In the town of Wegscheid in Lower Bavaria, more than 2,000 refugees cross the border into Germany every day. DW's Oliver Sallet reports from the German-Austrian frontier.
Signs promise the "last bratwurst before the border" and original "Bavarian pizza." One glance at the Western Saloon Oklahoma shows that the place has been out of wurst for days - it's empty and the chairs are stacked on the tables. On the other side of the street, dogs bark in the German Shepherd SV sports club, while outside, white and blue federal police buses wait for the new arrivals.
That's what everyday life looks like these days at the Wegscheid border crossing, an idyllic market town in the southern Bavarian Forest - a region that has become a focus of the refugee crisis.
A two-lane bridge separates Wegscheid from the town of Hanging in Upper Austria. After hours of waiting, several hundred refugees are finally getting organized to cross into Germany. In a bright orange vest and gripping a bullhorn, Mansour Rastegar tries to keep things orderly. "We go in two lines please", the volunteer calls out in English, then in Farsi and Arabic. While the Iranian-born Rastegar normally speaks German with an Upper Austrian accent, his message is the same in every language: Stay calm.
But the organization is a mess, says Rastegar after 14 hours of negotiating, translating and managing order. "We almost never know how many buses are coming, and neither do the German police." One thing is clear: there is no lack of buses; they stretch for several hundred meters along the country road behind him. The doors hiss open and exhausted people - after days on the dangerous Balkans route without a roof over their heads, afraid of what the future may bring - stumble out.
That evening, 1,400 people are waiting to continue their journey to Germany. Concerned, Steffen Herzog of the German federal police watches. It's getting dark, and new buses arrive in five minute intervals. The Austrian authorities announced 20 buses that morning, but twice as many have arrived. As the line of refugees on the bridge grows longer, the police grow more frustrated. Many of Herzog's colleagues feel the way the Austrians are handling the matter is a deliberate provocation. Herzog's biggest concern is a mass panic.
"Where a lot of people are squeezed in together, the situation will explode at some point," he says. The crowd jostles, little children in their midst.
Watered-down soup, half a banana
The border at Hanging is no place to spend the night. "Entire families are simply let off there, to spend the night in the open, in the cold," says Wegscheid mayor Josef Lamperstorfer. "It's a disgrace."
Hundreds of refugees spend days here, sleeping in a meadow, the ashes of more than a dozen open fires proof of the cold in drizzly rain and temperatures just a few degrees above freezing. Farmers bring the refugees firewood. The camp on the border is insane, Lamperstorfer says, and demands direct bus lines to the German reception centers, buses that don't stop at a border that actually no longer exists in Europe's visa-free Schengen zone.
Today, no one sleeps outdoors. The Austrian Red Cross has set up heatable tents for up to 2,000 people on the Austrian side of the border. A long food line has formed. The refugees wait three hours for a plate of vegetable soup, half a banana and a slice of white bread. It's just not enough, sighs Tanja Thaler as she ladles soup into white plastic bowls. A nearby hospital made the soup, which has already been watered down to make it last. The soup is not filling, so the aid worker and a friend pleaded for old bread at supermarkets in the area.
Not very professional
It's thanks to volunteers like Tanja Thaler that the operation stands a chance. From Munich, she spends two hours on the road to help out at the border on the weekends. She's an old hand - she previously volunteered during the refugee crisis at Munich train station. "Unlike Munich, they're not organized here," she says, adding that the authorities only do what is absolutely necessary. "They shy away from the responsibility."
Private involvement is a good thing, says her friend Werner Prechtl, but this has been going on for a week now. Both volunteers would like to see Germany get more involved: the army should help out with a mobile kitchen and logistical expertise, they say.
The lack of structure leads to uncertainty. "If we are uncertain as helpers, we can not reassure the refugees," Pretchl said.
On this point, both sides agree: to close the borders as Bavarian leader Horst Seehofer demands would hardly help the situation at the German-Austrian frontier. The refugees would find another way, but without the heated tents and emergency supplies provided by the Red Cross.
That's a scenario which frightens many here. It's a scenario that could, compounded by snow and freezing temperatures, create a humanitarian crisis.