Bridge to Germany

One Border Town's Struggle with Refugees

refugees picture alliance
Asylum seekers await entry to Germany on the Saalach Bridge.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    Swelling numbers of refugees entering Germany from the south are straining the resources in normally quiet communities along the Austrian border.

  • Facts


    • Up to 50 refugees per hour are crossing the bridge between Austria and Germany at Freilassing.
    • It is among five border-crossing points from Austria into Germany.
    • With more than 800,000 refugees expected to apply for asylum in Germany this year, border town officials are calling for more assistance from Berlin.
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It was a gesture of Berlin’s support for Bavaria when federal police flew by helicopter directly to Freilassing last month.

The help arrived in mid-September after Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière gave the order for police to supervise the entry of refugees into Germany along the Austrian border. The temporary border controls are a stopgap measure to help communities there manage the overwhelming flow of asylum seekers into the country, which the government estimates will exceed 800,000 by year’s end.

One of those communities is Freilassing, Bavaria, which is linked to Salzburg in Austria via the Saalach Bridge. One of five border crossings between the two countries, the bridge has quickly become a symbol of the refugee crisis.

Here, residents have long enjoyed the privilege of traveling freely between these two countries connected by a common language. Border checks were abolished when the European Union’s Schengen Area was introduced. But now red and white pylons constrict the lanes, while federal police patrol for vehicles smuggling people across the border. Radio traffic reports say the roadway is “jammed up due to border controls.”

On the footbridge, there is a tense silence reminiscent of Cold War prisoner exchanges. All day long, refugees wait on the Austrian side until police signal that the next group of 10 may cross into Germany, totaling up to 50 per hour. It’s the same procedure being followed at five other border crossing points with Austria.

At this rate, each day Germany welcomes some 7,000 or more “migrants” and “unauthorized entrants,” as they are called by police. Each one is supposed to be registered in the country through which they first enter the European Union, but that practice was suspended for Syrian refugees in August. Germany is now considering re-applying those “Dublin Protocol” laws, Mr. de Maziere said on Wednesday, but the reality on the border is likely to be very different.

One young woman has crossed the border with her husband and two-year-old child. After the Austrian police drove her from the Salzburg train station to the bridge, she waited for three hours in the Freilassing shelter, a former furniture warehouse in an industrial area.

“Where are you from?” a police officer asks.

“We are Afghans from Iran,” the interpreter translates.

“How did you get here?”

“Through Turkey and the Balkans.”

“Where are you going?”

“To relatives in Germany.”

Next, they will present their passports, assuming they have one, and have their fingerprints taken. In exchange, they receive a numbered paper bracelet. Then comes a health check and a bit of rest on one of the 1,200 cots in the warehouse. German soldiers deliver food and drink and Caritas, a Catholic charity, helps with clothing. A line of people with orange armbands snakes through the sleeping area, awaiting transport by bus to the train station. In theory, no one should have to wait in Freilassing for more than 24 hours.


Video: Police direct the flow of refugees from Salzburg, Austria into Freilassing, Germany.


Outside, large buses from the police, the German national railway Deutsche Bahn and travel agencies line up. The two-kilometer drive to the train station leads through the heart of the town of 16,000, located in the idyllic Berchtesgaden region at the foot of the Alps, where brown and white cows graze in the autumn sun. The town’s advertisements target what used to be only moderate border traffic. There are signs for free parking, while a clothing store highlights its “Autumn 2015” collection. Nearby, the sidewalk cafes are full of people drinking beer and discussing the VW scandal.

Everything seems normal, but residents say that the ongoing refugee situation has had a big impact. Retailers complain that sales are down. The train station has also been closed, and locals can only use the Salzburg station. “These are issues that our citizens feel quite severely,” district administrator Georg Grabner said.

At the Freilassing train station, migrants are photographed with a sign that says: “Freilassing – Mannheim” and the number of the train that will take them to the initial reception center in the neighboring state of Baden-Württemberg.

Each day, about 750 refugees are sent to Mannheim, while another 450 are sent north to Berlin where Chancellor Angela Merkel’s grand coalition government recently agreed on a new asylum policy. The deal provided for a network of reception centers throughout the country, rather than the “transit zones” on the borders sought after by Horst Seehofer, the leader of Bavaria’s conservative Christian Social Union, or CSU, the sister party to Merkel’s Christian Democrats.

“ We must do everything we can to ensure that people do not come to Germany.”

Georg Grabner, Freilassing district administrator

Instead of border camps with prison-like conditions, the new policy requires a strict categorization of refugees’ asylum eligibility. Those who come from countries deemed safe will be quickly sent home.

Freilassing’s district administrator Mr. Grabner welcomes this step. The communities along the border are already facing an “unusual situation where refugees are coming on a massive scale,” he said. Unaccompanied minors also need to be taken care of, he added, saying that to heap on the stress of creating transit zone camps would have been too much. “Everyone can understand that we can’t handle that,” he said.

The CSU is pleased that Mr. Seehofer had to find a compromise with Merkel’s junior coalition partners, the center-left Social Democrats. Mr. Grabner would like to see even more assistance from the federal government. Berlin should “take full responsibility for the waiting areas and staffing,” he said.

There are other reasons besides the huge pressure on individual towns for a more coordinated and concentrated approach to the refugee crisis. The transition between being an asylum applicant to either deportation or integration hasn’t exactly been running very smoothly in Germany.

Government officials handling the refugees are missing the point, Mr. Grabner said. “We must do everything we can to ensure that people do not come to Germany,” he said, adding that quick deportations would be a clear signal.

Ultimately, a collective European solution will be necessary to secure the external borders. But so far the E.U. is making a “pathetic” effort, Mr. Grabner said. Instead of working together and distributing refugees fairly, Italy and Greece have been overwhelmed, and the result has been the creation of a new crisis zone – the German border.


Daniel Delhaes reports on politics, transport and airlines from Handelsblatt’s Berlin office. To contact the author:

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