Thousands are heading to the Austrian capital on foot after rail traffic is sharply reduced due to overcrowding.
Gabcikovo, Slovakia – When an exhausted 23-year-old art student from Damascus arrived in Vienna with his three companions in August, he thought he’d come to the end of an epic journey. The young Syrian had endured the worst.
Having come across the perilous route through the Middle East and western Balkans, he was ready to restart his life in Austria, a country where, for the first time since leaving home, he felt genuinely welcomed.
For a month, the young man, who did not want to disclose his name for reasons of personal security, stayed in Traiskirchen – a refugee reception centre just outside Vienna which the United Nations has described as “inhumane“.
Conditions were tough: for a while he slept outside in a tent next to a fetid portable toilet and a heap of rubbish bags. But it was where he wanted be – in Austria – with the three friends with whom he had overcome so much adversity.
But one afternoon in late September, everything changed without warning.
Austrian police stationed at the centre told the young man he was going to be moved, but not to another Austrian refugee camp, not even to another Austrian town. He was going to be relocated out of the country to Slovakia.
The refugees were to be transferred to a block of empty, communist-era dormitories owned by the Slovak University of Technology in a small, sleepy town called Gabcikovo, 137km away in the Slovakian countryside.
“They gave me an hour,” he said. “I never signed any papers. They just put me on a bus and sent me there.”
More than 200,000 refugees crossed the Austrian border in September alone as Europe faces the biggest refugee crisis since World War II. Most move onwards to Germany and Sweden, but many remain in Austria, where reception centres have become crowded and unsanitary.
To relieve the pressure, Slovakia – whose Prime Minister Robert Fico has opposed the European Union’s refugee resettlement scheme – agreed to temporarily house up to 500 Syrian refugees. The Austrian government has insisted the situation is only temporary, and that refugees will stay in Slovakia for a maximum of six months while their asylum claims are assessed.
The temporary solution has proven controversial. Heinz Patzelt, director of Amnesty International Austria, told Al Jazeera the Austrian government “is outsourcing the problem to somewhere else”.
“We think people should be given the choice whether they want to go to Gabcikovo or not,” Patzelt said.
“They are applying for asylum in Austria so we are concerned about the independent legal advice they have over in Slovakia, and we are also concerned about access to the camp for Austrian independent controlling bodies.”
While a few of the 270 refugees who arrived in Gabcikovo so far told Al Jazeera they are content with waiting, most were upset about staying in an isolated countryside village that cannot help them prepare for a life in Austria.
“I don’t want to be here in Slovakia,” the 23-year-old said, sitting on brick steps outside the main administrative building, a greying six-storey relic.
“I learn nothing talking in Arabic to Syrians every day. The time is killing me, there is nothing to help us integrate in Austria. All I do is listen to old stories about the war,” he complained.
Austria’s interior ministry told Al Jazeera German lessons were being provided “on a daily basis”. Yet, several refugees said the lessons are insufficient when they are lacking pencils or books in the classroom and with just two teachers for more than 200 people.
“We need many more [teachers],” Muhammad said through a translation device on his mobile phone. The 44-year-old attorney from Damascus – who asked to be identified only by his first name – said living in the countryside “is very, very boring”.
In a sparsely furnished courtyard the children played games, but the adults sat about for hours, fiddling with their phones on benches or drinking beer and smoking cigarettes.
Some refugees told Al Jazeera they had been separated from their families in the process of being relocated from Traiskirchen.
“There is a woman here whose husband is in Austria,” the 23-year-old Syrian said. “The manager promised he would try and bring him here but nothing has happened. There are lots of people without family. There are parents without teenage children, and teenage children here without their parents.”
|Refugees stranded in Austria desperate to reach Germany|
Amnesty said the situation was unacceptable. “This must not happen and it is clearly violating their right to family life,” Patzelt said.
A spokesperson for the Austrian interior ministry told Al Jazeera: “As a matter of principle, families are not separated.”
Though the refugees are free to move around, their allowance of just $45 a month from the Austrian government means travelling across the border to see relatives and friends is difficult.
“I want to go to Austria but I don’t have the money so I’m just stuck here,” said Ahmad, who only gave his first name. “They give us some money but it’s nothing – it’s not enough.”
Slovakians share the discontent with the situation. In early August, before the arrival of the refugees, 97 percent of locals voted in a non-binding referendum not to accept them in Gabcikovo.
On the day the refugees arrived, they were greeted with a protest demonstration by a small group of far-right activists who call themselves Our Slovakia.
“I was on the bus to the camp, looked outside, and saw the racist demonstration,” Ahmad said.
“People of Slovakia don’t like us,” the 23-year-old added. “Three days ago we went to the supermarket. Some Slovaks told us they hate Syrians and that we should go home. Everyone that goes to the supermarket has the same problem.”
The young man wondered whether he had even made the right decision leaving home.
“I don’t know why I have such bad luck,” he said. “Sometimes I think if I never left Syria that might have been a better choice.”