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TRAISKIRCHEN, Austria – The Traiskirchen refugee camp stands on the border of a picturesque vineyard about 20 miles outside of Vienna. Originally built as a school for artillery officers, it was first pressed into humanitarian service to welcome refugees from the Hungarian Revolution in 1956.
Today, it is the first stop for many of the thousands of refugees streaming into Austria and the largest refugee camp in the country. Those here represent a cross-section of the conflicts that have driven hundreds of thousands from the Middle East to risk death for the promise of a better life in Europe.
Nidal, who asked that her last name not be used, fled Mosul, Iraq, with her son when ISIL invaded last year.
"They wanted to cut off my husband's fingers because they saw him smoking." she said. "I fled Mosul the day that it fell. The rest of my family is stuck there and cannot leave. People there are dying from hunger."
Mahmoud Mejo, 19, fled Aleppo, Syria, with his 8-year-old nephew after life was made unbearable due to barrel bombs dropped by the regime and shells fired by the opposition.
"It's an endless war of sectarian violence where everyone is killing everyone," he said.
And 33-year-old Mohammad Malaki fled Hama, Syria, with his wife and newborn child to avoid being drafted and forced to fight for the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
"We paid smugglers to help us flee just 24 hours after I was called to report to the Army," Malaki said.
It was the vision of a stable and secure new life in Europe that kept them going during the dangerous month-long journey over sea and land.
“We came to Europe in search of peace and freedom, to be able to settle down, to be able to eat and to be safe,” Nidal said.
Malaki echoed those sentiments: “When we first arrived, I felt that Europe would be a much better place, that it would be civilized, that it respected human rights.”
But the refugees’ vision of life in Europe has collided with the reality of nations who are fiercely divided over how to respond to the worst European refugee crisis since World War II. This week, Germany, Austria, Slovakia and Hungary all took steps to tighten control of their borders, warning that the influx of refugees was threatening to overwhelm the respective governments.
Hungary began mass arrests of refugees Wednesday, with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban saying they should have stayed in Turkey or Jordan once they had escaped immediate danger.
Malaki and his family were arrested in Hungary, but managed to move on to Austria after three days in jail.
“We suffered a lot in Hungary. I wish it would be kicked out of the European Union,” Malaki said of the country. “We were mistreated. It was bad, very bad.”
Malaki and the others expected conditions to improve once they moved west into Austria. But an influx of 20,000 refugees in the last weekend alone, more than the total number of asylum seekers last year, has completely overwhelmed Austrian authorities.
Run by the private, for-profit Swiss firm ORS, Traiskirchen currently houses 3,500 refugees, twice its capacity. The news media is not allowed inside, but a recent report by Amnesty International said that the situation in the camp represented a “far-reaching failure” by the Austrian state to deal with asylum seekers. It warned that the insufficient medical care, overcrowding and unhygienic conditions could put vulnerable refugees at further risk. The United Nations has gone so far as to call the conditions “inhumane.”
“We are humiliated here in Traiskirchen,” Malaki said. “There are 40 people sharing one room. We’re crammed together like sheep in a barn. For those living in tents, the situation is much worse. Sometimes, when it gets windy, the tents blow over and people are always sick.”
Nidal has been at Traiskirchen for almost a month.
“We live in tents with no water, the food is very bad and thieves go through the tents and steal our belongings, our passports, our money, our mobile phones,” she said.
When we first arrived, I felt that Europe would be a much better place, that it would be civilized, that it respected human rights.
She says the police do nothing to stop the thieves.
“With all due respect, the Austrian government would not let their dogs live in such tents,” she said.
As temperatures drop, there is concern about the coming winter.
“It’s freezing cold inside,” Mejo said of a nearby building where some of the refugees are housed. “[The heat] runs for a couple of hours and then it’s switched off.”
The refugees are quick to contrast their treatment at the hands of the Austrian government with the warmth of the Austrian citizens. With the government’s efforts falling short, locals have stepped in to ensure that the refugees have basic necessities and food to supplement the camp’s meager rations.
“The Austrian people have proved to be very kind and compassionate,” said Nidal. “They bring us food and clothes and try to help us.”
One of them is Andreas Kohlgruber, a volunteer from nearby Vienna. In his experience, he says that the refugees need something to wash and clean with, as well as fresh fruits, orange juice and mineral water. He sees a calculated strategy by the government to make life uncomfortable for the refugees.
“They are doing a good job if their goal is to show that Austria is not a good country to come to as a refugee, because they are showing the outside that it’s not good here,” he said. "But that's not the job that the Austrian people want the government to do.
As their days here turn into months, the constant struggle of living in a refugee camp is taking its toll on the refugees. For Nidal, she’s exhausted and drained. She said she’s crossed oceans and walked on foot for six or seven hours.
“We’ve been through a lot to get here,” she said.
As she waits for her asylum claim to be processed, she finds it impossible to think about the future.
“I have no plans. I’m a walking wreck,” said Nidal, who still holds out hope that Austria will offer asylum to her and her son. “Sometimes, I do nothing but stay in the tent and cry. Sometimes, I go outside the camp to see and talk to people in an attempt to forget the tragedy that I’ve seen in Iraq.”
Mejo said he paid a smuggler to drive his 8-year-old nephew to meet his father in Germany after authorities threatened to place the boy in foster care. But he said authorities confiscated his documents when he was processed at the camp, so for now he's stuck.
“If Austria is full as they say and they have no room for more refugees, then just give us back our documents so that we can go on to another country,” said Mejo. who hopes to eventually convince authorities to allow him to join his nephew and brother in Germany.
For Malaki, he is mainly worried about his newborn son. He says his child is suffering, and that he cries every time he sees a policeman.
“Ever since we arrived, he’s stopped eating,” Malaki said. “Now his mother has to breast feed him.”
Malaki, who was first fingerprinted in Hungary, says he fears his family will be returned there.
“No matter what happens, I will never go back to Hungary,” he said.
And if the situation doesn’t improve, he’s considering the unthinkable.
“If the situation continues like this, we’ll either try to make it to Germany, because we hear it’s better, or we will go back to Syria,” Malaki said. “There may be killings, shellings and kidnappings, but we will return to the liberated areas. And at least there, we will be among family and friends.”