Saturday 22 October 2016

10,000 migrants reach Austria after desperate journeys north

Published 19/09/2015 | 03:54

Migrants queue up for buses after they arrived at the border between Austria and Hungary near Heiligenkreuz, about 180km (110 miles) south of Vienna (AP)
Migrants queue up for buses after they arrived at the border between Austria and Hungary near Heiligenkreuz, about 180km (110 miles) south of Vienna (AP)
A woman holding a crying baby is pulled out of the crowd of refugees at the border checkpoint in Obretzje, Slovenia (AP)
Refugees rest as an Austrian army soldier stands guard after they arrived at the border between Austria and Hungary (AP)

Thousands of migrants have crossed in to Austria, seeking refuge after shuttling for days between bordering countries that were unable or unwilling to offer them shelter.

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Hungary's decision to shut its border with Serbia on September 15 set off a chain reaction in Croatia and Slovenia that has forced people fleeing violence in their homelands to rush from one European border to the next as they desperately try to find their way north.

Some 10,000 migrants arrived in Austria after days of being shuttled from one country to another or seeing their paths blocked by border guards with dogs, razor-wire fences, barricaded bridges or riot police.

Some were sent on chaotic trips from Serbia through Croatia, over to Hungary and up to Austria.

Hungary's foreign minister accused Croatia of dumping hundreds of migrants upon his country in buses, while Slovenia's prime minister accused Croatia of failing to fulfil its European responsibilities.

Tens of thousands more migrants are expected to enter Europe as people fleeing conflict and poverty in the Middle East, Africa and Asia cross the seas from Turkey to Greece and head north through Macedonia, Serbia and Hungary.

"I have no idea where this journey will bring me, because I do not know which border after Serbia will be open," Mustafa Alrufay, a 26-year-old from Iraq, said at a refugee camp in Gevgelija, Macedonia. "I also have no idea in which country I'll be accepted and find secure shelter to live and work."

About 5,000 migrants a day are passing through Macedonia, according to the European Union.

In the dangerous waters of the Mediterranean, the Italian coast guard said it had coordinated the rescue of 4,343 migrants from smugglers' boats off the coast of Libya in just one day. Adding to the tally, a Norwegian vessel rescued another 335 people. The Greek coast guard said a five-year-old girl found in the sea off the island of Lesbos died after her boat sank. Fourteen others are missing.

Migrants have long taken death-defying trips across the Mediterranean to reach Europe, relying largely on smugglers to guide them. But Hungary's decision to close the border with Serbia is forcing them to plot entirely new routes.

The first choice for many was to head west through Croatia to Slovenia, but the Slovenian government closed its border as well and stationed riot police to block some bridges. That left hundreds in limbo and led others to cross into Hungary from Croatia.

People-traffickers knew of Hungary's plans to close the border and were prepared to try different routes, according to Maurizio Albahari, author of a book on Mediterranean migrations and a social anthropologist at the University of Notre Dame.

But most people on the trek north are not paying to get all the way to Germany. They do some of the journey on their own, skirting roadblocks as they arise. They compare notes on Facebook, where the "Guardians of the Homeless" group claims 100,000 members.

"Everyone among them knew that Hungary would finish building their fence on the 15th, so the urge to beat the deadline added to the chaos," Mr Albahari said. "Additionally, there's the expectation the EU will come up with more stringent measures early next week, and that is adding to the haste of people who feel they risk being stuck where they don't want to."

Pain and uncertainty drained away from the face of Adeeb Jaafri, a theatre student from Damascus, as he arrived in Heiligenkreuz im Lafnitztal in Austria.

"Right now, I feel like I've been born anew. Now I don't even see these long queues in front of me," he said, pointing to scrums to board buses. "It makes no difference to me whether I am delayed whether I stay here two days. The important thing is that I've finally arrived. And that I am now finally safe."

Others raised their arms in joy as they crossed the border, a milestone in their epic journey to safety.

But for many, the chaos and uncertainty continues. Some families were separated as they fought for space on buses. Others were not allowed across.

On the Hungarian side of the border with Austria, Hala Khatib of Damascus and her three daughters wept uncontrollably.

"I want to go to Germany. My husband is in Germany. I've come here all alone to this country. Please let me go," she sobbed. "I am exhausted. Me and my children, we're exhausted."

Many waited as long as 12 hours to be allowed forward.

At border spots in half a dozen countries, thousands set up camp with no food or water or slept on the streets, exposed to heat in the day and the cold at night. In Turkey, riot police pushed back hundreds of migrants who were trying for the second day to reach the country's western border with Greece and Bulgaria. Police in Slovenia said more than 1,000 migrants had entered the country, but many others were still waiting at the border.

Croatia demanded help in the form of a more unified approach from the European Union. The country of 4.2 million has seen more 20,700 migrants arrive since Wednesday.

"This will not stop. This is a bitter river, a river of desperate and embittered people that will not stop flowing," Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic said while touring the community of Beli Manastir near the border with Hungary. "They will use (this route) all the time unless the problem is solved at the source."

Hungary's military, meanwhile, announced another solution to Europe's immigration crisis - calling up 500 reservists to reinforce its borders.

Press Association

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