We came back from Budapest and Röszke. We still don’t have the answer whether we should accept refugees or not. This was not what we aimed for anyway. I wanted to understand and learn the scale of this phenomenon. Instead, I go back with a conviction that if refugees suddenly appeared in large numbers at any train station in Poland, we would help them with all our hearts and understanding. Something has broken in Budapest – tells us Tamas*, an activist organizing illegal shelters. I haven’t seen such social engagement for a very long time. All because refugees suddenly became visible. We noticed them in the streets and stood face to face with them – not with the propaganda. Apart from help here and now, scenes that touch our hearts and the public debate, the media narrative, there are certain facts which I’d like to present in this text.
My eyes have been fixed on the images from Keleti for a few days now. With disbelief. It’s an election year in Poland and we have gone through quite a few public debates on Facebook but once the refugee subject entered the “everyone has to have an opinion” phase, I discovered an unpleasant, unknown side of many of my friends. Not because we have different opinions – it’s about the way we express them. Sometimes it’s absolutely unforgivable. I was looking at images that reached me through traditional and social media and suddenly something broke in me. I didn’t want to have an opinion; I wanted to see it with my own eyes and try to report it to you. It’s a difficult subject and I felt it would be good to take it up together with another person, so I was happy to hear Konrad from haloziemia.pl unhesitatingly say: let’s go!
It was Friday, the 4th of September, when we started preparing our trip to Budapest and to the transit camp in Röszke. Three days later, we met in a night bus.
Many times, have I travelled to the Keleti station. Always by train. I love waking up there around 7 am when the train from Poland rolls in to the platform of this enormous station. After the night spent on a narrow couchette – always giving me so much pleasure – I used to have breakfast at the nearby market. A nice elderly lady always had fresh fruit and sometimes sandwiches. This market is not there anymore – merchants have moved to a new building. Instead, the underground filled with tents and, at times, masses of refugees trying to get on one of the trains leaving from this Eastern station for Germany and Austria.
Getting off the bus I knew that I wanted not only to learn personally who these people getting through to Europe for better life are but also to look for answers to questions that had been agonizing me. And to try to – easy to say – separate myself from emotions and look for facts which could replace fragmented information available through the local media reports.
– So, what are the terms?, I ask.
– It depends on who uses them, answers Anika, a worker in the Hungarian Helsinki Committee (HHC) and we start a longer conversation on the refugee terminology.
The media and institutions have different expressions defining people who cross the border. Let us simplify it by introducing four such definitions:
- “asylum-seeker” – a person who seeks asylum,
- refugee – a person forced to leave his or her country,
- migrant – a person who leaves the country of his or her own accord,
- “illegal border crosser” – a term referring to refugees used by Hungarian media
Illegal means criminal but everyone may approach the border and ask for asylum. There is nothing wrong with it. It’s just one of the nuances used by the media to influence Hungarian public opinion – compatible with the official governmental communication.
Tamas is excited about the Skype talk. He’s wearing a sweaty T-shirt. He finishes his espresso and briskly asks:
- What do you want to know?
- Everything but chronologically, we reply.
- I gather information, I talk to people, I go around Budapest. I know about everything that happens here.
- We know that cause everyone we talk to point us to you.
- I try to know possibly everything, he replies and starts to talk.
One hour later we roam one of Budapest districts to get to an illegal refugee camp. Tamas knows about 6 such places. Organized by citizens, they offer refugees a place to sleep and a shower. Volunteers approach them in the streets and invite them to these places. There are currently 10 people in our camp. There will be more at night – at 6 pm a team will set off to bring here a family of 12. We want to know if we could join them since we go south anyway – to the camp in Röszke.
At the end of the conversation, Tamas notices a visiting card with the Helsinki Committee logo – I can see you visited „Helsinki”. Yes.
It’s there we found out that in the coming weeks over 40,000 people would cross or attempt to cross the Serbian-Hungarian border. Tracking this data further, I wish to see what this number of people mean against the entire phenomenon.
I search through statistics of the Office of Immigration and Nationality (IOM) which is the official agency of the Hungarian government occupied with migrants and refugees, among others. On their websites, I can find precise data from 2013 and 2014. This year’s data are missing. I write an official letter. I receive feedback on the same day.
Let us look at the data concerning applications of people seeking asylum and their numbers:
- in 2013 – 18,900,
- in 2014 – 42,777,
- while in 2015 – by September 3 these are 150,611 people. Add to that the estimated number to appear in the coming weeks: 40,000. And we still have 3,5 months by the end of the year.
In other words, within the coming two or three weeks, there will be as many people at the Hungarian border as in the entire 2014. At the same time, according to HHC, over 90% of them would leave the country in the following two weeks. I keep wondering why the Hungarian government initiates such extremely anti-migrant activities.
Let’s look at two maps: the first one is prepared by UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees), the second one – by FRONTEX, the EU institution dealing with its borders (which, by the way, has its office in Warsaw).
On the map above we can see a precisely drawn route of refugee movements from Turkey into Europe. We see the main two cities they reach: Athens and Kavala. From there, they cross the border to Macedonia and further to Serbia which neighbours with Hungary. From Greece, they also take the sea route to Italy.
This map, on the other hand, shows a wider perspective of all routes heading to the European Union countries. Let us focus on the Western Balkan route as it’s the one leading to Hungary. We can, however, see the wider perspective and I encourage those who wish to understand the current refugee situation to get acquainted with the FRONTEX data. Let’s also not forget about the Eastern Mediterranean route – from Turkey to Greece. According to these data, it was taken by 130,000 people from January to July, while the Balkan one – by 92,000 people. These are currently the most popular routes of getting to the EU. To compare, the Eastern route – through Slovakia – is chosen by 717 people.
Fear is powerful
In July, the Hungarian government started to build a fence to stop refugees, erecting it along the entire 175-kilometre Serbian border. The cost of this initiative: EUR 98 million. Earlier, FIDES – Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s party – already used migrants for political purposes. It should be underlined that their main political opponent is JOBBIK, a party characterized by even more ultra-right-wing views than Orbán himself.
Getting ready to implement strict legal changes, even before announcing the decision about erecting the fence, the Hungarian government begins a campaign theoretically directed to “migrants”. Three posters are put on billboards:
I wrote “theoretically” because the posters are written in Hungarian and most people who come to the border don’t know this language. The commanding tone and nationalist feeling of the posters would rather impact the Hungarian public opinion. The whole campaign costs EUR 4.5 million and shows migration as the most severe political problem in Hungary at the moment. This is followed by critical legal changes introduced on August 1; other consequences will be made public on September 15 and October 1, 2015.
New regulations significantly changed the way refugees and migrants can enter Hungary:
- Serbia is now considered safe which means that asylum-seekers may undisputedly be sent to any of the “safe countries” on the list,
- the procedure of analyzing applications has been considerably speeded up,
- a new requirement of contact with one’s country of origin has been added,
- the fence on the border will be finished by September 15 which means that, in fact, the border will be closed,
- on October 1, special “transit camps” will be set up which will make it possible to keep refugees on the border to have their applications analyzed there.
In other words, refugees will not appear at the Keleti station anymore.
Until now, the Hungarian authorities have not offered any help to people crossing the border. In the Röszke camp, NGO volunteers and activists distribute water, food and clothes. Caritas provides medical support. There are people from Czech Republic, Slovakia and Austria. There is police but they only watch buses to keep order when people get on them.
Activists and HHC have no idea if they are allowed to provide help once a new camp is set up. The authorities remain silent in this subject. All help at the Keleti station is also organized by Hungarian citizens. As Tamas said, many people who had been cut off from the refugee problem, suddenly woke up when thousands of them appeared in the very heart of the capital. Another Tamas coordinates aid at the station. Nearby, in the underground hall leading to the metro station, a special point has been arranged: (this is an interactive map – move the cursor to red points).
The camp on the Serbian-Hungarian border looks like this:
Who are they?
We could take any photo that would suit the following narration: “only women”, “a lot of children”, “only young men” or “mainly families”. We saw journalists who imposed various shots on refugees. We all know them: a close-up of a sad face, an image showing a group of exhausted people or a desperate face of a father with a child in his arms. Or a mother. I’ve read that refugees are ungrateful and only want to reach Germany. I decide, hence, to combine two pictures – these inscriptions are located around 10 metres from each other. In this text I follow facts, not emotions, so I won’t tell you which of them was more popular among photographers.
Enquired about data concerning sex and age of asylum-seekers, IOM remains silent. Earlier, they answered immediately. I really believe that I will receive the desired data – but for now, I use the UNHCR data concerning all refugees who first came to Greece (most of whom then arrived in Hungary): 21% are children, 13% are women and 66% – men. 70% out of 250,000 (in general) are Syrian citizens, while 19% are from Afghanistan. In terms of Hungarian data, we can see that:
- in 2013 and 2014, the dominant nation were Kosovo inhabitants: 32% in 2013 and 50% in 2014 in terms of submitted applications (6,212 and 211,453, respectively),
- then Afghans: 2,328 applications in 2013 (12,32%) and 8,796 applications in 2014 (20, 56%),
- finally, Syrians: 977 applications in 2013 (5,17%) and 6,857 – in 2014 (16,03%).
In 2015 (the first quarter):
- Afghans – 17,906 (26,81%),
- Syrians – 10,975 (16,43%),
- inhabitants of Kosovo – 23,920 (35,81%),
- then people from Pakistan and Iraq (4,9% and 4,85%).
It should be emphasized here that, contrary to Syria, Kosovo is not experiencing a war or a humanitarian crisis at the moment. Therefore, the most adequate term seems to be “asylum-seekers” rather than refugees.
The greatest problem – as seen by the Hungarian government – resulting from the enormous number of people crossing the border is their “noticeability”. Because everything changes when we stand face to face with people and not with statistics. It’s easy to intimidate people with numbers and with some strangers they don’t know. Hungarians who help refugees are also invisible. They create shelters and bring to them people from the streets. They carry huge bags with unneeded clothes and leave them at the Keleti station on their way to work. Beginning with September 15, Hungarians will still be able to secure shelters for refugees but refugees will be staying in them illegally. This is why the location of these places is kept secret.
The fact that the problem will be removed and blocked from view of common people but also the media doesn’t mean it will evaporate. It will be even harder to give support. Looking at other data: autumn is coming, then winter, temperature falls. At night, it’s already below 10˚C – the situation may only be more dramatic.
It’s hard to argue with data on paper – it’s possible to draw various conclusions on their basis. What is important is to have complete information. We should also add one more factor to it – the human factor. And make invisible people visible.
It’s really hard for me to write this text, having seen all this. Especially in the border camp. Though, I didn’t want to share my emotions but to show the context. Emotions – tomorrow night or on Tuesday morning. I’m still digesting all this.
Eye-witness reports transmitted live at Periscope and Snapchat may be found on our YouTube channel. You can see there what we have seen. Konrad’s post will be published on Monday morning.
- Website of the Office of Immigration and Nationality
- statistics from 2013 and 2014
- full statistics from June 30, 2015
- Asylum applications registered by OIN until 3rd of September: 150.611 (official correspondence with the Office)
- Website of the Hungarian Helsinki Committee
Facebook page of Hungarian Caritas
UNHCR data – United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees
- FRONTEX data – European Agency for the Management of Operational Cooperation at the External Borders of the Member States of the European Union
*Tamas – imię zmienione