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Germany

Online, refugees ignore Austrian 'cap' and German 'reduction' plans

Can refugees get into Austria right now? And will Germany also impose "caps"? As asylum seekers across the Balkans find the political sands shifting under their feet, they're turning to social media for answers.

Refugees stranded in the frigid temperatures of the Balkans this week were greeted with further ominous rumblings from the German-speaking countries many of them are still trying to reach.

Austria's chancellor announced Tuesday (19.01.2016) that the country would impose "caps" on asylum seekers in 2016. The limits on border crossings into the country are meant to reduce refugee numbers to a total of 130,000 people by 2019.

The move was followed Thursday by an announcement from Germany's interior minister, Thomas de Maziere, who said there would be "a noticeable reduction" in refugee arrivals in the future; that the government would extend border controls indefinitely; and that Germany "will send back people who do not have valid entry documents and do not apply for asylum in Germany."

These pronouncements, however, seem to not have dimmed refugees' hopes - at least according to two Facebook forums where they continually exchange tips and information.

Onward, upward

In a private Facebook group called "Stopoverfor the homeless… immigration and asylum in Europe (كراجاتالمشنططيناللجوءالهجرةأوروباألمانيابريطانياسوريين), refugees exchange information on potential paths toward Europe.

The Arabic-language page is used not only by Syrians, but by Iraqis like Iraqi Hussain R, who asks how he can best reach Europe with his sick son at his side.

Most recommend he travel to Istanbul, Turkey, even offering telephone contacts who can then help him from that point onward.

For Syrian Manar M. of Damascus, however, the Austrian and German talk of capping refugees has given her reason for concern. She asks if the new decisions will impact her journey from Syria to Turkey, but doesn't receive a response.

Those already underway are more preoccupied with a different question - namely, what will their destination country be like when they arrive?

Muohammad H., currently stuck at the Greek-Macedonian border, is not concerned with politics, but with whichever German city is "best" for refugees.

A man calling himself Ali A., meanwhile, offers to smuggle Syrians into Turkey for $100 (92 euros), and then, for another $700, onward into Greece. Business as usual.

New rules

Still, Austria's Tuesday announcement seems to have had a knock-on effect at border crossings throughout the Balkans, requiring refugees to seek updates for accurate information.

The Greek-Macedonian border crossing of Iodmeni closed its doors on Wednesday, causing refugee numbers on the Greek side to swell... only to re-open them again early Thursday with new restrictions.

The Croatia-based Facebook refugee page "Are you Syrious?" was quick to pass the new information along:

"After they come to Greece, the refugees will be asked which country they want to seek asylum in. The will be asked this in every country. They must say that they will seek asylum in Germany or Austria. If they do not do this, they will not be allowed to continue their journey. The information will be written on their Greek papers. They have to give the same answer every time if they want to continue."

Similar restrictions were introduced at crossings into Serbia and Croatia, while in Slovenia, the Facebook page "Refugees, Welcome to Slovenia" reported that Austrian authorities were also scrutinizing refugees' asylum seekers more carefully before allowing entry:

"Austria starts deportations of refugees - they make very hard control of the ppl when they are passing the border. Slovenia will follow it very soon too and close their south border. The only one hotpoint of entrance to Austria will be border pass Sentilj / Spielfeld."

A further restriction means that only Syrian, Iraqi and Afghan refugees are being allowed to enter Macedonia from Greece.

The fear is that these groups of refugees will turn to human smugglers to get them across Greece's border and into Macedonia - then further onward via the Balkan route, north into western Europe

These journeys are far more dangerous than the current mix of buses and trains used to transport refugees through Macedonia, Serbia, Croatia and Slovenia.

In August 2015, 71 refugees suffocated as they were smuggled from Hungary into Austria.

The Austrian and German pronouncements, then, have had an immediate effect across the Balkan route for refugees, even if Arabic-speaking refugees - based on the forums DW examined - do not appear to be changing their behavior.

For example, in a closed, Arabic-language Facebook group called "Syrian refugees in Austria," some of the members are in contact with asylum seekers still in en route - and were able to provide updates.

Alaa A., for example, uploaded a screenshot of a WhatsApp discussion in which a refugee acquaintance had written.

The refugee wrote that he had arrived at the Croatian border - and is preparing himself to travel onward to Austria.

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