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Arrived, registered, departed?

Toms Ancitis & Philipp Merkel / jsSeptember 11, 2015

North-Rhine Westphalia is taking in thousands of refugees that have come to Germany via Hungary. How are arrivals working? A night at the refugee admittance center at the Düsseldorf airport train station.

Deutschland Ankunft von Flüchtlingen aus Ungarn in Düsseldorf
Image: Toms Ancitis

It's just about midnight when the special refugee train from Salzburg arrives at Düsseldorf airport's train station. Police wait at the platform along with helpers and translators, several of whom are shivering in the cold evening air. Unlike some other German cities receiving refugees from arriving from Hungary, there are no cheering crowds here.

Not because the residents of Düsseldorf are less affectionate, says city press secretary Michael Bergmann, but rather because the city specifically asked that people refrain from such activities: "We have no practice at this, so we don't know how the whole process will work." Düsseldorf has taken over the distribution of arrivals in NRW for the next 24 hours to relieve the city of Dortmund, which has been overwhelmed by the rising numbers of people seeking help.

Deutschland Ankunft von Flüchtlingen aus Ungarn in Düsseldorf
The new arrivals on the way to the intake pointImage: Toms Ancitis

Bergmann goes on to explain that the sudden bursts of celebratory screaming that refugees encounter are often unpleasant for the new arrivals. And adds that they cannot take the presents they receive from locals with them on the busses that take them to further destinations, because these are not equipped to handle such things.

"Awake?" asks a conductor as he opens the door. The travelers disembark slowly. They are men and women of all ages, there are families with small children, some chicly dressed, others in shorts, their luggage consisting of large suitcases or plastic bags. They come from Syria, Iraq and elsewhere.

Exhausted refugees, exhausted aid workers

Just a few days ago, some of them were sitting in Budapest's cordoned off train station shouting "Germany," and "Merkel." However, upon arrival in Germany, they don't seem so happy or relieved, but instead, completely exhausted. They have been traveling for 12 hours – and have just been woken up.

Deutschland Ankunft von Flüchtlingen aus Ungarn in Düsseldorf
Connecting stop? Or the end of a dangerous journey?Image: Toms Ancitis

The 50-odd volunteer helpers, working in part for aid organizations, also look pretty exhausted. They have been waiting for the refugees all day. Hundreds of chairs and tables have been set up at the airport since this morning in a baggage handling room that has been converted into a temporary refugee admittance center.

Nobody knows when the trains will arrive. These extra trains are only allowed to travel when regularly scheduled trains are not on the tracks. Unscheduled stops – which sometimes last hours – are the result. Düsseldorf resident Moussa Sullaiman has been at the train station since noon: "I received a call, and was told that they need an Arab translator for refugees. So of course I came."

Now he has just been brought into the large, makeshift processing hall in the airport. The 400 or so refugees sitting here and eating have many concerns. But after a few minutes, a dozen of them leave the hall and gather around a train ticket machine. They not only ask the police and aid workers for help, but also passersby. "Hamburg! Help me buy a ticket to Hamburg!" pleads one young man. Shortly thereafter come others, "Berlin! Berlin! Help me to Berlin!" Others want to go to Copenhagen and Brussels, Helsinki is another sought-after destination, though most are not sure where it is. But a lot of family members and fellow countrymen live there – that is the only thing that matters. One problem that many of them have, however, is that they only have 100 euro bills, and the ticket machines don't accept those. "You can buy tickets in the train too," yells one of the aid workers. Many take off for the platforms.

Deutschland Ankunft von Flüchtlingen aus Ungarn in Düsseldorf
Hope for a new life in EuropeImage: Toms Ancitis

In NRW in the morning – spread out across Europe by the end of the day

No one here has any idea how many of these refugees were fingerprinted in Hungary. They will be registered in the individual communities that they are eventually brought to – there they will also submit their asylum applications. For those that want to go somewhere else, the path is essentially free.

Melat, an 18-year-old Iraqi, wants to go to Helsinki too. He has been traveling for weeks, and the last time that he really slept was four days ago. He only speaks Kurdish, and he has no money. He doesn't want to stay in a refugee center. Right now he wants to go straight to Heidelberg, because his uncle lives there. Melat points to a German phone number and asks for help.

Just before two o'clock another special refugee train arrives, this time from Munich. Again, several of the refugees make their way to trains en route to other European cities. Others board busses intended to bring them to various German communities.

By five o'clock the large hall is almost empty. Volunteer Moussa Sullaiman is free to go home now, but decides to help the young Iraqi, Melat – he takes him to Düsseldorf's main train station and they wait until Melat can board the 6:27 train to Heidelberg. Because chances are, he may not have made it on his own.