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Bavarian town goes back to sleep as refugees disappear

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Refugees crossing into Germany near Freilassing September 2015. Photo: DPA
14:20 CET+01:00
Quiet returns to a small Bavarian town on the Austrian border as the refugee flow from the Balkans dries up.

Sitting in his leafy garden on a river that marks the German-Austrian border, Rainer Borchers is enjoying the return of peace and quiet since the massive migrant influx has ceased.

"It's very quiet here. That's why I moved here," said the 38-year-old on an early spring day, weeks after the effective closure of the so-called Balkans refugee route.

For several months last year, Borchers had a front-row seat to Europe's biggest migrant crisis since World War II from his home in the small town of Freilassing, set in the shadow of the Alps.

The garden of his small, traditional Bavarian house offers a clear view of a bridge over the river Saalach that marks the border near the Austrian city of Salzburg.

Last September it became a major gateway for thousands of desperate asylum seekers every day after Chancellor Angela Merkel opened Germany's borders to Syrian refugees.

"They were waiting for their buses in front of my house," remembered Borchers, who is on disability leave.

"For several weeks, there was a lot of noise -- not because of the refugees, because they were very quiet, but because of the police -- day and night. I had big trouble sleeping."

'Focus on traffickers'

Calm gradually returned as Germany reintroduced border controls long abandoned under Europe's passport-free Schengen agreement.

From November, Vienna and Berlin started to better coordinate the cross-border transport of migrants in buses.

Then, in early March, a series of eastern European countries imposed border controls that shut down the Balkans route that had brought a steady stream of Middle Eastern refugees to northern Europe.

These days, fewer than 50 migrants a day make it to Germany's southern borders, including the control point in Freilassing.

"It is naturally easier now to register the new migrants," said Rainer Scharf, spokesman for the German Federal Police, adding that this "allows us to focus more on finding human traffickers".

About 500 federal officers have been assigned to German border control duties since mid-September, and their numbers are not expected to be reduced again.

Christine Von Hake, 51, who runs an animal shelter right next to the bridge, smiled in the direction of the police stationed at the crossing, saying they "still come to use our toilets".

"Otherwise it's very quiet now, whereas the situation was quite tense before," added Von Hake, who at the height of the refugee arrivals had set aside her work for a few days to help families who were resting outside her centre.

'Tents still there’

Still, the daily lives of the 16,000 inhabitants of Freilassing continue to be marked by the border controls.

They have proved a challenge for the town which relies on trade with its neighbour Austria, because prices for many products are lower in Germany.

"At first it was very difficult, my sales dropped by 70 percent," said Anni Klinger, who owns a bridal wear shop. "Now, I am at a 20 percent drop compared to last year."

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She said long traffic jams brought by the border checks had discouraged her mostly Austrian customers.

But the events of recent weeks have raised the businesswoman's spirits.

"The traffic jams are much shorter, we don't notice anything special any more," she said.

Road works on the highway, which started a few days ago, promise to improve the traffic flow soon.

After the chaotic events of last year, the people of Freilassing continue to keep a close eye on European affairs, including an ongoing EU summit in Brussels that aims to reduce and bring order to the refugee flow through a deal with Turkey.

"The migrant issue is still there," said Borchers. "On the other side of the bridge, in Austria, the tents are still here, available for new arrivals.

"So, just in case, I think I'll hold onto my sleeping pills for now."

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