Race to Berlin: Why refugees and migrants are marching on to Germany

Refugees and migrants queue for tickets at Vienna’s main train station. 
Richard Hall

VIENNA, Austria / BERLIN, Germany — In the bustling main hall of Vienna’s Westbahnhof train station, a long line stretches out of the ticket office, past a stone sculpture of a winged lion, all the way to the glass-walled entrance.

The weary travelers in this queue, separated from the commuters and backpackers by a bright yellow barrier, are buying one-way tickets. To ask any one of them where they are going is to risk a chuckle: “to Germany, of course.”

The question elicits a similar response even in those countries at the beginning of the migrant trail. Everyone seems to be heading for Germany.  

Why do so many refugees pass up the safety of countries in eastern and central Europe, only to press on through more uncertainty in the effort to get to Germany?   

The reasons are complex, and differ from person to person, but at one end of Europe dangles a carrot in the form of generous quotas for refugees and migrants, job opportunities and welcoming words from German Chancellor Angela Merkel. At the other end is a big stick wielded by Hungary in the form of fences, threats of arrest, bellicose language and cases of actual sticks in the hands of overzealous border guards.

In the middle of the two, acting as the cart, Croatia and Slovenia: ferrying migrants through their territory as quickly as possible, not wanting to take responsibility. All of these things combined act as a powerful motivating force, pushing people west. 

Not the Europe we wished for

Even if the refugees don’t have an idea of what they will do when they arrive in Germany, they speak of it in glowing terms. 

“I love Germany,’ says Ahmed, a Syrian refugee from Aleppo who passed through Greece, Macedonia, Serbia, Croatia and Hungary before arriving in Austria. “The German people are very hospitable,” he says after emerging from the ticket office with a ticket to Berlin in hand. 

Naeimeh, an Iranian student studying for a bachelors degree in Vienna, has volunteered at the city’s main station for the past few days. She translates for Farsi-speaking refugees, mostly Iranians and Afghans. 

“They think Germany is the best place on Earth,” she says. “No one wants to stay here. It’s strange.”

The queue at Westbahnhof stays steady at around 100 people most of the day. Nearly everyone who leaves the ticket office is heading to Germany. Others are heading to Finland, a few to Britain. 

The hall is packed with migrants and refugees resting. Most of them have traveled for 10 days to get this far, at the beginning of which they took the dangerous journey by boat from Turkey to Greece.

Ahmed’s view of Germany, and he is not alone in holding it, likely has something to do with the way Merkel has dealt to the migrant crisis.

After a faltering early response (during a televised question and answer session with local school children she told a tearful asylum seeker — a young Palestinian girl named Reem Sahwil — that Germany did not have room for people like her) the chancellor changed her tune. 

As tens of thousands continued to arrive on Europe’s shores, and refugee centers were being attacked in German villages, Merkel declared her country would open its doors to Syrians fleeing the war and increase quotas for refugees from other conflict zones. 

“If Europe fails on the question of refugees,” she said, “it won’t be the Europe we wished for.” 

Her words traveled a long way. 

Facebook groups have been set up by Syrians hoping to travel to Germany praising the chancellor. Images of her adorned with “Compassionate mother” spread across social media.

“We heard what Merkel said,” said Muhammad, a Syrian from Damascus in the Serbian town of Sid last week, explaining why he was headed for Germany. “It had an effect on us.” 

Merkel’s name comes up every now and then on the trail. But there are many, like Ahmed, who see beyond the German leader, to the society as a whole. Even before the Syrian war, Germany was a leading destination for Syrians. 

Close to half a million migrants — mostly from the Middle East and North Africa — have arrived in Europe this year. Germany has received the largest number of asylum applications of any country in Europe: 296,100 between July 2014 and June 2015, according to Eurostat. Since the start of the Syrian crisis in 2011, around 105,000 Syrians have applied for asylum. 

The government expects up to one million people to seek asylum there this year — a staggering number, even for a country with a history of integrating refugee populations and migrants. 

But unlike in Britain, where public opinion is against accepting more refugees, Germans appear willing to take more. 

A poll of Germans released in early September found that only 33 percent of respondents wanted fewer refugees, compared to 37 percent in favor of Germany continuing to take a similar number in the future and the 22 percent who believed their country should accept more. These things don’t go unnoticed. 

The response from the German public has done little to disprove these finding. On the streets of Berlin T-shirts with the words “Refugees Welcome” are a common sight. 

Local groups soliciting donations for refugee centers have sprung up organically around the country. In the basement of a clothing shop in the Kreuzberg area of Berlin, a dozen or so volunteers are sorting through boxes of clothes and canned food.

“There was a group of friends who started to collect things. They told their friends and they told their friends and so on and so on,” says Angela Wohlgehagen, who works for a TV company in Berlin. 

This group now has 40 people volunteering at different times. So why the outpouring of support in Germany for refugees?

“I think it has a lot to do with our history. Germany was a divided country, and we had war in Germany. Our grandparents know what it's like to be a refugee.”

This group of volunteers takes six or eight cars of donations a day to local refugee centers. 

“We are looking for a bigger room,” says one of the volunteers. 

Volunteers pack boxes full of donations for refugees at a collection center in the Kreuzberg area of Berlin.

There are other pull factors, too. Even before the current refugee crisis, Germany played host to a large number of migrants. Many people currently on the move have family in Germany or Britain. If not family then friends. It’s a case of what you know: if a potential asylum seeker knows someone there, they know a little about the country. 

Refugees making the life-changing journey across a foreign land rely on each other for information and support. A virtual hive mind exists where refugees share information about routes, borders, smugglers and missing persons, online and in person. 

A well-worn route, traveled by those who came before them, is low risk. Staying in a place like Croatia or Hungary, of which they know very little about, is a huge risk for someone trying to begin a new life. 

Anywhere but here 

Then there are those who have learned a valuable lesson along the way. Central and eastern European countries have struggled to find a unified response to the thousands of migrants arriving at their border every day. That incoherence has caused misery. 

With little support in Hungary for taking in refugees from Syria, Hungary closed its border with Serbia and fired tear gas and water cannons when people tried to challenge the closure. Its politicians have used threatening language when discussing the crisis and authorized the use of its armed forces to deal with refugees trying to cross. It has also taken out full-page adverts in newspapers in Jordan and Lebanon, warning refugees not to come. 

When Hungary’s border closed, Croatia became the main land route into Western Europe, and it found itself woefully unprepared for such an eventuality. It first tried to prevent the refugees from entering and moving around the country, closing eight of its nine border crossings with Serbia. It held large numbers of refugees on the border, in one instance almost causing a riot when people were held for hours in the blazing sun at a train station in Tovarnik. 

When neither worked, Croatia began ferrying refugees to the border with Slovenia and Hungary. The latter expressed its anger and dismay with Croatia, before doing the exact same thing and taking the refugees to the Austrian border. 

One man, a Syrian named Majid, experienced both the tear gas at the Hungary border and being trapped at the Croatian border. 

“[In Croatia], they treat us like an animal. No bathrooms, no water, no communication. They beat us in Hungary. They do a lot.”

Spreading out 

The number of people traveling to western Europe are showing no signs of slowing. In an attempt to lessen the burden on those countries at the end of the migrant trail, the European Union voted last week to impose mandatory quotas on its members to accept refugees. 

The plan to relocate 120,000 migrants from the landing points of Greece and Italy was deeply unpopular with eastern European countries, which are less ethnically diverse and whose population is far more opposed to more immigration. 

Germany, which was the driving force behind the plan, was given the highest quota by some margin. Romania, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary voted against the quotas, but they were passed by a majority vote. Slovakia even went so far as to say it would not accept the quotas despite the vote. 

The UN refugee agency said the plan would not be enough, given the large numbers still arriving in Europe. 

"A relocation program alone, at this stage in the crisis, will not be enough to stabilize the situation," UNHCR spokeswoman Melissa Fleming told the BBC.

There are some who see the refugee crisis as a challenge to the very purpose of Europe. The closure of borders and the building of fences already threatens one of its central tenets.  

Merkel, however, has remained steadfast, insisting that Germany and Europe can deal with the crisis. 

“I say again,” she said in mid-September, “we can do it and we will do it.”