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Europe

Refugees caught in quagmire as Germany reinstates rules

Confusion reigns once again on Austria's border as hundreds of migrants seeking refuge in other countries are being rejected by Germany, which once welcomed them with open arms. Alison Langley reports from Schärding.

On a cold, stormy Wednesday evening, as rain mixed with sleet pounded on a saturated ground, nearly 40 people - families from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan - enter a Red Cross tent less than a kilometer from Germany and line up for a warm bowl of pasta. They have a warm, dry place to stay for the night, but after that, they do not know what they will do.

All of them have been rejected from Germany, but none understands why. No officials staffing the tent appear to be able to advise them of their rights.

"We were in Germany and we wanted to go to Denmark, but the police said we couldn't go through the country without transit papers," said Adnan*, a Syrian man, through a Red Cross interpreter.

Adnan reached Germany Wednesday with his wife and two young daughters, aged two and four. They wanted to transit through Germany to meet Adnan's father and his family, who made it to Denmark seven months ago.

Adnan and his family could not travel last summer. Their city of Mahin had been held captive by the so-called "Islamic State." After heavy Russian bombing this fall, Syrian forces freed it in November. It took the family another two months to sneak away from government forces, who he said were keen to keep civilians in town.

Now he is frustrated, tired and confused. "Germany sends us back to Austria. So what if Austria sends us back to Slovenia and, and, and?" Adnan says. "Will they send us back to Syria?"

Bernd Innendorfer, a press spokesman for Upper Austrian police, said it is difficult explaining to refugees that the rules have changed. Again. "It's not so simple," he said.

Last spring, when Chancellor Angela Merkel famously offered to take in refugees from Syria, Germany's neighbor obligingly opened its borders to allow migrants to pass through the country as they sought new lives. Transiting through Austria to get to Germany technically was against the European Union's border laws, but officials said at the time the number of migrants was too high to stop.

Migrants wait to cross the border into Germany

The flow of migrants has begun to turn in the other direction

That's why Adnan's family made it safely to Denmark.

Since the beginning of the year, however, countries within the EU who once welcomed refugees have introduced measures to try to discourage more from coming. Sweden first imposed border controls on everyone entering the country from Denmark at the beginning of this year. Denmark, in turn, began checking the papers of those arriving from Germany.

And Germany is now doing the same. The country rejected about 1,854 people from all border crossings with Austria in the first 12 days this year. That exceeds the number of people who were rejected all last year. And Austria, too, has refused entry to 1,781 people at the Slovenian border so far this year.

In doing so, these countries appear to be splitting families. All the migrants interviewed in Schaerding said they had chosen their destination because they had relatives in those countries. None of them knew anyone in Austria; some said they would stay now, if they could. But they were not certain if that were even possible.

Stuck with nowhere to go

What happens now to the travelers remains uncertain. All of the people who slept on the hard wood floors Wednesday night were filled with questions which no one at the Red Cross tent could answer. A policeman who declined to give his name said they all were registered and have six weeks to decide their next move. A Red Cross worker said it was one month, rather than six weeks.

Ismael Mahmoud Ali, an Iraqi Kurd, was on his mobile phone talking animatedly with his brother in Denmark. When he and his family were refused passage through Germany to Denmark, Ali tried to ask for asylum for himself, his wife and five children there. "But then the German officials said we had already signed papers refusing asylum, so now we can't get it," he said through an interpreter.

A translator in Germany advised him to get his relatives to pick him up in Austria, Ali said. But they have no money for a hotel and because they have not requested asylum they will not be placed in homes.

Tears of frustration

Morad, a young volunteer Red Cross interpreter, said he has witnessed the confusion for the past month, when, he said, the border rejections began. German officials "refuse them and send them back to us," he said. He said he didn't know what happened to the refugees who were cared for in the night. The tent is cleared out each day, he said.

Mahmoud Ali and his family in a tent at the Red Cross camp in Schärding

Mahmoud Ali and his family were hoping to meet his brother in Denmark

A group of perhaps eight or nine Afghanis have spread some blankets on the floor in one corner of the otherwise empty tent. They are well-dressed and young. About half are women.

"Police in Germany asked us, 'Do you want to stay here or do you want to go to another European country?' And I told them 'I don't want to stay here, I want to go to Sweden,'" says one man. His family has lived in Sweden for the last two years. This new group has worked for two years to earn the money to make the trip. Now they are stuck.

His wife appears near tears with frustration. "We don't want to disturb the people of Austria. We don't want to disturb anyone. The only thing I want is to go to Sweden," says Omolbanin Irfani. 25, who says she is from Mazar, Afghanistan.

Then she adds, "We spent too much money. We crossed a difficult way and now the government of Germany refuses us and sends us back here. We want to live in peace, we want to be comfortable."

A tall, thin man in a dark blue shirt standing beside her nods. "My wife is in Sweden. I want to be with my wife," says Ghualm Nabi. Nabi said this was his first time in Austria. The group said they were stunned to be refused transit rights in Germany.

Innendorfer, the police spokesman, said his department has seen cases where migrants have been caught "many times" trying to sneak into Germany. Abdulah Nuristani, who greets a journalist at the tent door, is one of them. He said he has tried four times. "I want to go to Germany."

When they get sent back, by law the migrants can be held for 48 hours. After that, said Karl-Heinz Grundböck, spokesman for Austria's interior ministry, "We are limited on a legal basis as to what we can do." The migrants, he said, are free to go.

Where they can go, however, is a bigger question.

*Name changed

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