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REFUGEE CRISIS

IMMIGRATION

Hungary offers buses to refugees

Hungary late Friday laid on buses to ferry hundreds of desperate refugees who had set off on foot for the Austrian border after being stranded for days in Budapest's main railway station.

Hungary offers buses to refugees
Child boarding train in Budapest. Photo: BBC News

With tensions growing across a divided EU, the human cost of the refugee crisis was underlined as the father of Syrian toddler Aylan Kurdi, whose drowning shocked the world, buried his family in their war-torn hometown.

Germany urged an end to “recriminations” as Britain said it would take in thousands more Syrian refugees — but only directly from camps, not those already in overstretched Hungary, Greece and Italy who are demanding their EU partners do more to help.

Hungary has become the newest flashpoint as thousands of migrants try to get to Western Europe, particularly Germany, which has said it will no longer deport Syrian refugees and will take in 800,000 people this year.

In the Hungarian capital, a crowd of migrants estimated by police at 2,500, including people in wheelchairs and on crutches, set off determined to get to the Austrian border some 175 kilometres (110 miles) away.

On Friday evening, Prime Minister Viktor Orban's chief-of-staff Janos Lazar said Hungary would lay on around 100 buses to take migrants to the Austrian border if they wanted.

'Hungary is very bad'

“The top priority is that Hungary's transport should not be crippled,” said Lazar.

Some flashed victory signs as they walked along the M1 motorway leading to Austria while others carried pictures of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who recently eased asylum rules for Syrians, as police looked on without intervening.

“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.

Earlier in the day, about 300 people busted through a fence at a Hungarian refugee camp and clashed with police, while another 300 escaped from a collection point for migrants intercepted at the border.

Meanwhile in the town of Bicske, 40 kilometres west of Budapest and home to one of Hungary's main refugee camps, up to 350 migrants escaped from a train guarded by police, and headed westward along the tracks.

A 51-year-old Pakistani among them died after he was found lying close to the railway track, a police spokesman said. The cause of death was not immediately clear.

Orban sparked anger by saying his country did not want more Muslim migrants and warned that Europe would lose its Christian identity.

Tough Hungarian measures

Hungarian lawmakers also passed tough new anti-immigration measures, including criminalising illegal border crossing and vandalism to a razor-wire fence erected along the border with Serbia.

Some 50,000 migrants arrived in Hungary last month via the western Balkans, with a record 3,300 on Thursday, according to UN figures.

The Czech Republic and Slovakia on Friday separately proposed creating a rail corridor for Syrian refugees linking Hungary and Germany.

UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres warned the EU faced a “defining moment” and called for the mandatory resettlement of 200,000 refugees by EU states.

Some 350,000 migrants have crossed the Mediterranean so far this year, with 2,600 dying when rickety boats supplied by ruthless people smugglers sank.

Pay the price

Symbolising the human tragedy at the heart of the crisis, Aylan's father Abdullah Kurdi returned Friday to the Syrian border town of Kobane to lay his son to rest along with Aylan's brother and mother, who also died.

“I will have to pay the price for this the rest of my life,” he told mourners, after carrying his sons' bodies to Kobane's Martyrs' Cemetery.

The family were driven out of Kobane in June after fierce fighting between Kurdish militants and Islamic State militants.

There was global outrage after photos showed the little boy's body lying in the surf of a Turkish resort, washed up after the boat taking the family to Greece sank.

Mandatory quotas

EU foreign ministers met in Luxembourg to discuss the crisis ahead of a “State of the Union” address next week by European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, when he will lay out new measures which could well exacerbate EU differences.

Juncker has proposed mandatory quotas for resettling 160,000 refugees, after an earlier plan for 40,000 met stiff opposition, notably from Hungary, and attracted offers of places for only 32,000.

Germany and France back quotas, but Hungary, the Czech Republic, Poland and Slovakia together rejected any quota systems in a statement on Friday.

Surge in donations

If some governments are wary, many ordinary Europeans were taking the initiative and providing help for the migrants as well they could.

In Austria, some 2,200 people joined a social media campaign to organise a convoy of private cars and vans on Sunday to help pick up hundreds of the migrants in Hungary, while hundreds rallied in Madrid and Barcelona urging Spain's leaders to do more to help refugees.

Charities across Europe meanwhile reported a surge in donations from people shocked by the heart-rending images — UNICEF said donations were up 105 percent.

“There is an enormous response from the public, the tide of indifference is shifting,” Christian Peregrin, spokesman for the Malta-based Migrant Offshore Aid Station, told AFP.

At least 30 more migrants were feared to have drowned off Libya after their dinghy began to sink, the International Organization for Migration said Friday.

IMMIGRATION

‘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.

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