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.


‘Discrimination’: Austria’s benefit cuts for immigrants ‘go against free movement’

Benefit cuts imposed by Austria on immigrants whose children live in their country of origin contradict EU law becasue they constitute "discrimination on the ground of nationality", a legal adviser at the bloc's top court said on Thursday.

A picture of the sign and logo of the Court of Justice of the European Union in Luxembourg
A picture of the sign and logo of the Court of Justice of the European Union in Luxembourg on January 13, 2020. (Photo by JOHN THYS / AFP)

The opinion is the latest legal hitch to befall a series of measures — imposed by a previous government that included the far-right — which sought to restrict benefit payments to foreigners.

Richard de la Tour, advocate general of the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU), said the cuts to child benefits constituted “an infringement of the right of free movement conferred on EU citizens”.

The specific case relates to reforms that came into effect in 2019 which indexed child benefits according to where the recipient’s children live.

This meant reduced payments for tens of thousands of eastern Europeans who work in Austria — notably in the care sector — but whose children remain in their countries of origin.

The advocate general’s advice is not binding on the court but it is seen as influential.

De la Tour found that the cuts were “indirect discrimination on the ground of nationality which is permissible only if it is objectively justified”, and that Austria had failed to do so.

They contravened the principle that “if a migrant worker pays social contributions and taxes in a member state, he or she must be able to benefit from the same allowances as nationals of that state”, he added.

In 2020 the European Commission, supported by six eastern member states, brought an action before the CJEU claiming Austria was “failing to fulfil its obligations”.

Former Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz had said he hoped the cuts would save 114 million euros ($130 million) a year but in 2019 they recouped 62 million euros.

The former coalition also introduced benefit cuts for immigrants who failed to reach a certain level of German, but those measures were subsequently overturned by the Austrian courts.

The government that introduced in the cuts was brought down in a corruption scandal in May 2019.

It included the centre-right Austrian People’s Party (OeVP), which is still the senior partner in the current government.

However their current coalition partners, the Greens, opposed the benefit cuts at the time.