BUDAPEST (AFP) - Hundreds of migrants stormed Budapest’s main international rail station after police reopened it on Thursday, in an escalating refugee crisis seared into European hearts by horrifying pictures of a drowned Syrian toddler.
Chaos erupted as crowds of people burst into the flashpoint station and rushed towards a standing train, with Hungarian police seemingly absent following a two-day standoff with migrants trying to head to Germany and Austria.
The scenes of confusion in a deeply divided European Union came as Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban held urgent talks in Brussels on dealing with the world’s worst refugee crisis since World War II.
“There is a divide... between the east and the west of the EU,” EU President Donald Tusk said ahead of the meeting with Orban.
“Some member states are thinking about containing the wave of migration, symbolised by the Hungarian (border) fence. Others want solidarity in advocating a so-called obligatory basis for (refugee) quotas” to re-distribute refugees.
The EU is riven by friction between transit nations where the migrants arrive by sea or land – mainly Greece, Italy and Hungary – and those where they hope to seek asylum, mainly in northern and western Europe.
France, Italy and Germany urged a rethink of European asylum rules to ensure “a fair distribution” of migrants throughout the 28-member bloc, as tensions soared between European states over how to tackle the huge influx.
- ‘Humanity washed ashore’ -
In Britain, where Prime Minister David Cameron’s government has accepted just 216 Syrian refugees and a lower number of asylum seekers in proportion to its population than most EU countries, tens of thousands of people signed petitions demanding change.
Pressure for change was increased by the images of a tiny child lying face down on the shore at one of Turkey’s main tourist resorts, putting a human face to the dangers faced by tens of thousands of desperate people who risk life and limb to get to Europe.
Wearing a red T-shirt and blue shorts, the child – identified as three-year-old Aylan Kurdi – is believed to be one of at least 12 Syrians who died when their boats sank trying to reach Greece.
A Canadian newspaper reported that the family of the boy and his five-year-old brother, who also drowned, were trying to get to Canada from the Syrian flashpoint town of Kobane after fleeing to Turkey last year to escape Islamic State extremists.
The bleak image spread like lightning through social media and dominated front pages from Spain to Sweden, with commentators unanimous that it had rammed home the horrors faced by those fleeing war and conflict in the Middle East and Africa.
Circulating with the Turkish hashtag “#KiyiyaVuranInsanlik” (“Humanity washed ashore”), the picture made it to Twitter’s top world trending topics.
“Tiny victim of a human catastrophe,” said Britain’s Daily Mail – which had previously spoken of a “swarm” of migrants trying to get into the country – while Italy’s La Repubblica tweeted the words: “One photo to silence the world.” The Sun newspaper, Britain’s most read, urged Cameron to take in more refugees.
The UN Security Council said late Wednesday it was discussing a draft resolution to address the crisis that diplomats said may allow an EU naval force to seize ships operated by migrant smugglers in international waters.
More than 350,000 people have made the perilous journey from North Africa to Europe this year, many trafficked by people smugglers from war-torn Libya, where nearly 3,000 migrants were rescued Wednesday close to the coast.
- ‘Paltry response’ -
In Hungary, a key arrival point for tens of thousands of migrants entering the European Union, with some 50,000 entering the country in August alone, Budapest’s Keleti station has become a symbol of the crisis.
Hungary allowed several thousand to board trains bound for Austria and Germany on Monday, but the following day the station was closed to anyone without an EU passport or a valid visa.
The move left around 2,000 men, women and children stranded around the station or in a makeshift refugee camp beneath the station and scuffles broke out between police and migrants on Tuesday.
On Thursday, hundreds tried to get on board one train, pushing, shoving and fighting with each other to get on, after the station reopened. A public announcement said however that no trains for western Europe would be leaving “for an indefinite period”.
The situation is also becoming increasingly desperate on Europe’s sea borders after a dramatic spike in the numbers of migrants leaving Turkey by sea for Greece over the past week, among them the tiny toddler whose death has caused such outrage.
Peter Bouckaert, Human Rights Watch’s director of emergencies, said the Syrian boy and others who drowned with him were “the latest victims of Europe’s paltry response in the face of a growing crisis.”
EU leaders cannot agree on how to redistribute refugees around the bloc, with rules that migrants must apply for asylum in the first country that they land in adding to the disagreements.
EU ministers will hold a special meeting in Brussels on Sept 14 on the crisis.