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Europe struggles as figures show gravity of migrant crisis

Migrants demonstrate outside the main Eastern Railway station in Budapest, Hungary, on Sep 1, 2015.

[BUDAPEST] Hungarian police blocked hundreds of migrants from boarding trains to western Europe from Budapest's main rail station Tuesday, as figures showed more than 350,000 have risked their lives to cross the Mediterranean this year.

As hundreds of police, some in riot gear, moved people out of Keleti station, statistics from the International Organization for Migration (IOM) revealed the scale of Europe's biggest migrant crisis since World War II.

IOM figures show over 234,770 migrants have landed in Greece alone so far this year - more than the entire Europe-wide figure for all of 2014. Another 114,276 made it to Italy.

But at least 2,600 have died on the journey, it said, drowning or suffocating in dangerous or unseaworthy boats.

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The UN's children's agency UNICEF said eight out of 10 refugees arriving in Macedonia, one of the main transit points onto western Europe, were fleeing war-torn Syria.

An estimated 100,000 have passed through the Balkan country since June, it said.

A third of them were women and children, and one in every eight women was pregnant, it added.

Stories of refugees dying in horrific conditions crammed inside lorries or boats have become a regular occurrence, with European Council President Donald Tusk saying Tuesday the bloc's priority was "preventing migrants from losing their lives".

But the crisis has thrown the EU's border control procedures into chaos as governments struggle to tackle the growing wave of people fleeing war and poverty in the Middle East and Africa.

Meanwhile, around two hundred refugees were locked in a standoff with police outside Budapest's Keleti station after they were prevented from travelling onwards, an AFP correspondent said.

"Germany! Germany! We want to leave!" chanted the crowd, with some holding their babies in the air.

Hungarian railway authorities announced they would allow "only those in possession of the appropriate travel documents and - if necessary - a visa to board trains travelling to western Europe".

The refugee rights group Hungarian Helsinki Committee warned the situation at the station was "very tense and unpredictable".

The ban was enforced just 24 hours after police had unexpectedly allowed people stuck for days in makeshift refugee camps to leave the Hungarian capital, with hundreds surging onto trains bound for Germany and Austria, despite many not having EU visas.

This saw the highest number of migrants entering Austria in a single day this year, with police saying 3,650 arriving in Vienna by train on Monday.

Many of the migrants continued on to Germany, which last week eased asylum restrictions for Syrian refugees.

German police said a record 3,500 asylum-seekers had turned up in Bavaria on Tuesday.

An unprecedented number of migrants have also arrived in Belgium, with a camp springing up in Brussels near the the main refugee processing centre, where up to 1,000 were waiting to apply for asylum on Monday.

Sweden also said on Tuesday that the number of weekly asylum requests there was nearing historic levels.

The record influx of refugees and migrants is Europe's "greatest challenge", Spain's Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy declared on Tuesday during talks in Berlin with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

The migrants' plight was brought sharply into focus last week after 71 people, including four children, were found dead in an abandoned truck on an Austrian motorway near the Hungarian border.

So far, police in Hungary and Bulgaria have arrested seven people in connection with the truck tragedy.

The grim discovery led to a security crackdown in Austria with huge tailbacks forming along the border on Monday and Tuesday, as officers inspected vehicles in search of people-smugglers and migrants.

The escalating situation has divided the EU ahead of emergency talks on September 14.

At the heart of the crisis lies the question over how to distribute the migrants across the bloc and help relieve pressure on so-called "frontline" nations where migrants arrive by sea or land.

Much-flouted EU rules, known as the Dublin regulation, stipulate that refugees should be processed in the first country they reach.

But Hungary, where 50,000 migrants arrived in August, has said it cannot host so many newcomers, and has built a razor-wire fence along its border with Serbia to halt the influx.

France's top diplomat has slammed the barrier as "scandalous", while Austria accused Hungary of being "sloppy" in its application of the Dublin rules, prompting a diplomatic spat with Budapest.

On Tuesday, the Hungarian government summoned the ambassadors of both countries to explain the remarks.

"The Hungarian police is going to stick to EU protocols; and a full compliance with them is a must on behalf of all EU members," government spokesman Zoltan Kovacs told AFP.

As the diplomatic wrangling continued, some 20,000 people took to the streets of Vienna late Monday in a show of support for the migrants, as government officials attended a church service for the 71 refugees found dead last week.

The EU's Frontex border agency meanwhile said a brisk trade in false Syrian passports had emerged, predominantly in Turkey.

"They know Syrians get the right to asylum in the European Union," Fabrice Leggeri told French radio station Europe 1.