The YouTube footage is haunting. Thousands of migrants, in an ant-like column, walking across farmland near the Croatian border, on their way to what they hope is a new life, and safe haven, in Northern Europe. Carrying all their possessions in a few bags, uninvited, they come by land and sea—risking unsafe boats and aggressive police and worried that, at any point, they may be forced to turn back.
So far this year, more than 500,000 men, women and children have made the trek along the so-called Balkan Route, including Sayid and Amira, the couple we follow in our 16×9 story —; the greatest European immigration crisis since World War II as experienced by two young Syrians.
Sayid and Amira (not their real names) made it safely to Austria, where they hope to get asylum. They benefited from an open-borders policy in many European countries — a policy that’s been in effect since the mid-1900’s—which allowed them at least to pass through on their way to green pastures in Germany, Austria or the Scandinavian countries.
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But as more and more migrants join the swelling exodus, the welcome mats are being withdrawn and borders tightened. Hungary was the first European country to build a fence on its borders with Croatia and Serbia. Now Austria is talking about a barrier on its border with Slovenia. Slovenia may do the same thing. And Germany says many of the half million migrants who have arrived in that country so far this year may yet be sent home.
Clearly, there’s a limit to European hospitality.
The flood of migrants into Germany brings back vivid memories of November, 1989, when the Berlin Wall was finally breached, and tens of thousands of East Germans, or Ossies, poured into the West. That migration was a time of national celebration—representing the beginning of the end of the Cold War, and the reunification of Germany.
Sayid and Amira (not their real names) walk along the Balkan Route on their way to what they hope is a new life, and safe haven, in Northern Europe Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty
Sayid and Amira (not their real names) walk along the Balkan Route on their way to what they hope is a new life, and safe haven, in Northern Europe
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty
Most of the Ossies returned to their homes as East Germany was integrated into the European economy. But today’s migrants, who come from Damascus and Aleppo and Kandahar and Baghdad, have little wish to return to their home countries where war and dislocation have become the norm. They are mostly young and middle class and they take the long view about where they want to live.
And as consumers and users of social media, they’re well informed. Sayid and Amira knew, for example, that if they were stopped in Hungary, they should avoid being fingerprinted at all costs. Because under European Union regulations, the country that first fingerprints you is the country in which technically you must remain while applying for asylum. And Sayid and Amira were well aware of anti-migrant sentiment in Hungary. They didn’t want to live there.
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Besides, Amira was pregnant. As a prospective family, the couple had their sights set on a more congenial and affluent environment.
They also had a good sense of where they would be welcome.
In September, the European Union drew up a quota plan, under which the member countries would agree to open their doors to refugee claimants, in quantities based on the strength of their respective economies, population and unemployment rates, as well as how many asylum applications they had approved in the previous five years.
But nobody expected the migration from the East to reach the numbers it did. As a result, the more affluent countries like Germany, Sweden, The Netherlands, Belgium and Italy exceeded their quotas, while France, Finland, Spain and others fell below theirs.
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The result was an informal, but useful, map for the migrants to study. What countries were more likely to meet their expectations?
Sayid and Amira had their sights set on Belgium, but Austria is where they landed, nearly broke and physically exhausted. It would have to do. They were allocated a family to live with in Vienna, while they waited for their asylum requests to be processed. Meanwhile, they have free access to health care.
There’s a good chance they may never again have to endure the war on what was their doorstep in Damascus. But they are nothing if not realistic. “It’s a new life and we don’t know anything about it,” says Sayid, who worked as a sales manager with a computer company, “Everything is difficult in the beginning.”
UPDATE: Dec. 18, 2015
Sayid and Amira have been taken in by an German noble, Baron Von Sass, and are living in downtown Vienna. You can watch their updated story here.