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Over the past three days, more than 23,000 refugees and migrants raced to arrive in Nickelsdorf, Austria, from Hungary.DAVID W CERNY/Reuters

On their odyssey through Europe over the past month, Shiyar Omar and his sister, Lora, developed a little ritual. Each time they crossed a border, they would turn to one another and sing the chorus of a song now popular on YouTube in Syria. "Germany, Germany," the song goes. "We are coming."

The siblings sang it after crossing from Turkey to Greece in a motorboat with 25 women and children stuffed into the small compartment under the bow, then again in Macedonia, Serbia, Croatia, Hungary and Austria, where they arrived Sunday afternoon.

"We crossed so many borders it feels like half the world," said Mr. Omar, 21, as he sat with his parents and 16-year-old sister on a frigid, windswept expanse of concrete just inside Austria. "Now there's only one left."

The Omar family were just four of the more than 23,000 refugees and migrants who raced to arrive in Nickelsdorf, Austria, from Hungary over the past three days. In many ways, they were the lucky ones: They had managed to sidestep partial blockages of Hungary's frontiers, navigate conflicting signals from neighbouring Croatia and avoid border controls by Slovenia.

Their route was also a quirk of timing. Whereas last week Hungary repulsed angry refugees and migrants with water cannons and tear gas, throughout the weekend it quietly accepted thousands of others, transporting them across its territory and depositing them at Austria's door.

More than ever before, the past week's wave of refugees and migrants showed Europe's utter disarray in tackling the crisis. The rules that previously governed the handling of asylum seekers have disappeared and there is no agreement on how to share responsibility for the arrivals. The response to shifting flows of people is haphazard. For now, it consists mainly of channelling them in an orderly way as they get closer to Germany and hoping the colder weather reduces the number embarking on the journey.

European leaders will try to improve that track record at a summit on the crisis in Brussels on Wednesday, but the signs are not encouraging. Tensions are on the rise across the region over the handling of the inflows of people: Hungary has condemned Croatia, Romania has disparaged Hungary and the Czech Republic has lashed out at Germany.

On Monday, Germany's Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière floated a more dramatic change of approach: Establish a generous quota for refugees from war-torn regions on the condition that they apply from the region where they are. Meanwhile, those crossing to Europe without permission would not be able to stay, but instead get resettled in another safe place, he said. The result would be a "European approach befitting European asylum standards" that also thwarts smugglers.

Indeed, the main beneficiaries of Europe's lack of coherent response appear to be those who profit from the movement of people. The Omar family, Syrian Kurds who lived in the city of Qamishli, paid €3,000 ($4,447) a person for the crossing from Turkey to Greece, which they negotiated down from the original asking price. They've heard that for €7,000 a person, smugglers will transport someone all the way to Germany by land – and that the smuggling rings have outposts in Sweden and elsewhere so that family members in Europe can pay for their relatives' passage.

The Omars describe their life as somewhat safe – by Syrian standards, that is. Several months ago, an explosion several blocks away knocked out all the glass in their house. They never left home after 8 p.m. Shiyar Omar used to study economics in the nearby city of Hasakeh, but then he was kidnapped there for several hours by Islamic State fighters. In March, more than 45 people celebrating the Kurdish New Year in Hasakeh were killed in a double bombing.

"We're used to hearing about all that – battles, explosions, deaths," said Lora Omar, a teenager with long wavy hair who loves to draw and aspires to become a doctor. Her two aunts are already in Germany. "They say it's like heaven," Ms. Omar said. "They gave them all they need, and it's safe there."

Late Sunday night, the Omars spent hours waiting on the asphalt as Austrian soldiers wearing surgical masks looked on. The family believed they were waiting to board a bus to Vienna's Westbahnhof railway station, about half an hour way. But instead they were shunted on to a commuter train that police on the platform announced was headed for Germany. That, too, however, turned out to be misinformation: In the wee hours of Monday morning, the train stopped instead in the Austrian city of Linz. All the passengers were offloaded to spend a near-sleepless night in a loading dock converted into an emergency shelter.

Almost none of the refugees were formally registered in Austria, as European Union regulations normally require. Early Monday morning, they were taken back to the railway station via a special underground passage and loaded onto a train heading to the Southern German city of Passau, which sits on the Danube River. Austrian and German authorities are exchanging information about the timing and numbers of arrivals.

As blinding sunlight filtered into the rail car, Lora and Shiyar's father, Khaled, a telecommunications engineer, recalled the last time he was in Germany: It was 1992, when he did a training course at Siemens in Munich. He remembered the river, the museums, the beer. The notion that he would return to the country 23 years later, this time as a refugee, was still hard to fathom.

Across the aisle, a young Syrian man named Rajab, who had been travelling with the Omars since Greece, interrupted with some distressing information. He had just spoken to his brother Ali, who was already in Berlin. Ali told him over the phone that Germany was putting refugees onto trains and promptly sending them to France, Spain and Italy – something they must avoid at all costs, or risk being stuck in another country, far from relatives in Germany.

It couldn't be true, could it? A heated discussion broke out. The rumour fit some of the patterns of recent days – of treating the refugees as a kind of hot potato, shunted from one place to another. Lora and Shiyar's mother, Avin, distraught from the tension and yet another night of barely any sleep, began to cry. No one noticed the bucolic landscape outside the window – green fields, whitewashed houses with red-tile roofs – or the fact that Germany was drawing nearer.

Finally, the train crossed the Danube, entering Germany and Passau. The family exited quietly, with some trepidation. There was a white tent near the platform with welcome signs in German and Arabic. Volunteers handed out sandwiches, apples, chocolate, water, coffee and tea. Khaled Omar lit a cigarette and turned toward Rajab. "Your brother in Berlin is a liar," he said. Everyone laughed.

Later in the day, they would be bussed to an initial registration centre 10 minutes away. A former truck factory, it now consists of three main halls for processing arrivals. Federal police officers first take down names and nationalities and try to identify unaccompanied minors, then frisk the new arrivals. (They haven't found any weapons, a police officer there said, but they often find hidden passports.)

On Tuesday afternoon, 800 people were in the cavernous second hall, resting on cots or milling around, as they waited to learn where they would be sent next. Outside, at least 10 buses were getting ready to distribute people to refugee shelters in every corner of Germany; the next to leave was headed for North Rhine-Westphalia, a state more than 600 kilometres away from Passau.

Heinrich Onstein, a spokesman for the German federal police, said 5,000 people had arrived in Passau on Sunday. "It's a historic moment," he said, surveying the scene at the registration centre. It's also, he added, a massive logistical challenge.

Meanwhile, back at the train station, the Omars were still exulting in the sheer relief of arrival. It didn't matter that they were once again awaiting buses that never seemed to come. "I was feeling very tired, but now that's all gone and I'm great," said Shiyar, his eyes bright. "I love waiting in German lines."

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