The city of Vienna is famous for its elegance: its classical music, dressage horses, waltzing balls and coffee houses. In the past few weeks however, the city known to many purely as an ideal European city break destination has seen well over 50 000 refugees pass through its train stations. Once the regal heart of an empire encompassing Hungary and the Balkans, Vienna is now an important junction on the migrant route, connecting these countries with Germany, the ultimate destination for most of the refugees. It is also the first place along the route that many receive assistance: a massive civilian effort has been operating unhindered by the police, providing medical attention, food, clothing, toiletries and temporary accommodation. Volunteers tweet volleys of appeals for specific items and plead for interpreters - in a country where the largest immigrant communities speak Turkish and Serbo-Croat, Arabic and Farsi speakers are hard to come by. It is not unusual for refugees who speak English to volunteer as interpreters themselves after they've had a meal and a nap.
Since Germany introduced border controls over a week ago, the European migrant route has ground to a halt and the race has been on to find temporary accommodation to house the refugees currently stranded in Austria until they can continue their journeys, which were estimated to number anywhere between 20 000 and 40 000 before an additional estimated 20 000 entered Austria last weekend alone. While many hasten to Salzburg where they can wait to cross the border into Germany, others remain in Vienna, which has expanded its capacity to provide emergency sleeping arrangements for 8000 refugees, with ongoing discussions to make use of empty buildings across the city. 5000 of these places were filled on Saturday night and the rest will fill as the refugees who arrived at the Austrian border over the weekend make it to Vienna.
The city's challenge is to manage the high numbers until they dwindle as winter seas prevent further boat crossings over the Mediterranean in October and the majority move on to Germany. While the volunteer effort has been much lauded, it has also stepped into an empty space left by the state. Frustrations that the government has left the burden to volunteers, as well as outrage over conditions at the state-run refugee centre in Traiskirchen during the summer don't give rise to much hope that the state will be able to successfully manage the crisis. The country's response rests on its inhabitants and municipal authorities, as well as their reflexes in responding to continuous changes in border controls - something small groups of volunteers are already practicing as they use Facebook to organise convoys out to the refugee camp at Rözske on the Hungarian-Serbian border and turn their attention towards Croatia. The city will also need to manage internal political tensions as the city goes to the polls in October - an election which will pit the incumbent, Social Democrat Michael Häupl, against the leader of the right-wing populist Freedom Party, Heinz-Christian Strache, for the mayorship. Not everyone supports the rapid flow of refugees through Europe, preferring full border control, more asylum centres and a fixed limit on the number of successful asylum applications.
For the time being, refugees rest at Vienna's Westbahnhof train station, many unaware that they are gathering around a monument to the Kindertransport - the evacuation of Jewish children from the same train station to the UK prior to the outbreak of the Second World War and the darkest days of the Holocaust. The monument is a little boy in a kippah sitting expressionless on a suitcase. An almost identical monument sits in Liverpool Street Station in London, the same little boy, but at the end of his journey. In the night last week, someone had put a refugee blanket around the monument at Westbahnhof - a wish for the refugees, including countless children, to find safety and sanctuary in Europe. Before it is even possible to discuss the politics of asylum, it is unavoidable that Europe is facing one of the largest humanitarian crises of current times - a challenge that its citizens will be compelled to meet as much, or even more than its governments.