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Österreich, Flüchtlinge am Hauptbahnhof in Wien
Image: DW/A. Langley

Austria's bad rap

Alison Langley, Vienna
September 1, 2015

Refugees arriving in Austria don’t want to stay and would prefer to go on to Germany. Many of the reasons have to do more with myths than reality, reports Alison Langley from Vienna.


Farah Aly paced a Red Cross waiting area in Nickelsdorf, southeast of Vienna, near the Hungarian border, unsure of what to do with herself.

She had paid a man 1,500 euros to guide her and her 2 ½ year old son safely to Germany, but after 15 days of travel, they – and the 29 others in her group – were left stranded by a field in the wee hours of the morning in Austria, where they were spotted by police patrols.

But rather than being grateful for the lift to a safe spot where she and her son could drink and eat, the 32-year old Iraqi was near tears in desperation. Her son has a birth defect, she said and only the doctors in Germany can help her.

"I must get to Germany,” she pleaded. “I can't stay here.”

When told that Austria, like Germany, has an advanced medical system, Aly looked doubtful. She had never heard anyone in Baghdad talk about Austria. Germany is rich. Germany's ruler has said they will take refugees. Germany, she said, is nice. Surely then, she reasoned, doctors in Germany can help her son regain full use of his right arm.

Germany is the promised land

She isn't alone. Aly, like many of the 34,000 refugees picked up in Austria, say they do not want to stay in the Alpine state. On Monday, when police tried to lead away perhaps 15 Syrians as they arrived from Hungary, they staged an impromptu sit-in. “Germany! Germany! Germany!” They chanted.

Eventually, they were persuaded to leave the train station. But most refugees who arrived on Tuesday were not so easily swayed. As they disembarked the train from Budapest, the first question most asked was where the next train was to “Allemagne.”

Österreich, Flüchtlinge am Hauptbahnhof in Wien
Refugees waiting at Vienna train station want to go to GermanyImage: DW/A. Langley

A woman who called herself Kaffaa, arrived with her husband and toddler. The little girl was sick, she said, but she would only stop for medical help once they got to Munich.

“Germany is no problem for us,” she said. “Germany will take us.”

Most are keen to meet up with relatives in other countries. Others, like five Iraqi men sleeping in Vienna's train station while they figure out how to get to England, say they fear that Austrian police will evoke the Dublin Accord and send them back to Hungary.

Under Dublin, refugees must apply for asylum in the first EU country they arrive in. But the refugees say they do not want to live in countries like Hungary, which treated them poorly. They want to live in nations where they feel welcomed, they said.

Many think Austria isn't good enough

Ahmet Hussein, 40, said he wants to go to Belgium because “they will give me a house.” Hussein had left his wife and children in Iraq while he found a safe place for them to live. He said the family had saved money for months to pay the human trafficker 1,500 euros for what had been promised as a safe journey.

“In Belgium, there is a good chance for my children to study,” Hussein said. Then he thought about it and added, “In Germany there are many jobs available if I learn German.”

But when challenged: How did Hussein know that? He said people talked along the way. They passed information as they passed the time.

Omar Sirwan, an ethnic Kurd from Iran, said he started his journey to Europe on July 29. When he got to Istanbul, he paid a smuggler 8,000 euros to get him to England. “I like the people; I know about the country. I speak a little English,” he said. “Here I know nothing.”

Österreich, Flüchtlinge am Hauptbahnhof in Wien
For refugees, Germany seems to be the promised landImage: DW/A. Langley

This is what he thinks he knows about England: When he gets there, he will get money every month until he finds work. He will get a house.

While some appear to have romanticized notions of countries, all seem to be based on half-truths. Yes, refugees are given council flats to live in and small stipends to live on. Yes, many countries offer language classes. But that is just as true for Austria as Germany. So why does Austria have such a bad rap?

The refugees said they heard too many negative stories.

“Here in Austria, there are no jobs and salaries are not good enough for living,” Hussein said.

Most importantly, they have experienced personally how difficult it was to simply get here. Now that he is here, though, Kirwan is having second thoughts about Austria.

When he was picked up by police in Serbia, Kirwan said he had to pay the officers 100 euros to be let go. When Austria police picked him up, they were nice.

Hamza Alsawah, 15, from Aleppo, is in Traiskirchen. Initially, he too, wanted to reach Germany. But he was caught in Austria and now, he's happy that he was. Alsawah spends his days outside the intake center, helping Caritas volunteers distribute food and clothing to the new arrivals.

All the Austrians he has met are nice, he said. They are fun to be around.

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