refugees on to Vienna. He said that the ÖBB had been “deliberately misinformed” by the Hungarian authorities on Thursday, about a train which left Budapest and was supposed to be headed towards Austria.

BBC news producer Ron Brown has spoken to refugees at the railway station who say they plan to walk to Vienna.

Refugee 'convoy'

Meanwhile, a group of activists in Vienna has set up a Facebook group appealing to people to join a convoy of private cars and buses which will travel to Budapest on Sunday and bring back refugees across the Austrian border.

On Friday four activists from Vienna were stopped in Budapest on suspicion of people smuggling, and taken to a police station. They had planned to bring refugees by car across the border.

Austrian Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz has been speaking to the Hungarian Ambassador and told the Austria Press Agency that the four will be allowed to return to Austria later on Friday. They face up to five years imprisonment in Hungary if found guilty of people smuggling.

There is a difference between organized smugglers who are prepared to risk people dying to make a profit and those people who just want to help,” Kurz said, adding that there is an urgent need for a European response to the refugee crisis.

A convoy of activists from Vienna plans to leave the car park at Vienna's Prater stadium at 9am on Sunday with the aim of bringing back as many refugees as possible, and helping them to continue their journey from Vienna to Germany.

The group has appealed to charities, NGOs, bus and taxi companies to support the convoy and has asked the Austrian government to persuade Hungary to let refugees leave on trains from Keleti station, to prevent them falling into the hands of unscrupulous people smugglers.

In a statement, the group said that it has taken legal advice and will not allow any volunteers or refugees to take unnecessary risks.

However, Vienna's Vice Mayor Maria Vassilakou from the Greens party has warned people against joining the convoy. As much as I understand the need for such action, and admire the dedication and courage behind it, Hungary is not a safe country” she said on Friday.

Hungarian MPs are debating tough new anti-immigration measures on Friday afternoon, including criminalising illegal border crossing and vandalism to the new anti-immigrant razor-wire fence erected along the border with Serbia.

Hungary has in recent months joined Italy and Greece as a “front line” state in Europe's migrant crisis, with 50,000 people trekking up the western Balkans and entering the country in August alone.

A record 3,300 migrants crossed into Hungary on Thursday, according to the latest figures from the UN refugee agency.

The right-wing government headed by Prime Minister Viktor Orban has responded to the influx by erecting a controversial razor-wire barrier along its 175 km border with Serbia.

On Thursday, Orban defended his handling of the crisis, blaming Germany's lifting of asylum rules for the thousands of migrants travelling through his nation.

“Nobody wants to stay in Hungary, neither in Slovakia, nor Poland, nor Estonia. All want to go to Germany. Our job is just to register them,” he said while in Brussels for talks on the crisis with European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker and EU president Donald Tusk.


MAP: Who are the foreigners in Austria?

Austria's recent Migration & Integration report paints a detailed picture of who are the immigrants in the country, where they come from, the languages they speak at home and more.

MAP: Who are the foreigners in Austria?

More than a quarter of Austria’s population has a “migration background”, which, according to the statistics institute Statistik Austria, means that they have parents who both were born abroad, regardless of their own nationality or place of birth.

Though migration is a controversial topic for some, Statistik Austria made it clear that if not for it, the country would simply stop growing.

“Austria’s population is growing solely due to immigration. Without it, according to the population forecast, the number of inhabitants would fall back to the level of the 1950s in the long term”, says Statistik Austria’s director general Tobias Thomas.

READ ALSO: IN NUMBERS: One in four Austrian residents now of foreign origin

Who are the foreigners in Austria?

Not every person with a migration background is considered a foreigner, though. Many of them have parents who were born abroad but naturalised Austrians before having children, or they themselves became Austrian citizens later on.

This is why despite 25.4 percent of the population having a “migration background”, the number of people with foreign nationalities is slightly lower at 17.7 percent.

So, who are these people? 

German is still the most common nationality among foreigners in Austria (218,347 people). But much had changed since 2015 (when there were 170,475 Germans).

The number of Romanians has almost doubled (from 73,374 to 140,454), bringing them to the second-largest foreigner community in Austria, behind German citizens.

In 2015, Turkish was the second-largest foreign nationality in Austria (there were 115,433), but they are now the fourth (with 117,944 people), behind German, Romanian, and Serbians (121,643).

They are helping Austria get younger

In Austria, most people without a migration background (36.2 percent) are between 40 to 64 years old. The share is also quite large among those with 65 or more years, reaching 21.8 percent.

When it comes to people with a migration background, most are between 40 to 64 years old (34.4 percent), followed closely by the 20 to 39-year-olds (33.5 percent), and then the children and adolescents until 19 years of age (22 percent). Only 10.2 percent of the people with a migration background are older than 65.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: How does the Austrian pension system work?

Regarding nationalities, Austrians have an average age of 44.8, followed by Germans, who average 41.1. The youngest populations are the Afghani living in Austria (24.9 years old on average) and the Syrians (26.3).

Immigration helps keep the Austrian population younger. (Photo by Huy Phan on Unsplash)

Language and education

People with a migration background living in Austria have a different educational profile than the population without a migration background, according to the Statistik Austria data.

They are more often represented in the lowest and highest educational segments and less often in the middle-skilled segment than the population without a migration background.

However, the educational level of immigrants is improving over time, on the one hand, due to increasing internal migration, also of higher educated people within the EU. On the other hand, as a result of the selective immigration policy toward third-country nationals by the Red-White-Red Card, the institution said.

READ ALSO: How Austria is making it easier for non-EU workers to get residence permits

In 2021, 19.4 percent of the Austrian population had higher education, such as a university degree, and 10.9 percent had only mandatory primary schooling. Regarding foreigners, 29 percent had university-level education and 25.1 percent had completed only their primary school years.

When it comes to children and the language they speak, German was the first language of about 72 percent of the four and 5-year-old children in elementary educational institutions in Austria.

READ ALSO: Austria ranked world’s ‘second least friendly country’

With just under six percent each, Turkish and Bosnian-Croatian-Serbian (BKS) were the most common non-German first languages. Around two percent each spoke Romanian, Arabic or Albanian, followed by Hungarian (one percent).

Less than one percent each for Persian, Polish, Slovakian, English, Russian and Kurdish, respectively, as the first languages. Languages other than those mentioned were spoken by slightly more than five percent.

And who is naturalising Austrian?

Not all foreigners become Austrian, even if they have been in the country for decades. One of the reasons is that the process is expensive, but also because it requires applicants to give up their previous citizenship – something many are unwilling to do.

READ ALSO: Could Austria change the rules around citizenship?

According to the report, in 2021, most foreign citizens who naturalised Austrian were from Turkey originally (1,100), followed by Bosnia (921), Serbia (782), Afghanistan (545), and Syria (543).

More than one-third of the people naturalising Austrian last year were already born in Austria, and most of the naturalisations were of young people between 20 and 40 years old.