Students witness refugee crisis

| September 30, 2015 7:26pm
Refugees wait on a bridge after police stopped them at the border between Austria and Germany in Salzburg, Austria, Thursday, Sept. 17, 2015. (AP Photo/Kerstin Joensson)

An organized chaos of aid volunteers, grocery carts full of food and supplies, a temporary medical area and a swarm of Red Cross workers greeted sophomore Molly McSweyn as she arrived at the Salzburg train station to begin her year of studying abroad.

Salzburg, Austria, a storybook city just south of the German border known for being the birthplace of Mozart and the setting for “The Sound of Music,” is now receiving international attention for taking in and helping to facilitate the movement of refugees. As thousands of men, women and children pour into the city and throughout Europe, the Salzburg study abroad students have been advised against taking individual trips, but the gravity of this historic migration is not lost on them.

“Wow. It feels like, you know, a first world problem, ‘Why can’t we travel this weekend?’” McSweyn, a communications major, said. “And then it was like, no, this is a moment in history that’s very, very big and I think it was a humbling experience when you finally realized how big it was.”

Refugees line the side of a bridge just outside of Salzburg, Austria. Photo by Molly McSweyn.

As the Salzburg program began a few weeks ago, increasing numbers of refugees and migrants, mostly fleeing violence in Syria and Iraq, started to make their way from Hungary through Austria toward Germany and the Scandinavian countries. According to Germany’s interior minister Thomas de Maizière, as many as 10,000 refugees arrive in the country each day.

UP Director of Studies Abroad Eduardo Contreras explained that he is working closely with the UP resident director in Salzburg, René Horcicka, as the situation unfolds. They have requested that Salzburg students not travel internationally for now.

“My approach to working with students abroad has always been to assess the situation with the local partners who are there,” Contreras said. “Based on what the director there said, they’re perfectly safe within Austria, they’re perfectly safe within the city of Salzburg.”

Together with 25 other UP students, McSweyn attended Oktoberfest in Munich, Germany last weekend, against the recommendation to not travel internationally. She explained that they had no trouble crossing the border.

“We got to the German-Austrian border, and rolling up you could tell that (is where we were) because it’s across a river. All along both sides of the bridge were refugees sleeping on the ground and there were tents set up,” McSweyn said.

Refugees fill up the train station in Salzburg, Austria. Photo by Molly McSweyn.

Sophomore Abby Kessi, environmental ethics and policies major, cancelled her travel plans to Croatia the first weekend due to the recommendation.

The Salzburgers’ next international trip as a group will be to Paris later this month. At this point, Contreras and Horcicka have no safety concerns about that trip.

In contrast with her earlier experience, McSweyn returned to the Salzburg train station from Innsbruck, Austria on Sept. 18 to find hundreds of refugees circled by police and military, a scene unlike the organized one she had encountered before.

“They were set rows, they were armed, they were not letting anyone through,” McSweyn said. “This is one of the most humbling experiences I have ever had in my life. We decided that because we didn’t know how to get around, we simply walked through. They did not give me a second look, they did not ask for any identification.”

McSweyn said that the hundreds of refugees who couldn’t pass didn’t complain or seem upset, but she couldn’t believe that she had no problem getting through.

Horcicka said that during this time, students should focus on the academic program, but also encouraged volunteering for the Red Cross or Caritas, a Christian charity organization in Salzburg.

“We don’t have a student who has actually done some kind of assistance in this respect, but we had at least one student ask us where she could volunteer,” Horcicka said. “I thought this was really cool.”

This experience, Horcicka pointed out, is giving students the chance to gain insights into global political structures in a safe environment.

“It showed how interested the students are in this situation,” Horcicka said. “At every meal that we share they are asking, ‘Where do those people come from? Why do they leave their countries?’”

Confused about the “refugee crisis”? Get the quick facts here:


Refugees are people who had to leave their country to escape persecution, war or a natural disaster.

Migrants are people that leave their country in order to find work or an improved economic situation in another country.

Background info:

In 2011, peaceful anti-government demonstrations began in Syria, criticising President Bashar al-Assad. The Syrian government responded by attacking citizens. Soon, the Free Syrian Army was formed to fight back against the regime. The Syrian civil war has killed over 220,000 people, according to Mercy Corps’ website, and has destroyed basic infrastructure in many big cities.

Most refugees from Syria live in Jordan, Lebanon or Turkey, but the number of refugees fleeing overseas to Europe is rising. Due to the unstable situation, it was easy for the Muslim extremist group ISIS to expand its power in Syria and Iraq. There are also refugees and migrants from Africa and the Balkans coming to Europe, but the majority of people involved in the so-called “migrant crisis” or “refugee crisis” come from Syria and Iraq.

Most of the refugees are hoping to begin new lives in Germany or the Scandinavian countries, which means passing through Hungary and Austria on their way north, including Salzburg on the border of Germany.

European countries have reacted to the refugee crisis in a variety of ways. Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann was quoted in a CNN report saying that Austria is working to find a humane and lawful response. This is in stark contrast to neighboring Hungary, which has received widespread criticism for its behavior. Human rights activists told the BBC that migrants in Hungary are being treated like animals.

The European Union has passed quotas in order to split the large influx of migrants and refugees between its members, and also agreed to strengthen border controls. According to BBC News, in Germany alone 108,897 Syrian refugees applied for asylum.