Germany's migrant flows endure, diverted to idyllic Bavaria

FREILASSING, Germany - Rolling hills give way to fog-shrouded Alpine peaks at the latest German migrant flashpoint, with war-scarred refugees unbowed by Berlin's shock decision to impose border checks.

Around 2,000 migrants have crossed into the southern state of Bavaria since Germany announced its policy U-turn Sunday, federal police said Tuesday, albeit at a slower pace than in recent weeks.

About 43 suspected people smugglers were detained, mostly on the motorway from Austria, on Monday alone.

The new measures are intended to provide relief to the Bavarian state capital Munich in particular, where around 63,000 migrants have come by rail to the main station since August 31, including 20,000 over each of the last two weekends.

Now police stationed in small border towns such as picture-postcard Freilassing, with its neat geranium-adorned farmhouses and pretty church steeples, are picking up refugees before they even reach the urban centres.

"Until now everyone was being shuttled to Munich," federal police spokesman Rainer Scharf said.

"Now we are carrying out a kind of pre-registration, taking people's names and so forth. Then they are being put on buses and can be distributed throughout Germany."

Chancellor Angela Merkel's spokesman insisted Monday that the country was not slamming its doors to refugees but argued the new measures were needed to restore order to the asylum process.

The railway station in Freilassing has now seen rail services from Austria resume after a brief interruption early Monday but confusion for travellers reigned and road traffic remained snarled.

Police officers were tasked with removing migrants from trains and taking their personal details, giving each person a green wristband to mark them as "registered" before social workers and volunteers provided many with food and drinks and a bunk for the night.

'Seen terrible things'

The scene was bustling but not fraught, as the mainly Syrian newcomers recounted harrowing journeys via Turkey, Greece, the Balkans, Hungary and Austria before arriving in Europe's top economy.

Mohammed, a 40-year-old mechanic from Damascus, looked exhausted as he rubbed his hazel eyes and queued for a refugee bus.

"In Hungary they forced us into camps, took fingerprints -- we had to escape," he said.

He contrasted that treatment with firm but friendly German police keeping migrants separate from other travellers with a thin strip of red-and-white tape: "Very nice," he said, and fellow refugees nodded.

Syrian national Hamad Ali, 27, said he made the trek largely on foot in a 22-day dash with his wife Nour and two of his brothers.

Ali, a trained attorney, said they learned of Berlin's new border policy by word of mouth on Sunday and spent the night in a nearby forest for fear they might be turned back.

But when he saw that Syrians were still being taken in, he and his family proceeded to Freilassing station where they were given papers to continue to a registration centre farther north.

"Everything is OK here and safe and Germany has good education," he said in halting English, smiling. When asked what he wanted to study, he replied, "international law".

Ali ordered a kebab to eat on the train and exchanged a few pleasantries in Arabic with Nazar Haji, a 29-year-old Iraqi who fled for Germany in 2010 and now works at the railway snack shop.

Haji, a Yazidi, said he often stops to talk to the migrants passing through Freilassing station and tries to offer a bit of encouragement.

"They have such sad stories, even worse than my own," he said in German, recalling spending three days and three nights in a lorry to reach Bavaria five years ago. "They have seen terrible things."

A police officer who asked not to be named admitted in a lilting Bavarian accent that the sudden move to order passport checks in the visa-free Schengen zone had wrong-footed everyone, including the local authorities.

"We're used to guarding football matches and political demonstrations -- nothing like this," he said surveying the crowd of about 300 Arab men, women and children as surveillance aircraft circled overhead.

"But of course it's out of our hands -- the politicians just need to make up their minds and let us get on with it."