Migrants fall through the cracks in Austria’s asylum system
Omar, a 27-year-old cook originally from Deraa, the cradle of the Syrian uprising against Bashar Al-Assad, shows the back of his Austrian migrant card in Traiskirchen, Austria, October 13, 2015. REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger

TRAISKIRCHEN, Austria: After fleeing civil war, surviving a perilous sea crossing and trudging through several countries, Syrian refugees think they will receive basic food, shelter and fair treatment when they reach Austria. Most are right, but some tell a different tale.

These people complain of coming under pressure to leave Austria for neighboring Slovakia and that if they refuse – or even simply miss the bus there – they can end up thrown out on the streets by a system they do not understand.

Austrian authorities deny asylum seekers are forced to go to Slovakia against their will, but stress they cannot pick and choose where they are accommodated while their applications are considered.

Whatever the rights and wrongs, Austria’s already crowded asylum centers are struggling to cope with Europe’s biggest migration crisis in decades. And the experiences of some Syrian refugees suggest that language barriers, misunderstandings and suspicions are aggravating the problems.

In the past month, tens of thousands have moved smoothly onwards to Germany, the most popular destination for migrants. However, Austria also expects around 85,000 asylum requests this year – a similar level in per capita terms to Germany’s.

At Austria’s main asylum center in Traiskirchen, about 20 km (12 miles) south of Vienna, overcrowding became so severe this summer that up to 2,000 people had to sleep outdoors.

Eventually, the government agreed with Slovakia to send up to 500 asylum seekers to a former university campus in the Slovak town of Gabcikovo to relieve the strain.

Getting people to that center, and to others in Austria, has not always gone smoothly.

Omar, a 27-year-old cook from Deraa – the cradle of the Syrian uprising against President Bashar al-Assad – says he didn’t know he was supposed to board a bus to Gabcikovo. And missing it left him homeless, penniless and without medical insurance.

From Turkey, Omar tried 11 times before he succeeded in crossing the Aegean to Greece. Several attempts failed because inflatable boats supplied by people smugglers were in danger of sinking and on one occasion, the engine ran out of fuel.

Only rescues by Turkish police saved Omar and his fellow passengers from the fate of other migrants who have drowned making the crossing to the Greek islands.

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