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German report
by Euro Reporter
2015-09-03 08:56:35
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Packed trains reach Germany as refugee visa checks are waived

Packed trains have arrived in Austria and Germany after Hungarian police suddenly allowed migrants camped around Budapest rail stations to leave the country without visa checks. As men, women and children – many fleeing Syria’s civil war – continued to arrive from the east, Hungarian authorities let thousands of undocumented people travel on towards Germany, the favoured destination for many. The European Union member – part of the bloc’s passport-free Schengen zone – had previously insisted that EU rules prevented them from letting people without visas travel onwards to the west. Frustrated refugees, entering Hungary at a rate of more than 2,000 a day during August, have set up ever-growing makeshift camps outside the two main stations in Budapest. “Germany Yes! Hungary No! Let us leave!” chanted hundreds of mostly Syrians during weekend protests, demanding that a recent easing of asylum rules by Berlin meant they could finally go.

germany_400_01The Schengen agreement requires refugees to seek asylum in the first country they enter under the EU’s Dublin accord, but it emerged last week Berlin had suspended it for Syrians who were now to be permitted to stay and apply for refugee status. “First they don’t want to let us in, then they don’t want to let us leave,” a protester said in reference to the razor-wire barrier Hungary’s right-wing government has built on its southern border with Serbia to keep out refugees. On Monday morning the police left, allowing the refugees to board westbound trains. “I’m not going to let the train go, it’s far too full!” a shaking stationmaster shouted into his mobile phone beside one Vienna-bound train. Minutes later, after a phone call to the police, he blew the whistle and the train slowly pulled out. Later, as the clock ticked closer to 9.10pm – the departure time of the last train – the crowd began to surge forward. A crush developed at the front and panicking parents passed toddlers overhead to aid workers, and safety. “Children are fainting, everybody push back three steps!” an aid worker called in English and Arabic through a loudspeaker, as several dozen police moved in to hold the line.

With order momentarily restored the police stepped aside, letting hundreds rush through to the train, before moving in again to block people once the train was full. “No more trains until the morning!” announced the aid worker to groans a few minutes later. In line with EU rules, an Austrian police spokesman said only those who had not already requested asylum in Hungary would be allowed through, but the sheer pressure of numbers prevailed and trains were allowed to move on. At the Vienna station where police stood by as hundreds of people raced to board trains for Germany, Khalil, 33, waited with his wife and their sick baby daughter. “Thank God nobody asked for a passport … No police, no problem,” said the English teacher from Kobani in Syria. Khalil said he had bought train tickets in Budapest for Hamburg, northern Germany, where he felt sure of a better welcome after travelling through the Balkans and Hungary. “Syrians call [Chancellor Angela] Merkel ‘Mama Merkel’,” he said, referring to the German leader’s relatively compassionate response to the crisis.

Late on Monday, a train from Vienna to Hamburg was met in Passau, Germany, by police wearing bullet-proof vests, according to a Reuter’s witness. Police entered the train and several passengers were asked to accompany them to be registered. About 40 people were seen on the platform. Police said they would be taken to a police station for registration. Merkel, whose country expects some 800,000 refugees this year, said earlier that the crisis could destroy the Schengen accord if other EU countries did not take a greater share. “If we don’t succeed in fairly distributing refugees then of course the Schengen question will be on the agenda for many,” she told a news conference in Berlin. “We stand before a huge national challenge. That will be a central challenge not only for days or months but for a long period of time.” But it is far from certain her view will prevail when EU ministers hold a crisis meeting on 14 September. Britain, which is outside the Schengen zone, has said the border-free system is part of the problem, and a bloc of central European countries plans to oppose any binding quotas. “I have a plane to catch from Vienna airport. I took the train because of the road checks and the traffic jam … and now this? Are you kidding me?” said Orsolya Jakab, a Hungarian accountant.

Outside Vienna station, thousands of supporters chanted: “Refugees are welcome here.” “These people need help, they have come from a horrendous situation, we should not think twice about helping them,” said Ottwin Schober, a retiree from Vienna who had been moved by the discovery of a truckload of 71 dead people in Austria last week. Austrian authorities have stopped hundreds of refugees and arrested five traffickers along the highway from Hungary where the abandoned truck was found near the border. The interior ministry official Konrad Kogler denied that the clampdown, which includes increased checks on the eastern borders, violated the Schengen accord on free movement. “These are not border controls,” said Kogler. “It is about ensuring that people are safe, that they are not dying, on the one hand, and about traffic security, on the other.” Police in Munich, southern Germany, said around 400 displaced people had arrived on a train from Hungary via Austria. “There are advanced reports that at least one or two further trains … are coming which could have a total of three, four or five hundred refugees on board,” the police official Juergen Vanselow, told Reuters TV.

Two trains arrived from Hungary at Munich station carrying several hundred mostly Syrian refugees. Men, women and children smiled with relief on reaching German soil, and police shepherded them from the platform to a station outbuilding to be registered. They were then taken to buses waiting outside, to be transferred to a reception centre in a former barracks in the north of the city. Mohammad al-Azaawi, 18, said he had abandoned his engineering degree and fled Syria after being wounded by a car bomb. He showed reporters scars on his stomach. His brother Ahmed said they had paid up to €3,000 (£2,200) to make their way via Turkey, Greece, Macedonia, Serbia, Hungary and Austria. The family had had to sell their house to raise the money. “We escaped death in Syria. We want to stay here for a better future,” he said.


Germans unite against xenophobia

After the recent spate of violence against asylum seekers, a wave of solidarity with refugees has swept through Germany. In many cities around the country, people have taken part in demonstrations and protests against hate speech. At the weekend, political and corporate representatives called upon the nation to stand against xenophobia and to come together to help refugees integrate. German Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel described the lack of common ground in dealing with the refugee crisis as a scandal. Europe is in danger of failing, due to its handling of migration, said the chairman of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) in Berlin. Finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble warned that the way in which Germany handles this crisis will define it for the foreseeable future.

Gabriel remained confident that an effective package of reforms for refugee integration would be agreed upon at the forthcoming refugee summit. These measures would range from community support during first contact to housing and educational opportunities for refugees. After the blanket ban on public gatherings in the Saxony town of Heidenau was overruled by a regional court, a solidarity march took place on Saturday evening, in which refugees from the local shelter also took part. Heidenau has been at the centre of riots and violence perpetrated by Neo-Nazis and right-wing extremists. Many of the march's participants had travelled from Dresden, where earlier there had been a peaceful pro-refugee demonstration against the government's asylum policy.

Labour minister Andrea Nahles (SPD) stated in the Bild am Sonntag newspaper that, "It is our duty not to abandon the most vulnerable in their time of need." Health minister Hermann Gröhe (CDU) pointed out in the same publication that, "we won't be worse off by helping those who need it. It is inaction that will make us poorer." This show of solidarity by the German public comes fresh on the heels of Facebook's decision to accept the German justice minister's invitation to discuss how hate speech should be dealt with online. The social networking site has agreed to an "exchange" with Heiko Maas, after he criticised their policy of removing abusive content.


Germany versus science

So much for Europe’s efforts to put the junk science surrounding genetically modified (GMO) food to rest. Berlin last week signalled it will prohibit cultivation of GMO crops in Germany, even if the crops have been approved by EU scientific bodies and despite an attempt by Brussels to legalize them. Berlin is using an opt-out option granted by the EU to member states in April. European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker moved to keep GMO foods generally legal in the EU, but he bowed to green pressure to allow individual states to prohibit EU-approved GMOs in response to concerns that “are usually not based on science but on other considerations.” That means politically driven consumer opposition or agricultural protectionism.

Sure enough, neither environmentalists nor German politicians have come up with a justification for Berlin’s looming ban other than, well, because. Supporters cheer the move as an expression of “food democracy” in a country where opposition to GMOs is widespread and the government faced intense pressure to ban them.  Since a scientific basis for such a ban doesn’t exist, organizations such as Friends of the Earth Germany now resort to promoting “organic” food as an alternative to GMO crops that they say increase pesticide use and endanger human health. As a Friends of the Earth director told the website Common Dreams, Berlin’s ban promotes “sustainable, resilient organic food production that doesn’t perpetuate the overuse of toxic herbicides.”

Back in reality, EU scientific and food-safety authorities have repeatedly cleared various GMO crops for human and animal consumption. The process often takes months to complete, and in 95% of cases EU regulators ask producers for more evidence before green lighting GMOs, so it’s hardly a rubber stamp.  This would merely be so much environmental backwardness, except that the opt-out rule makes negotiating the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership with America that much more difficult. Once concluded, the U.S.-Europe trade pact would generate an estimated €120 billion in European gross domestic product, but American agricultural producers might rightly be wary of a GMO regulatory patchwork across the Continent. If Europeans miss out on the jobs, growth and cheaper products that come with free trade, they’ll have the green lobby to blame.


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