By Krisztina Than and Francois Murphy
VAMOSSZABADI, Hungary/NICKELSDORF, Austria, Sept 6 – On a warm morning in late August, two dozen migrants carrying stuffed plastic bags and backpacks boarded a bus outside a refugee centre in Vamosszabadi, a village in northwest Hungary.
Escorted by police on what was meant to be a short shopping trip organised by the Hungarian immigration office, the men, women and children should have spent a few hours shopping in the nearby city of Gyor before returning to their makeshift homes.
Half of the group, however, slipped away to a park where they were met by a man. He led them through an underpass to the railway station and they jumped on a train headed for the Austrian capital, Vienna. Their whereabouts now is unclear.
One year after the border between Hungary and Austria became a focal point of a mass influx of refugees to Europe, many of them heading for Germany, officials in both countries say the situation is largely under control.
But, as the events witnessed by Reuters show, migrants continue to make their way into Hungary and across the border into Austria from areas of the Middle East, Afghanistan and Africa hit by conflict and poverty.
The situation has left many Hungarians and Austrians on edge and could shape the outcome of two votes on Oct. 2, when Austria elects a president and Hungary decides whether to accept mandatory European Union quotas for resettling migrants.
“Clearly this is a polarising issue that has stoked a lot of fears,” said Austrian Defence Minister Hans Peter Doskozil.
Like many people in Austria, a country of 8.5 million that has taken in about 110,000 asylum seekers since last summer, he sees a risk that the migrant crisis could worsen again.
Although there is little evidence of it happening, he believes Austria could become the destination for migrants making their way from Africa through Italy.
“That must be stopped,” Doskozil said.
Such concerns could work in favour of far-right candidate Norbert Hofer in Austria’s election runoff. The first ballot, narrowly won by former Greens party leader Alexander Van der Bellen, was annulled because of technical irregularities.
Similar fears could also help Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban persuade voters to reject the EU quota system following an aggressive government campaign in which billboards have been erected linking migrants to assaults and terrorism.
Election of a far-right president in Austria and rejection of the quota plan in Hungary would be likely to damage the unity of the EU, which is already struggling to articulate a common vision after Britain’s vote on June 23 to leave the bloc.
Few communities have felt the impact of the migrants influx more than Nickelsdorf, a town of 1,800 in the eastern border region of Burgenland surrounded by sunflower and corn fields.
It was near Nickelsdorf that the corpses of 71 refugees were found in an abandoned truck, shortly before Austria and Germany threw open their borders to migrants on Sept. 4 last year.
Burgenland is a traditional stronghold of Chancellor Christian Kern’s Social Democrats. But two thirds of voters there backed the eurosceptic Freedom Party’s (FPO) Hofer in the presidential run-off in May that was annulled.
“The Freedom Party promotes a very restrictive immigration policy and the people who live here in Nickelsdorf, who were confronted with this wave of 300,000 people a year ago, do not want it to happen again,” Gerhard Zapfl, Nickelsdorf’s SPO mayor, told Reuters. “The pressure valve is the election.”
Carmen Imnitzer, a 46-year-old housewife who helped distribute food and clothes to migrants, says she would never vote for the Freedom Party. But she describes the influx as a “big shock” for the town.
“A lot of people are scared. They view everything that is foreign, everything they don’t understand, as scary,” she said.
Debate has been clouded by an EU deal with Turkey granting Turks visa-free travel to the bloc, she added.
Kern has accused the FPO of fanning fears about minorities and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker has said politicians are using the refugee crisis for political gain.
IMAGE “TARNISHED” BY CAMP
Many migrants also arrived last year in Vamosszabadi, 65 km (40 miles) from Nickelsdorf, on the other side of the border.
A refugee camp in the village designed for about 200 people housed nearly 800 migrants at one point in 2015, and many more were camping outside. Hungarian officials say many migrants disappear within days and the authorities lose track of them.
Livia Vajda, the mayor of Vamosszabadi, said the camp had tarnished Vamosszabadi’s image and should be closed.
“This is an open reception centre, people can move freely in and out, they can do anything they want and we live here next to them and we don’t know who they are,” she said.
Orban opposes the EU quota plan and hopes the Oct. 2 referendum will strengthen his hand in dealings on the migrant issue with the EU and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
The U.N. refugee agency has condemned Hungary’s refugee practices but criticism of the referendum and Orban’s stance on refugees has largely been limited in Hungary to small opposition and rights groups.
Merkel and then-Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann suspended EU migration rules last year to allow in thousands of refugees who reached those countries via Hungary.
Faymann quit in May after losing his party’s support, partly because of his handling of the crisis. Merkel has also faced problems and her Christian Democrats lost a regional election on Sunday to an anti-immigrant party.