In the summer of 2015, Hungary filled the headlines of all major European newspapers with its treatment of thousands of passing migrants. Half a year later, I talk to Emma Polák, who is volunteering for Migration Aid, looking back and ahead at the situation of refugees in Hungary.
First of all, thank you very much for your time. To start with, I’d like to ask what your role was or is in supporting refugees in Hungary?
First I volunteered with Migszol Szeged, which is a grassroots group providing food and legal aid to refugees. Since there are no refugees in Hungary any more, they focus mainly on public discourse about the migration issue. What happened in the summer was that they caught the refugees at the border, took them to the registration centre in Szeged or Roszke and then they were just left alone in the streets, in the middle of the night usually.
That was the main reason why the Hungarian civil movement started, because the people were wandering around the streets, without food, without water, without information on what to do… So for two weeks I was helping Migszol Szeged , both on site and online. The facebook page of course blew up in some days, there were too many people commenting and administering it became a 24-hour job.
After a while I started working with Migration Aid in Budapest. Migration Aid organised spontaneously among people who just met at the train station. Until the end of october, it had no legal standing, it was “black labour”, so to say. For that reason, we couldn’t accept money, only handled donations in kind. That is because it is very difficult to register, as charities in Hungary. So we decided to register as a charity in Bristol, UK, because it proved easier for us. Migration Aid had about 500 volunteers working for it, who altogether did more than 70 000 hours of work in the warehouses, the medical stations and around the train stations. We spent the summer supporting about 110 000 asylum seekers passing Budapest, an average of 1600 a day! In Hungary, the whole charity or volunteering thing is not a fashion. It is absolutely unknown to have such a big movement as this. This is really historic.
What was Migration Aid doing in Budapest over the summer?
There are three different refugee centres to which people were assigned, and most people had to go by train and change trains in Budapest or Cegled to get there. If someone took more than 48 hours to reach the assigned camp, they could be expelled from Hungary.
So Migration Aid provided information – we printed 9 000 sheets in seven different languages -, helped the refugees find their way, provided food an water for their journey and lobbied the ticket controllers to stop forcing people off the train for no obvious reason. Then, people started to come back from the refugee camps – the living conditions, medical support etc. were really not acceptable in the camps, they were simply full, with people sleeping outside, without shelter. The authorities refused to open up a new refugee camp. This was crazy, cruel. I met two doctors who came back from the camp, crying about what they had seen. And did you see any media reports about the camps?
Exactly, because no journalists were not allowed in. So in August, those refugees that could not leave with their smuggler started to come more and more around the Keleti train station in Budapest and a park close to it – we called it the Afghan park. It started to become such a mess. The Hungarian railway company sold thousands of tickets to the refugees, to Vienna or Munich for up to 200 Euro each. However, they refused to provide the information that even within Schengen, a person without a visa can not cross the border. As a result, the refugees were forced off the train before the border, sometimes were arrested, but most came back to Budapest. That is how more than 6 000 people ended up stuck around the Budapest train stations.
For a month, organisations like us were not even allowed to intervene, we were giving out food more or less secretly. Also, by now it is a crime to host a refugee. Even during the months before that became a law, it was very tricky. But these people were sleeping in the streets! Luckily, we had a lot of people donating things, which is remarkable as the average salary in Hungary is so low. Once, a lady came to me with a handful of walnuts, saying that was all she could spare from her storage but she really wanted to help. There were so many uplifting moments… once, a woman gave birth on the steps of the railway station. The ambulance we had called didn’t come, but there was a volunteer doctor who helped her. Tensions started to become really high, of course people were demonstrating. So that is when Merkel opened Germany’s borders, to stop the madness at Keleti.
What is the situation like in Hungary at the moment?
Hungary has three possible points of entry, two of which, towards Serbia and Croatia, are now sealed off with a fence. Since they shut these pathways down, between 5 and 60 people are arrested every day trying to cross there, which is a fraction of the numbers of this summer. The third one, towards Romania, is not closed, but somehow, people don’t come through there. I guess because the police in Bulgaria is so cruel and the fence at the Turkish-Bulgarian border does keep people away, people rather choose the risky boat trip across the Mediterranean than go via Romania and Bulgaria. As Hungary and other countries, such as Germany, have declared Serbia a Save Third Country, people are – theoretically – deported there immediately. The problem is that Serbia does not take these people back, so now we have hundreds of people in jail, awaiting deportation. Even families are separated, men go to jail and women and children to closed refugee camps. The Hungarian Helsinki Committee tries to help them, but is sometimes not allowed access by the authorities. So at the moment, there are basically no refugees in Hungary, only those waiting to be sent back to Serbia. There is now a safer route via Croatia. I don’t even know why people are still trying to get across the fenced border with Serbia, I suppose smugglers are lying or giving wrong information. The good thing about Austria and Germany opening their borders was that people do no longer have to risk their lives to get there and claim asylum. The exception, of course, is everyone who is not Syrian, Iraqi, or Afghan – these people are stuck in Athens. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think everyone should come to Europe, but if someone is there and doesn’t have anything, we have to take care of him.
This summer really showed how Europe is divided over the migration question. If Hungary had not been so cruel, the whole “refugees welcome” movement would not have grown like that. This is a historical moment for Hungary – both Migration Aid and Segitsünk együtt a menekülteknek (“Let’s help the refugees together”) and some other groups were organisations that sprung up during the summer crisis. All of these people that had been involved with social issues before are now working together. So many volunteers founded their own support groups and are now helping people in their communities – you know we have several millions of poor people in Hungary, about a third of the population. Segitsünk együtt a menekülteknek provided hot meals for refugees during the summer and is continuing to cook for homeless people as before the summer, for example, and they have a group stationed in Athens. Migration Aid is currently working on a project to operate a small lifeboat on the Mediterranean. We want to save these people who, at the Turkish/Greek border, have their boat engine damaged by border forces on the water. Additionally, we are trying to help the people in deportation jail. This has given hope to all the people still believing in humanity, all those who want to see a different Hungary. However, the volunteers and organisation are threatened, even I get life threats. They come from ordinary people, not even right-wing people, which is really sad. I have lost several friends over the refugee question, one of them has even called me a traitor. And these are people that usually hate the government. This is an example of how you can turn a country totally crazy. Another paradox: one third of the population allegedly wants to emigrate. Over the last couple of years, more than 500 000 educated young people left the country already. When David Cameron visited Hungary recently, his Hungarian colleague Victor Orbán asked that the word “migrant” not be used for Hungarians abroad – he seems to want to reserve this term for asylum seekers from outside Europe.
This migration issue has brought Europe to the question of how it will operate in the future. I think the communication within Europe is just totally wrong. Europe has to stop stigmatising asylum seekers. Everyone I talk to who was not involved with us over the summer is surprised, asks me whether I am not afraid of “these people”. I tell them no and when I explain more about the situation, a lot of people are convinced and want to help, too. It is quite easy to dismiss popular fears. On the other hand, I am wondering why we are not talking about the weapons being sold by European countries to countries in the Middle East. Even we, the humanitarian organisations, don’t talk about the real issues of this migration crisis, the reasons why people are fleeing. We cannot solve global issues such as hunger or violent conflict from here. We are only scratching the surface.