The biggest obstacle to European resettlement may be the refugees themselves

GlobalPost
Several hundreds of migrants camp at far end of a platform at Vienna's train station (Westbahnhof) in Vienna on Sept. 13, 2015. 
JOE KLAMAR

VIENNA, Austria — Ihad Yazigi remembered exactly when he had left Syria and he knew exactly when he would arrive in Germany. “At one o’clock on Sept. 10 we reached Turkey and at noon on the first day of Eid our journey will be over,” he said, showing his train ticket to Munich. He hoped to avoid police until he reached Stuttgart, where he had friends. 

Tens of thousands of refugees will not get to make that choice. Last week, European leaders pushed through a deal to impose mandatory quotas that will see 120,000 refugees resettled from Italy and Greece to other EU countries over the next two years. 

Tuesday’s decision was highly divisive: Hungary, Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Romania, who vehemently argued against the deal, were overruled by majority vote. But Europe may find that the biggest opponents to its quotas are the refugees themselves. 

“Why would I go anywhere but Germany?” Yazigi said, sitting in Vienna’s Westbahnhof station with his family. “The best opportunities for us are there. They have good jobs, good education, good doctors” — he pointed at his 3-year-old daughter, who had a heart condition — “and they welcome us.” 

By the train platforms, Ahmad from Daraa was greeting new arrivals. Last year, the Palestinian-Syrian had ended up seeking asylum in Austria against his wishes. “I wanted to go to the Netherlands, but Austrian police caught me. It turned out well,” he said, laughing. 

Ten months after arriving in Vienna, Ahmad speaks halting German and has been granted asylum. Although he is happy there, he doubts that would be the case had he been forced to settle in eastern Europe: “They don’t want us there.” 

Having crossed the sea with their hearts set on Germany or Scandinavia, refugees may find it hard to accept that they will be moved to countries whose leaders have struck a less than welcoming tone. 

“People will ultimately go where they think they are wanted. That’s the reality of human nature,” said Itayi Viriri, a spokesman for the International Organization for Migration (IOM). “After getting to safety, their focus shifts to where they can get better livelihoods.” 

Many refugees also aim to join family or friends in their destination countries. Under the European Commission’s plan, refugees’ language skills and family connections will be taken into account when deciding where they will be resettled. 

However, the plan’s opponents argue that this will be impossible to implement and that, for instance, Germany-bound refugees will still try to get there. 

“Many migrants don’t want to stay in our country,” said Petar Lazarov, a spokesman for Slovakia’s interior ministry. The country’s Prime Minister Robert Fico had vowed to defy the EU deal, saying “as long as I am prime minister, mandatory quotas will not be implemented on Slovak territory.” 

But it’s not just that Slovakia’s government does not want refugees to resettle there — the refugees don’t want to go there, either. 

In July, the Austrian and Slovak interior ministries agreed to temporarily relocate 500 asylum-seekers from Austria to the Slovak town of Gabcikovo while their cases are processed. (Austria, which received 2,800 asylum applications last week alone, is rapidly running out of housing options.)

In a referendum, 97 percent of Gabcikovo’s residents voted against hosting the refugees, but, much like in Tuesday’s EU deal, they were overruled. Yet a mere 18 refugees arrived in the town last week, AFP reported. 

“Originally, there should have been more of us, but quite a few people changed their minds at the last minute and refused to come to Slovakia,” one asylum-seeker told the Slovak news agency TASR. “I hope that we won’t stay here for long, either. We want to get back to Austria.” 

By the end of this week, that number had risen to 32 according to Lazarov and to “one hundred or more” according to Alexander Marakovits, a spokesman for the Austrian interior ministry — but only after the refugees had been assured they would return to Austria upon being granted asylum. 

“No one can choose where they would like to live. It’s an asylum application, not a holiday,” Marakovits said, echoing Germany’s interior minister, Thomas de Maiziere, who earlier this month said refugees “can’t choose” their host country within Europe. 

But in Vienna’s Westbahnhof station, this is exactly what refugees and migrants are doing. After securing train tickets to Munich, Germany-bound families discuss in which city to register with police; those aiming for Scandinavia or western Europe exchange ideas about how to evade fingerprinting in Germany. 

Most reacted with bewilderment when asked if they would go to any country but their chosen destination. They had risked their lives in flimsy boats for a better future, which, they believed, was impossible in eastern Europe. 

“I heard Sweden is the best,” said an Iraqi refugee. “So I’m not stopping until I get to Sweden.”