Europeans are used to zipping across borders by car, train or on foot, thanks to the Schengen treaty, which ensures free movement in 26 European countries, 22 of which belong to the European Union. But on Sunday, Germany, Austria and Slovakia reintroduced border controls in an attempt to slow down an influx of refugees. The move has created scenes that many Europeans haven’t seen in years.
Commuters on their way from Austria to Germany have had to wait up to two hours in traffic jams. The German police started checking cars coming from Austria on the two main highways on Sunday evening and restricted traffic to one lane. Travelers tweeted pictures and videos of the lines. "Heavy police presence on a parking place near Passau," tweeted the user @grether_marion on Sunday. "Like 20 years ago! #Europe"
#Grenzkontrollen #grenzedicht Polizeiaufgebot auf Rastplatz vor #Passau. Wie vor 20 Jahren! #Europa @OJ3000 @dpa pic.twitter.com/pQNpIgd32G— Marion Grether (@grether_marion) September 13, 2015
She had to take a taxi because the train connection between the two countries was temporarily stopped on Sunday evening, she wrote, and ended up waiting in line and paying 200 euros ($225) for the ride.
The trains from Austria to Germany started running again on Monday, with some interruptions as police checked passengers' documents at the border.
On one of the main highways — the A8 — the German police were "taking a close look at every car" as vehicles passed at "walking pace," a correspondent for the German public broadcaster Bayerischer Rundfunk reported on Monday. Suspicious-looking cars, trucks and vans — vehicles with tinted windows, for example — were being stopped. The police said they arrested about 30 smugglers the first night of controls on highways, and it seemed to have a discouraging effect. The majority of refugees without travel documents who were stopped and registered on the border to Germany on Monday came by trains, not on the highway.
Authorities took about 500 migrants off the trains as a result of border controls on Monday, Bayerischer Rundfunk reported. What is going to happen to them now? The police didn’t seem to have a clear answer yet. The border controls were reintroduced in order to register the migrants coming to Germany. The migrants who were forced to leave the trains were asked for their documents and their personal data were recorded, but they were not sent back to Austria.
"You will probably go to Munich or back to Austria, but I don't know it yet,” a police officer told migrants at the station in Freilassing, according to a reporter for Spiegel Online. The refugees who hadn't asked for asylum in another European country before would probably be able to do it in Germany. The authorities in Freilassing were preparing an empty furniture storehouse to accommodate several hundred people, Bayerischer Rundfunk reported.
Police turned back several dozen migrants who tried to cross the border on foot, according to Dirk Emmerich, a correspondent for the German TV channel RTL. "Refugees try again to walk across the border from Salzburg. No chance. The police turns them back," he wrote on Twitter.
Erneut versuchen #Flüchtlinge zu Fuß aus #Salzburg über die Grenze zu kommen. Keine Chance. Polizei weist sie zurück pic.twitter.com/a0KskT1k8o— Dirk Emmerich (@DEmmerich) September 14, 2015
Bundespolizei an Grenze #Österreich jetzt auch mit Waffen. Auch diese #Flüchtlinge werden abgewiesen, müssen umkehren pic.twitter.com/uacvxAl0sl— Dirk Emmerich (@DEmmerich) September 14, 2015
"The police are armed with machine guns,” but that was mostly symbolic, he said in a call. "They act firmly, but friendly."
The checks on the Austrian-German border will continue for "at least several weeks," the Bavarian minister of the interior, Joachim Herrmann, told the Bayerischer Rundfunk. "We need better controls in general, because we found out in the recent days that many of those who are travelling are not real refugees."
With the reintroduction of border checks, Germany is in part trying to send a message to the migrants and neighboring countries that its ability to take in more refugees is limited. "Temporary border controls are different from closing the borders," government spokesman Steffen Seibert said. "We stick to the position: We can do it. But no one said that we can do it overnight."
Austria is planning to start controls at its border with Hungary on Wednesday morning. The Austrian ministry of interior warned travelers to be ready to show their documents at the border crossings. Slovakia has sent an additional 220 police officers to its borders but isn't checking all vehicles. A video of the controls by the TASR news agency showed police stopping some trucks, but no traffic jams.