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Thousands of Migrants Celebrate Reaching Austria but Major Doubts Remain

An estimated 21,000 and 24,000 people have arrived in Austria since Sunday. While many feel that they're nearly at the end of an exhausting and perilous trek, it is not the end of the uncertainty.
Photo by Harriet Salem

Sitting on the tarmac at the Austrian border with Hungary, Niveen Khalil and her husband smile with delight. The couple married just two days before they left Syria. Over the last two weeks they have covered more than 2,000 miles by foot, boat, bus, and train. Now, along with thousands of others they have arrived in Austria and all that separates them from their dream destination of Germany is a few hours train ride.


The last 48 hours have seen a record number of migrants finally crossing into western Europe after epic journeys across the continent. According to estimates by the Austrian authorities and aid organizations, between 21,000 and 24,000 people have arrived from Hungary and Slovenia since Sunday.

Photo by Harriet Salem

"One day we will tell our children about this crazy honeymoon," joked Niveen. But they are lucky to have made it. Crossing the deadly stretch of water between Greece and Turkey their boat capsized. Forty-three of the 100 people onboard were caught below deck and drowned, and the newly-weds floated for four hours before being picked up by a rescue boat with the other survivors.

"We nearly died in the sea but also in Syria we can die, so it's worth accepting this danger to come to Europe," she told VICE News.

Related: 'I'm Doing it to Survive': Crossing the Croatian Border With Hundreds of Migrants

Throughout Sunday thousands of people crossed through Nickelsdorf, a defunct border crossing dating from before the Schengen agreement and passport-free travel across 26 member states.

Military police cattled people through a carousel system of lines snaking across the tarmac, while women and exhausted children sat at the sidelines as relatives held their places.

"I've never seen something like this," said an officer who remained anonymous as he was not authorized to speak. "This situation is terrible I hope this wakes Europe up to the reality of wars that they only see on their television screens."


Photo by Harriet Salem

At least another 7,000 to 10,000 people are expected to arrive in Austria in the next 24 hours. At Nickelsdorf volunteers prepared bottles of water, blankets, and food through the night for new arrivals but remained unclear about when the next buses and trains would arrive, due to a lack of coordination and information from the Hungarian side.

"We've seen at least a thousand people this morning, they've been traveling for days without proper meals, carrying babies," said Abid, a volunteer with a religious charity Ummah, who traveled from Bradford in the UK to distribute aid at the border. "It's absolutely a humanitarian tragedy, we're trying to help but no one can tell us where this aid needs to go so we drove around for days before we found these people here."

Photo by Harriet Salem

The mass movement of people, the largest in Europe since the World War II, has sparked chaos as countries on the peripheries of the European Union (EU) have struggled to cope with the influx, closing borders and failing to register new arrivals.

Eighteen-year-old Mohammad Al-Hazory from Homs in Syria, made the journey with his 12-year-old sister. His parents, unable to pay smugglers to take the whole family to Greece, selected two children to go to Europe to join their uncle in Munich.

But while many hope that Austria, or neighboring Germany, will be the end of the journey it is not the end of the uncertainty.

Related: Stopover in Serbia: Breaking Borders (Dispatch 4)


"My family have put a lot of hope in us," Hazory told VICE News. "I want to continue my studies, but I don't know if it will be possible for us to stay there yet… I need to find work, we want to send money so my parents can come but I don't speak German yet so it won't be easy."

Rules surrounding who will be able to claim asylum and where remain deeply unclear. On Wednesday interior ministers from across the EU are scheduled to meet to discuss how to deal with the crisis, but Poland, Hungary, and Slovakia have expressed fierce opposition to accepting assigned quotas of people.

Photo by Harriet Salem

With so much uncertainty about what will happen next many migrants say they are moving toward northern Europe as fast as possible amid fears that borders will close again.

"There's a lot of unanswered questions about what comes next," said Hazory, holding his sister close. "But after this travel, I believe that anything is possible. Before I couldn't even dream that I would reach Europe."

Follow Harriet Salem on Twitter: @HarrietSalem

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