VIENNA (Reuters) - Austria said on Monday it would dispatch the armed forces to help impose additional controls on its eastern border, belatedly following Germany’s example as thousands of migrants streamed across its frontier from Hungary on foot.
The Austrian government initially said on Sunday it would not introduce new checks after Germany announced its own, which effectively suspended Europe’s two-decade old Schengen regime allowing border-free travel across the continent.
But, faced with people filing across its border at the fastest rate since Germany and Austria opened up to migrants more than a week ago, Vienna changed course.
“If Germany carries out border controls, Austria must put strengthened border controls in place,” Vice Chancellor Reinhold Mitterlehner told a joint news conference with Chancellor Werner Faymann. “We are doing that now.”
He and Faymann said the army would be deployed in a supporting role.
“The focus of the support is on humanitarian help,” Faymann said. “But it is also, and I would like to emphasise this, on supporting border controls where it is necessary.”
Hours after the morning news conference, however, as rain fell on the border with Hungary in the early evening, there was no sign of any additional controls being carried out.
A police spokesman said 12,500 migrants had entered Austria at the main crossing with Hungary since midnight, compared with 14,000 for all of Sunday, which was the fastest rate yet. But no instructions had been given to carry out extra checks, he said.
A spokesman for the Interior Ministry later said the new controls would be introduced progressively as of Tuesday.
At the border with Germany, after an overnight suspension, trains began running with delays because they were being stopped by the German authorities carrying out their new controls.
A backlog of people at German border checks meant rail service from Salzburg to the southern German city of Munich was interrupted, the Austrian rail operator OeBB said later.
By contrast, on Austria’s eastern flank, thousands of people pouring in from Hungary spilled onto a motorway running through the border, forcing the police to close it, a spokesman said.
The European Union has been struggling to cope with the unprecedented arrival of hundreds of thousands of migrants, many of them refugees fleeing war in the Middle East. Nearly all arrive at the bloc’s southern and eastern edges and head over land to seek asylum in richer states further north and west.
Austria has served as the main conduit for refugees heading to Germany from the EU’s land border in Hungary.
As migrants poured into Austria more quickly than they appeared to be entering Germany, the number of them on Austrian soil grew, raising the question of whether Austria could cope, having already cut its rail link to Hungary to slow the tide.
Interior Minister Johanna Mikl-Leitner told ORF radio in the morning that 18,000 were in the country, and the director general for public security told the broadcaster only days earlier that Austria had accommodation for 10,0000 migrants.
“It has now been an hour since around 14 full buses left for western Austria but we currently don’t have any special trains available and here at the moment we cannot fill up any buses because we don’t know where we should go with the people,” a police spokesman said in the afternoon.
Police at the border said they were running out of emergency accommodation nearby, and had sent people to various parts of the country overnight. Temporary shelters have included tents near the border and the car parks of railway stations.
The uncertain situation left some migrants in limbo.
“There is enough food and water but we just want to leave,” said a man who identified himself as Abdullah from Syria.
The Schengen system, established in 1995, removes all border checks between 26 European states, but the rules still bar undocumented migrants from travelling. Countries are permitted to reimpose border checks temporarily in emergencies.
Illegal travel across internal Schengen borders by migrants has become a major issue in recent weeks, especially after Berlin suspended normal EU asylum policy to announce it would take Syrian refugees who arrive elsewhere in the European Union.
The precise nature of the checks being carried out by Germany was, however, unclear.
“We are not aware of a single case until now in which Germany has sent someone back,” Faymann, the Austrian chancellor, told reporters.
Additional reporting by Angelika Gruber, Alexandra Schwarz-Goerlich and Shadia Nasralla in Vienna and Anna McIntosh in Nickelsdorf, Austria; editing by Anna Willard