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I have titled this blog post In the News, as a result of our experience – that is myself, my wife and two close friends – upon passing through the main railway station in Vienna last week.
To almost be part of a news story is, of course, completely different, from reading it in the newspapers, watching it on televisions or listening to the news on the radio. Before we set off for Central Europe by train a couple of weeks ago, we were – of course – aware of the flow of refugees across Europe: the daily news early in September was a constant reminder of their plight, which culminated to some extent with the open invitation made by Angela Merkel and resulted in problems at the borders of countries which themselves bordered Germany.
When we arrived in Vienna, we saw no sign of refugees and thought no more about their reported presence in Austria as we went about our sightseeing.
When we arrived at the train station to begin our overnight journey from Austria to Germany on our way home to the UK, we were not prepared for the shock of finding dozens of families ‘camped’ in the station’s concourse. Our hotel receptionist had rather panicked me when he informed me, the previous evening, that the border between Salzburg and Munich had been closed and we might have to find an alternative route to Cologne. As it turned out, our friend Bertie pointed out that our route to Cologne did not involve this border crossing: panic over!
Perhaps closing Salzburg station meant that a very large group of refugees transferred to Vienna, in the hope that they could cross to Germany from the capital of Austria.
We wandered around in a slight daze, passing amongst the families who had been confined to areas in the concourse by means of stripy ‘incident’ tape stuck to the floor, a measure that, on the face of it, looked rather inhuman: perhaps the station authorities were merely being practical.
A volunteer, carrying a crate of (I think) milk, advised us to move to the other end of the station on the grounds that “it will be quieter”. We had, evidently, entered the station via its secondary entrance. The other end was, indeed quieter around the shopping zone. However, when I went to purchase some water and sandwiches for the overnight train journey, I heard the buzz of what sounded like a large crowd become louder and louder as I neared the main entrance. The sandwich counter was about two hundred metres from what sounded and looked like a huge crowd milling around the main entrance to the station. It was fortuitous that we had entered the station another way; we might have struggled to make our way through the packed main entrance.
Merely by way of making conversation whilst he put together my order, I asked the man serving me “what was going on over there?” “Migrants”, he said with a shrug of resignation. The irony is that it was clear that he was an immigrant to Austria, or his antecedents were. His appearance suggested that his family might even have originated from the same region from where some of the refugees in the station had started their journey to Europe. The difference being that my sandwich server had a job and a legitimate right to live in Austria, whereas the people in the main concourse and the families at the other end of the station had, presumably, no such rights but were, perhaps, seeking the same status as my sandwich server somewhere in Europe … seeking a better life than the one they had left.
For some reason that I could not fathom, the crowd in the concourse seemed to be contained therein, which meant that the shopping zone where we were waiting for our platform to be announced on the departure board was occupied by regular travellers and also by several groups of young men: also refugees, we assumed.
At length, we moved to our platform and waited at the spot where we knew we could board our sleeper car. Although I kept this thought largely to myself, I could not escape the notion that when a train with a destination in Germany was displayed on the departure board, a large crowd would attempt to board.
This irrational, unfounded thought rippled through my mind as we boarded our train and settled into our sleeper compartments with a sense of relief that nothing untoward had happened to us or to our train.
Now we have returned home, the refugee crisis in Europe has reverted to a news story. Passing through it in Vienna almost took on a surreal quality, as we briefly passed through the lives of those waiting in Vienna train station. Perhaps many of them are still waiting there, many days after we passed them by and made our way home to our safe comfortable lives. I can only guess at the misery many of them have left behind to find themselves in a Europe that is partly hostile and partly welcoming. It is not surprising, perhaps, that the women and children that we saw looked bewildered, whilst the young men looked confident and cool.
It would be easy to pass an opinion on the crisis from this safe distance. I hesitate to do so. I have, of course, no answers either, nor it seems to me do Europe’s leaders, apart from positive statements made by Chancellor Merkel. There seems no doubt that the current refugee crisis is the most significant problem that Europe has faced since the Second World War. To have briefly experienced aspects of that crisis at first hand was initially a shock, then somewhat alarming and finally benign. We merely passed through, clutching pieces of paper (in the form of train tickets) that ensured our passage across a border that is open to the likes of us but is, presumably, a barrier to refugees.
From this distance, sitting at my desk in my study on a sunny day in a quiet suburb in the West Midlands in the UK, I can only wonder if the faces I saw are still in Vienna, waiting … waiting. I will never know where they came from or where they are going. For a few hours, fellow humans whose images assailed us from the television and in the newspapers became real. They were no longer migrants or refugees, they were people … people like us who for whatever reason have been forced to leave because of war, repression or tyranny. My wife, my two friends and me were free to leave, cross the border and travel home. These people had left their homes for an uncertain future.
I heard a UN official say, on the radio, a few days ago that “this is the tip of the iceberg; we haven’t seen anything yet”. Let us hope that all of leaders in Europe, as well on a wider stage, can use their collective wisdom to solve this crisis. I suspect that it will not be solved quickly: this is going to take a very long time, as long as the origins and sources of the crisis in the Middle East and parts of North Africa continue to fester. Peace in this troubled region has long been wished for; it will take a long time to halt the flow of refugees from this region to the southern shores of Europe. Vienna train station may have to prepare for the tented encampment outside its main entrance to be a constant presence for the duration.