Cheering German crowds greet refugees after long trek from Budapest to Munich
As Europe’s politicians continue to bicker, desperate travellers are welcomed and fed as they arrive at German city
Emma Graham-Harrison in Budapest and Munich, Patrick Kingsley in Nickelsdorf, Rosie Waites in Vienna and Tracy McVeigh in London
Saturday 5 September 2015 20.05 BST
In pouring rain, they crossed the last few metres into Austria in the early hours of Saturday morning. The waiting Austrian police in their heavy waterproofs were taken aback by the refusal of the Hungarian bus drivers to take their passengers the last two kilometres over the border and on to the Nickelsdorf train station where they were expected, and where a Vienna-bound train was waiting.
Instead, the officers had to guide the way with torches, helpless to offer shelter to the tired clusters of men, women and children coming through the puddles at the side of the motorway in the darkness.
From 3am until early afternoon, some 120 blue buses had been and gone, disgorging an estimated 4,000 refugees. Some residents of the small border town of Nickelsdorf were at their windows, others out on the streets with blankets and umbrellas, offering hot drinks.
A Red Cross tent offered respite from the rain, with medics and volunteers working shifts while people waited for their turn to board special half-hourly bus and train services, laid on by the Austrian Federal Railway, to Vienna and Salzburg, and from there to Munich.
“We have treated a two-day-old gunshot wound. We’ve seen eye injuries caused by stun grenades. We’ve seen children with severe bruises,” Red Cross spokesman Andreas Zenker said.
Several people were sent on to nearby hospitals, but Zenker said that most were “gritting their teeth” to continue their journey, despite some walking for almost eight hours through the night. …
Around the same time, Hungary unexpectedly decided to provide buses for those who had simply walked out of Budapest on foot, heading for the Austrian border, after being prevented for several days from catching trains out of the capital. Some had been taken to a refugee camp.
In what the Hungarian media called a “day of uprisings”, 350 people had broken through a police cordon on Friday and begun heading to Austria, 85 miles (137km) away, on tracks leading away from the railway station. By late afternoon on Friday, a day after Orbán had warned of a “Muslim threat” to a Christian culture, up to 2,000 people – most from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan – were walking towards the border in chaotic scenes.
The sudden appearance of blue public buses was a staggering about-turn – and an unexpected rejection of the Dublin regulation, which says refugees seeking asylum should have their application assessed in the first EU country they enter, and which Hungary had insisted on upholding. The country is already under fire for its plans to close and wire-fence its borders, saying it will effectively seal the frontier to migrants as of next week, in the face of EU Schengen rules. …
The buses triggered alarm. Many refugees distrusted the Hungarian authorities after some of those camped at Budapest railway station had earlier boarded buses that they were told were heading for the Austrian border, only to end up in a refugee camp in Hungary. Many feared a similar ploy this time. “Who’s organising it, the Hungarians?” asked Ali, a Syrian on the march, after seeing the buses were coming. “Forget it, I’m walking.”
But by the time the last buses arrived at 4.45am, almost everyone was too sodden and tired to worry about politicians’ motives. They squeezed on to the buses, standing in the aisles, sitting on the steps crushed against the doors. Within minutes, most were asleep. In Budapest, a handful of those who remained were reluctant to be processed in Germany because they wanted to join family members elsewhere. “I’m going to London on my own, my brother lives there and you can get a good job,” said Khan Mohammad, who comes from northern Baghlan province [in Afghanistan]. Others had simply missed the convoy to the border. …
By Saturday afternoon, officials in Vienna had to ask people to stay away from the station, which was heavily overcrowded with well-wishers bearing donations.
Hundreds of Austrian rail workers pledged to work overtime for free, to drive special refugee trains. Their boss, Christian Kern, called the situation “a huge challenge, a state of emergency”. He said the refugees’ train tickets would not be checked but that the goal was to take them as quickly as possible to their desired destination.
Some Austrians have been driving to the border in private cars and buses with the aim of giving refugees a lift to Vienna, but have been warned by the police not to cross into Hungary as they could be prosecuted there for people-smuggling. …
Stories such as the discovery of 71 decomposing bodies in a truck near Nickelsdorf last month and the tragedy of Aylan Kurdi, the three-year-old Syrian boy whose body was washed up on the Turkish coast on Wednesday along with his five-year-old brother and his mother, have horrified people all over the world. An even younger victim of the crisis emerged on Saturday night when a newborn boy was found dead after his parents reached the shores of a Greek island in a boat from Turkey. The baby boy was taken from the island of Agathonisi to a hospital on the nearby island of Samos, where he was pronounced dead, the Greek coastguard service said. …
On Saturday night at Munich’s main station, dozens of Germans lined up behind police barriers to clap, cheer and distribute sweets to welcome refugees to their new home. A sophisticated official operation provided food and transport to temporary lodging.
“We just wanted them to know that the torture is over,” said Hedy Gupta, a grandmother handing out slabs of chocolate amid welcoming cheers. “I have children and a five-year-old grandchild and when I think what they have been through, these children, it leaves me on the ground.”
Beside her on the barricades of welcome was Waltraud Volger, a legal assistant who lives nearby: “I heard about it on the radio around 1pm today and just gathered what food and clothes I had and came over to donate it and offer to help,” she said. “They have so many volunteers that they haven’t needed me, so I’m just standing here welcoming them with clapping. I’ve never done anything like this before, but when you hear their stories and see the pictures, you can’t just stand by.”
After four hours, she had no plans to leave while the trains were still rolling in.
Elation as refugees are received with open arms in Austria and Germany. After the long march, uncertainty and soaking rain, weary travellers put Hungary nightmare behind them and look to future: here.
Refugee crisis: Following the tragic journey of Aylan Kurdi’s family from Syria to Kos: here.
In the week that the image of a three-year-old boy washed up on a beach shocked Europe about its refugee crisis, the British National Party (yes, they still exist, apparently) decided to hold an anti-immigration rally in Croydon, south London. According to observers, journalists and lots of photographic evidence, they had a “hearteningly crap turnout” outside the Lunar House building on Saturday: here.