Brussels: For those who had risked their lives to flee a cruel civil war by rickety boat or in a smuggler’s truck, it was a remarkable sight.
Germans gathered by the hundred at railway stations yesterday (Sunday) to welcome refugees arriving in their cities as if they were long-lost friends or returning war heroes.
An estimated 10,000 refugees were expected to arrive in Germany by train from Hungary and Austria on Sunday, and they were greeted with spontaneous rounds of applause and songs, as well as sweets, pastries and toys, on station platforms across the country.
At Munich station, volunteers amass-ed a large stockpile of food. Helpers at the main train station in Frankfurt formed human chains to pass bags of food, clothing and toiletries to the exhausted arrivals, whom they welcomed with banners and balloons. Others clutched placards bearing the words “We love refugees”, while graffiti artists painted “A warm welcome” in Arabic on a train in Dresden.
The German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, announced last week that Germany would grant asylum to all Syrians in the country, a move credited with hastening the exodus from the east. The country expects to take in 800,000 refugees this year.
The German interior ministry warned last night that other states must still abide by the rules on processing, and therefore looking after asylum seekers.
Last week there were chaotic scenes in Budapest when Hungarian police attempted to stop migrants from taking trains over the border, quoting European rules that say migrants must be processed where they arrive.
But yesterday a convoy of around 140 Austrian and German drivers set off from Vienna, determined to bring people waiting in Budapest back in their family cars.
Ola Almasalmeh, 25, arrived in Munich station on Saturday night, which teemed with revellers dressed in the traditional Bavarian costume of dirndl and lederhosen. She had travelled for a month from Syria. “I feel very safe here,” she told The Telegraph. “I don’t want to go to another country. I like Merkel, she has a big heart.”
Matteo Palenberg, aged 11, took a bowl of sweets he had collected over a year to hand out to children arriving at Munich station. His father Markus, 45, said the treatment of refugees in Hungary was “shameful” and he liked that Germany was no longer being seen as the “bad people in Europe” after Mrs Merkel’s hardball approach to the Greek financial crisis.
But he added that because of Germany’s hospitality, “the downside is that I’m afraid that it will create a huge second wave [of migrants]” who are not genuinely seeking asylum.
Those arriving in Bavaria are promptly allocated new homes across Germany. On Saturday night, some 350 were dispatched to Berlin, 700 to Brunswick and 460 to Frankfurt.
On Sunday morning, police in Bavaria announced that many trains carrying refugees would no longer be stopping there, with several heading directly to places such as Berlin, North Rhine-Westphalia and Baden-Wurttemberg.
In Dortmund, the less accommodating face of German society was shown when 29 supporters of the far-right party Die Rechte staged a protest rally at the central station as a train carrying almost 1,000 migrants arrived. Three police officers were injured and four people were arrested.
In Rome, Pope Francis announced he will shelter two refugee families at the Vatican and said all parishes, convents and monasteries across Europe should do the same.
But while scenes of kindness and generosity were being played out in Germany, the picture in Greece was less harmonious yesterday. Soldiers and police were dispatched to Lesbos, the holiday island that now resembles an African transit camp, where 20,000 migrants live in squalid conditions, with nowhere to sleep or wash.
The United Nations refugee agency called yesterday for “exceptional measures” to speed up the registration of thousands of refugees stranded on the island. Amid growing tension and two nights of clashes between police and refugees, two extra riot squads arrived on Lesbos, while 60 more regular ordinary police officers were also sent.
There were reports that a pair of locals on a motorbike threw two Molotov cocktails at refugees sleeping in a park in the island’s main town, Mytilene.
Some of the refugees have been stuck on the island for two weeks or more, waiting for the Greek authorities to issue them with travel permits that will allow them to board ferries to Athens. Lesbos is the entry point for around half of the 230,000 who have arrived in Greece so far this year.
Alessandra Morelli, the UNHCR representative on the island, told The Daily Telegraph: “The registration process is very slow, due to lack of resources in the Greek police and coast guard. People are arriving every day and there are not enough ferries to take them to Athens, to the point where it’s a crisis.”
Meanwhile, Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, faced criticism after saying Israel could not cope with refugees. “Israel is a small country, we must control our borders against illegal migrants and terrorism,” he said. Isaac Herzog, the opposition leader, urged him to let some Syrians in. “Have you forgotten what it’s like to be Jews, refugees, hunted?” he wrote on Facebook.
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