The re-activation of the Austrian-Hungarian border station during the ‘wave’ of refugees in autumn 2015
Irrespective of the refugee crisis, the transformation of the border crossing between Austria and Hungary and the history of the small border municipality of Nickelsdorf would in itself be worth its own research. The current road network had been gradually developed and improved, and the traffic volume shifted to this new route. The old road led right through the village, past small old customs houses and the tollgate, then past a street with pubs and stores bustling with activity. But the new modern border crossing was constructed far outside the municipality and finally complemented with a fully fledged highway in 1996. While the former border village went silent, the new border crossing with its highway entrance and exit ramps on both sides of the border and its more modern control facilities evolved into what seems to be an arbitrarily densifying agglomeration of streets and building complexes – an urban archipelago typical of the modern mobility landscape. Several petrol stations, hotels and motels, restaurants and markets, some partly designed and branded as theme parks (Paprika), night clubs, brothels and betting shops, kiosks and truck parks settled along the new route, touting for the best location and subjecting themselves – especially on the Hungarian side – to tough predatory competition. In our research project, however, we had stipulated different emphases, different case studies, had found other border crossings along our routes more important, so for the time being we had no free capacities available.
The unforeseeable dimension of the wave of refugees in late summer and autumn 2015 threatened to completely overshadow every discourse on mobility and migration – including our research project as well, which was now deemed particularly topical. We decided to incorporate the Nickelsdorf border crossing – which we had already passed through many times on our research trips – more strongly in our investigations. To this end, we organised a one-day public bus excursion in December 2015 in the framework of a workshop; the tour started at the Vienna International Bus Terminal and visited other hubs of mobility and migration and urban archipelagos along the A4 eastern highway before arriving at the border crossing. Mayor Gerhard Zapfl then guided us to all the places in Nickelsdorf where just two months earlier the tremendous influx of refugees had to be handled without any preparation.
Up to this point, we had regarded the border crossings along the routes of our research trips – as with other stops – simply as thresholds in the mobility landscape. We had overlooked that, out of fear of the controls, there was expertise to be sold concerning evasion of the controls and that the differences between the availability and costs of goods and services produce booming border economies on both sides, which attract mobile actors and are used by those in transit (Schlögel 2005; Konstantinov 1996).
Initially, we hardly realised that custom and border police are important employers in border regions. In almost every family in the border villages there was at least one member who had found work in this realm or still worked there (Zapfl 2016a). A smuggler who doesn’t personally know at least one of the border officers and their work roster and doesn’t know the level of smuggled goods they will tolerate or the costs is incompetent. Hence, the reliability of these social networks influences the choice of smuggling routes to allow as many people as possible to have their share in the added value.
This applies to the smuggling not only of goods but also of people. During the refugee crisis in late summer 2015, the majority of the refugees did not take, as one would expect, the regular and low-priced bus connections from Turkey to Bulgaria and then, within the EU, on to Vienna. Many were led along the much more dangerous route across the Mediterranean to Greece, and from there overland to Macedonia and Serbia. But most of those who made it to Bulgaria were again smuggled out of the EU into Serbia and then back in the EU via Hungary. This seemingly unnecessary traversal of two EU external borders cannot be explained alone by the fact that the border between the two neighbouring EU states, Bulgaria and Romania, is exceptionally well-controlled; rather, it also involves the networks that have been growing for many years along the Serbian-Bulgarian and Serbian-Hungarian borders, which had at last gained a key significance during the Yugoslavian wars.
From Hungary the refugees passed the border crossing near Nickelsdorf. Since Hungary joined the EU in 2004, it has been an inner-EU border crossing, and since 2002 also a crossing between two Schengen states; hence, from Hungary on, borders are essentially open and controls are only carried out randomly in exceptional cases. Accordingly, the infrastructure for border controls has been gradually reduced to a minimum, and the gigantic parking lots for trucks became wastelands or were adapted for other purposes.
Mobilisation instead of control
From July 2015 a growing number of refugees were picked up along the stretch of the A4 eastern highway between the border and Vienna. Smugglers had brought them from Hungary across the border to Austria. On 27 August a refrigerator truck was found on the service lane of the A4, close to the Designer Outlet Parndorf shopping centre, twenty-two kilometres from the Austrian-Hungarian border. Seventy-one dead refugees were found inside. They were brought for forensic examination and identification to a border-crossing cooling hall, which had originally been set up to control imported food. Just a week later, from 4 September, while the corpses were still stored at the site, thousands of refugees in Hungary started arriving each day at the border crossing. Initially, they were transported from Nickelsdorf to Vienna West Station in trains chartered from the Austrian Federal Railways – later with buses and taxis – and then taken further on to Germany. On 16 September the military took over the Austria-wide coordination of the transport logistics from the border crossing to the train stations and emergency shelters. To this end, one officer requested buses from a private company, which were more flexible in bringing refugees directly to the respective destinations (Mayerhofer 2016). As mentioned before, many of the bus drivers originated from the Yugoslavian successor states, and their families themselves had personal experiences of migration and escape.
The parking lots and border infrastructures, which had hardly been used since the end of the EU and Schengen border, were also reactivated to handle the stream of refugees and were complemented by temporary structures from both the emergency aid and event sectors. The large parking lot in front of a former border zone disco on the Austrian side was now used for chartered buses, which were then sent to the border one by one. The manager of a rock festival near the border opened his backstage hall and the festival meadow as a camping ground to accommodate the refugees. On the highway the truck parking lot in front of the roofed control zone and the area under the flying roof were adapted for first aid measures. Later on two large heatable tents were erected on the parking lot. These were never put into operation because on 15 October the refugee flow on this route came to an end. The ‘closing’ of the border between Serbia and Hungary proclaimed by the Hungarian government and celebrated in the media now redirected the masses to another strand of the Balkan route.
During these critical days the responsible government politicians in Vienna vanished from the scene. Confronted with the emergency situation and lack of instructions, the help organisations and supervisory bodies, including those of the state, which had gathered at the border decided to respond on their own authority. They neglected the guidelines of the Dublin II Regulation by only trying to provide for the mass of refugees, while keeping them in constant movement to prevent escalations in front of running TV cameras, rather than by controlling them (Zapfl 2016a).
Austrian ‘welcome culture’ primarily pertained not to their refugees but to their preferably conflict-free further transport to Germany. Buses were the best-suited means of transportation to keep the enormous stream in controlled motion and to prevent frustration among refugees (or at least keep it within limits), while those responsible in the background could still negotiate the respective destinations of the buses. In autumn 2015 the reactivated border crossing was thus not a space of demobilisation but one of mobilisation. It revealed a state-tolerated strategy of ‘mobilising away’, which Austria shared with other countries along the refugee routes (Benigni and Pierdicca 2016).
In October 2016, upon completion of our research project and exactly a year after the influx of refugees, we repeated our bus tour to Nickelsdorf: There we found new, more solid control infrastructures built upon the large truck parking lot on the premises of the border crossing; a big facility comprised of containers with booths to check the personal data of those wanting to enter the country; another container facility for accommodating detained persons without an entry permit – a de facto custody prison; and prefabricated barrier elements that, if needed, could be assembled within a few hours into a solid fence with barbed wire topping on both sides of the border – measures, in the words of Nickelsdorf’s mayor, that ‘will hopefully never be needed’ (Zapfl 2016b).
The experience of the refugee crisis was drastic for the small border village: the events brought the previously insignificant and easily overlooked municipality into the world’s press, and the concerted efforts had – according to the proud mayor –a very positive effect on the village’s sense of community. Thus, the autumn of 2015 will definitely play an important role in the collective memory of the village in the future. The mayor emphasised that the temporary state of emergency caused by the mass flight of refugees was in no case unique in the history of the small border village: during the Hungarian crisis in November 1956, 180,000 refugees passed through Nickelsdorf, and in 1989, after the fall of the Iron Curtain, 40,000 exhausted GDR citizens had to be tended to. Also the escape routes that changed since October 2015 were not new: the stretch from Serbia to Croatia, through Slovenia to Austria across the Spielberg border crossing, has been a part of mobility and migration history since the 1960s as a route for guest workers. Many of the bus drivers, who in autumn 2015 transported the new refugees across Austria, had once entered the country on these very roads.
Today it is not entirely true to say that the entire Balkan route is ‘closed’. As was the case before the so-called ‘crisis’, wherever escape helpers have logistics and functioning networks available, sometimes including state supervisory bodies, goods and people without the right papers will cross the borders – together with countless other mobile individuals, including ‘research explorers’ like ourselves.