Orsolya Salat ,September 16, 2015
You saw the pictures of active police mistreatment and of sheer and simple official abandonment. Hopefully, by now you also saw the pictures of wide-spread volunteer help.
There is an immense amount of information, analysis and evaluation over the refugee situation in Hungary in the media in recent days (in fact, it should have been weeks or months). Much of the information is correct, but some of it is certainly missing, misleading or false.
In any case, this post wishes to give you an (my) insider’s perspective, necessarily subjective, and emphasizing elements which might not be already known to you. This blog has been in the writing for more than ten days by now, because things were changing so fast that it could never be finished. Considering legal changes which entered into force on 15th of September, the situation might drastically change again.
As a starting point, recall, that the government sent out in March a national consultation letter ’on immigration and terrorism’ (none of which exists in Hungary) with directed questions, which is a must-read to everybody who wants to understand the situation.<a href="#_ftn1" name="_ftnref1"></a> Then, as people did not send back their replies because they could not care less, the government started the poster campaign. ’We don’t want any illegal immigrants’—a smiling blonde young woman says on billboards which are supposed to advertise that ’Hungarian reforms are working.’ Similar messages have been out on billboards for months by now.<a href="#_ftn2" name="_ftnref2"></a>
The government surely uses the crisis for political purposes, it already did before the crisis even broke out. This governmental stance is however not unusual in Hungary. The Hungarian government often does not want to solve crises: it does not want to fix the imminent and ongoing crisis of the poor, of the Roma, of homeless people, of the health care system, or of the school system, let alone such longer term issues as the pension system. Large numbers of Hungarians live in similar or worse conditions and have not more prospect than many of the people you saw on the pictures from the Keleti railway station (this of course does not mean that the vast majority of them are not fleeing places a thousand times worse than Hungary). Equally similarly, many of them want to leave the country, and many did already. A friend of mine, wondering where the unprecedented outpour of solidarity in this generally egoistic/apathetic society comes from, wrote: Hungarians rescue the people from their own homeland, because they know what place it is, and do not wish anyone the experience of having to live here. As if we all agreed: if we are already stuck here, then at least those who had gone through the horrors of war, deserve a better place than this ugly mess called Hungary. Anyone who can, should leave this place, the sooner, the better. Of course, this is a stance shared by the refugees, and this is a stance which does not fit well with the European asylum system – if it can be called a system at all. There is also a lot of misinformation among the refugees: many of them believe they cannot submit an asylum request in Hungary at all. Volunteers face a weird situation: they inform refugees about the possibility without really being convinced about the rightfulness of such an advice. Many refugees, on the other hand, do not want to give fingerprints, and do not know that this is required by EU law, and is not a fancy of the Hungarian authorities.
The minister for internal affairs just published that this year, Hungary has granted 88 refugee status, among them 12 for Syrians, and granted asylum protection to altogether 300 persons.<a href="#_ftn3" name="_ftnref3"></a> 155 484 asylum requests were registered, but more than 170 000 people crossed the border. 1914 requests were rejected, and in 64 696 cases asylum procedures were suspended or terminated, because the applicant disappeared.<a href="#_ftn4" name="_ftnref4"></a> Until the end of August, 973 persons were returned within the Dublin system, but ’communications about returns affect more than 26 805 persons’.<a href="#_ftn5" name="_ftnref5"></a> In a typical Newspeak, the minister adds: ’the number of prepared transfers is currently 923’.<a href="#_ftn6" name="_ftnref6"></a>
For the government, this is a security and public order crisis, just as the presence of homeless people in Budapest was a security and public order crisis. The official justification for the bus transfer on the 4th of September from the train station in Budapest to the Austrian border was that the government has to secure that public transport operates and the roads can be used. On the 3rd of September, the Prime Minister posted on Facebook a photo on which he’s reading the newest pro-government newspaper. On the evening of the emergency transfer, when every police officer in the country was on service, and many bus drivers were doing a 10 hours overwork, he was watching the Hungary-Romania football play (which also those ultras watched who attacked the refugees in the station beforehand, and burnt cars and destroyed property afterwards, as the police professionally closed down the station area from them). In the meantime, the Minister for Internal Affairs was on holiday. Four days later the prime minister went to the border, and found that the fence was not being built fast enough, for which he scolded the Defence Minister, who in turn resigned. Parliament adopted a law that makes the illegal crossing of border a crime, and that enables the government to declare a crisis arising out of mass migration (accompanied by vaguely defined powers), and it will adopt further legislation which allows for the use of the army.<a href="#_ftn7" name="_ftnref7"></a> The new Defense Minister apparently ordered the mobilisation of the army, which, under chaotic circumstances, managed to complete the fence for 14th of September.
Public media (completely under government control) call the refugees illegal immigrants, which is particularly absurd as they do not intend to immigrate to Hungary, only to cross it, do not show pictures of children (’protection of minors’!), report widely about the trash left behind by them, and how stinky it is at the station, and so on. The message cannot be any clearer: the Hungarian government does not want to solve this humanitarian crisis. Orbán really does not want any of these people. It is that simple. It is time that you, Western Europe, believe it.
The other problem is, of course, that the Hungarian government cannot possibly solve this crisis when it needs to be solved: right now. It cannot possibly host these many people and process these many claims right now. Maybe or even likely, it could have, had it wanted to, and had it prepared accordingly, but, as mentioned, it never wanted to. This question is in any case already moot. Europe, including Hungary, keeps essentially waiting until the images of the first dead children from Hungary start appearing. <em>That’s a sentence I wrote a few days ago. Today, 15th of September, the fence is ready, the laws which in principle preclude 99% of arriving people from getting refugee status, entered into force. Therefore, now we are waiting for the images of the first dead children from the border of Serbia. </em>
I am aware Hungarian police have a bad reputation nowadays. There were certainly cases of severe police abuse, and there are certainly more to come. It has a lot of systematic causes though. Currently, the police, who were anyway not exactly prepared for this kind of activities, are extremely overwhelmed. There are policemen who have been working for 46 hours. Police sometimes also do not get sufficient food, so now volunteers who have been providing the refugees with food and water for three months, started collecting and distributing to police.
In Röszke, a new reception center (a fenced camp with heatable tents) was opened, but it can only host around a 1000 persons. The rest, between a few hundred and a thousand, depending on the day, stayed outdoors at night, in inhuman conditions, in mud and cold. Human trafficking became so lucrative that cigarette smuggling basically stopped near the border with Serbia. Police obviously face a choice: either they try processing asylum claims and handling the mass of people, or go after the smugglers. Any of these tasks alone would overwhelm the police, let alone the two at once. <em>We’ll see if that goes better with the closing of the fence and with the ordering of around 4000 soldiers to the border.</em>
In any case, the overall police behaviour is by far not so negative as you might believe from the international media. Police did an extremely good job of protecting the refugees from extremist football fans at Keleti station. They also quite professionally supervised the boarding of West-bound trains, in close cooperation with volunteers on the spot. They provided protection to already registered asylum-seekers who attempted to reach the Austrian border on foot. There are no signs of widespread, systematic police brutality. There are refugees who thank police for the help they received. The Hungarian Helsinki Committee issued a statement in reaction to the outrageus scene leaked from Röszke (where police officers were feeding refugees like animals) begging the government not to shift all responsibility to the ordinary police officers working there, but to live up to government responsibility in preparing police for the tasks and creating human conditions where police can work.
Independent, i.e. non-state, and not pro-government, press follows closely what’s going on on the main spots. Some provide a live coverage, reporting every few minutes or hours for weeks by now. They generally provide a balanced view and try interpreting the situation. Some journalists get emotionally dragged with, and stay on the spot even after their working hours, and become volunteers.
This all, naturally, does not apply to extreme right wing media outlets and journalists, such as the camera-woman who kicked a father with a son.
The media often face problems in accessing the spots, especially the inside of refugee camps remains largely closed from journalists. The infamous Röszke ’feeding scene’ likely would not have happened, had the media been present.
Of course, there is a lot of fear mongering. Security experts – among them secret agents from before 1989 who now seems to share the views of Orbán – discuss on TV how likely it is that IS terrorists arrive with the refugees. Others intimate that the refugees might bring in all kinds of diseases, even though even the Hungarian health authority declared there was no danger.
Volunteers and activists are on the verge of their capacities. Hundreds of them have worked basically uncessantly since the beginning of July or so, thousands in the recent weeks. They do what the state should do, but their capacities are limited, and especially in terms of organization, they cannot solve the crisis either. Just to give you an impression of the sheer quantity of the cooperation let me give some examples.
On Facebook there are at least a dozen of different groups with at least a thousand (and some around ten thousand) members dealing with specific tasks in the civil refugee care system, because it is in fact a system already. There is a general work distributing group where you can fill in excel sheets whether you are available to make breakfast, cook lunch, or are able to give out tea at night, or where you can see at which point there is a need for manpower, eg that there is not enough persons at the place where donated clothes and shoes are organized. There is a recurring problem that people not familiar with excel delete some important information. There is also a recurring problem that people start sharing their views on government policy: for this purpose, a separate ’discussion group’ is instituted. Still, newcomers to the main work distributing group regularly bring up issues related to the refugees, but not directly related to work to be done.
This main page has an English-speaking counterpart where the expats of Budapest and other foreigners gather. There are separate Facebook groups for different locations – one for each railway station in Budapest, and one for the Szeged railway station, and several others for the main border towns. There is a specific group of volunteer doctors and medical personnel. Volunteers had prepared, translated and printed information leaflets in ten languages, and even prepared a smartphone application which provides updated information.
An extremely important group coordinates the buying of train tickets from Budapest till the Austrian border. People (also many Hungarians who live abroad) buy the tickets online, and send the codes per sms to a volunteer on the spot, who prints them out by the machines and hands them to the refugees. The exact numbers are not known, but it must be around several hundreds of tickets bought this way per day for sure. They planned designating a specific phone which one volunteer gives to the next when she leaves, because ticket buyers cannot follow to which number to send the codes at which point of time. Note that the Hungarian railways require refugees to pay for the trip till the border, even though sometimes it is not possible to check the tickets, because trains are so full, or the police supervise the whole process. There are reported cases when railways employees sold fake or overprized tickets to refugees.
There is a specific group organizing transport of food, water, clothes, blankets, tents, and medication from the Budapest storage centers (well, private basements and other locations handed over by private entities) to Röszke. This has become extremely important as with the opening of the Austrian border the center of the crisis has moved from Budapest to the Röszke camp and collection point, where people caught on the border are first transported. At one point, too many volunteers travelled to Röszke, brought too much donation, and in general created a chaos. The Szeged volunteer group who had been very active for months and managed to establish a good relationship with police on the spot, currently begs everyone <em>not</em> to undertake individual trips there and distribute food and clothes, because they are afraid that the anyway overwhelmed police will simply close down the area for volunteers. In one message, they were especially upset with some German anarchist groups who rejected every coordination effort.
During the hardest week in Budapest so far, when thousands of refugees were camping at the stations in the extreme heat, people offered refugees to take a bath at their place, wash their clothes, etc. A separate group organized overnight stays for those willing to host families for a night or two in their own home.
Thousands of people ordered online from Tesco and other supermarkets to deliver to specific addresses where volunteers organize, cook, and distribute. Thousands brought food, clothes, shoes, etc. in person. As these are all grass-roots, informal communities, they are not allowed by law to collect financial contributions, which creates a huge coordination problem. The exception is a pharmacy which has an adjoining foundation and is thus able to receive donations and spend them on medication. Volunteer groups issue every day updated information about what is needed, and, importantly, what is not needed for the moment, and cannot be stored. Still, the situation changes so quickly, that storage facilities need be emptied in a matter of hours sometimes, and then again it turns out that basic food or water is lacking. In general, there is a problem with storage space, and this is something which could in fact efficiently be only done by the state. However, the Hungarian government has not offered storage facilities, let alone cooking facilities, or anything else. The government’s standpoint is that it is only obliged to provide for those who are already in the refugee camps. Towards those who do not want to go in the camps, the state has no legal obligation. This is a very hypocritical stance after very strong government messages on how Hungary does not welcome refugees. Volunteers need to make up for that, what is more, by changing strategies in very short time. While until the 4th of September, the biggest problem was water, food, and hygiene at Keleti station, the last week the efforts were directed towards saving people from hypothermia by bringing blankets and hot tea. There were intense discussions on whether to buy less, but thicker blankets, or more but cheaper and thinner ones. The rain in the last week brought new challenges, and if you think it is easy to collect thousands of raincoats by individual donors on a daily basis, then you should spend a few days in the storage rooms selecting the clothes which arrived. Similarly, for a few days, there was a race with time to get enough reflective vests – and in proper sizes – for the thousands who were walking in the dark, rainy nights on the road towards Austria. Lately, notably, they are transported from the Röszke collection point over Győr to Vámosszabadi, a camp. However, as they do not want to go to the camp (not that they would fit in….), they walk back to Győr and board a train to the border. It is a ten kilometre walk in the dark, busy road – that’s why you need the reflective vests urgently. But, of course, you wouldn’t need them, would the state not oblige police to transport people till Vámosszabadi, but let them get out in Győr. That is at the same time a good illustration of a problem created by state incapacitation, state inactivity, and EU asylum rules. The victims of this hypocrisy are the refugees, or by the way anyone who might get into an accident because of walking masses in the dark.
A lot of legal uncertainty surrounds these activities, partly arising out of lack of information. The Hungarian Helsinki Committee, the number one refugee rights NGO, disadvised people from giving a lift to the refugees, since that might count as human trafficking, or from lending their cell phones, since if they call smugglers, the owner of the cell phone might become criminally responsible.
<h1>Checks and balances</h1>
There is much talk in media about the hypocrisy of the EU in handling the refugee ‘crisis’ – which ought to be no crisis at all in the first place in such a rich and big community. There is less talk about how the situation in Hungary is the unsurprising result of the last five years’ constitutional destruction, completed by a prominent member of the European People’s Party. Note also that this member cooperates very smoothly with the extreme right wing Jobbik in adopting emergency anti-refugee legislation in the recent weeks.
The Ombudsman has not said a single word about the refugee situation until the 11<sup>th</sup> of September, i.e. for at least two months. After human rights NGOs had widely criticized his silence, he issued a statement expressing how challenging the situation is, and most important is to handle it in a humanitarian way. He does not have a single word of critique towards the government, and has not uttered any intention to submit recent legislation to constitutional review (not that that would necessarily help as the Constitutional Court now operates with a majority elected solely with the votes of the government parties, except in the case of one judge, who was also supported by Jobbik).
The President of the Republic signed the laws – some of them clearly unconstitutional, if for no other reasons, then for their incompatibility with the Geneva and Rome conventions – without any hesitation, even though he would have been entitled to turn to the Constitutional Court instead. It is illustrative of the system devoid of any checks and balances – with which the EU fully cooperates – that the government launched its campaign warning the refugees that illegal crossing became a crime<a href="#_ftn8" name="_ftnref8"></a> already before the President of the Republic promulgated it.<a href="#_ftn9" name="_ftnref9"></a> Of course, the government was right: it did become a law.
<h1>Recent developments on 15th of September</h1>
As of today, the legal context of asylum drastically changed, among the changes here mention is only about the ones directly relevant to refugees. Many other changes rather aim at simply giving more powers to authorities to control the life of Hungarians, i.e. a usual mechanism of emergency laws is at work here, about which there will certainly be more talk in the future. But this post is not about the restriction of rights of Hungarians. As to refugees: the illegal crossing of border became a crime, with automatic expulsion. Thus, if you come through the fence, you will be detained, tried, and expulsed. The point of the criminalisation was in fact the possibility of expulsion (refoulement in fact). In these procedures, the right to use a language one understands is not anymore guaranteed: decisions and official papers are all in Hungarian. Minors do not have the special status they normally enjoy in administrative and penal procedures.
Furthermore, as Serbia is declared a safe third country, people who enter through the official border entry points are returned, unless they prove they have launched an asylum application in Serbia, which was denied there (refoulement also in these cases, as according to the UNHCR Serbia is not a safe third country).
Therefore, the Hungarian government simply wants to deter refugees from entering its territory in any way, and wants to push back most of them to Serbia. As Serbian authorities are not prepared – and do not seem to start preparing, despite sometimes making big statements about human rights -to provide for the refugees who now are stuck in their country, disaster is close. The Hungarian Prime Minister already expressed at least ten times in different media that he expects violence on the border, and soldiers will need both their muscles and hearts to fulfill their tasks, etc.
In the meantime, the„crisis arising out of mass immigration’ was declared in counties close to Serbia.
Refugees started a hunger strike next to the official entry point. Thousands – a number which might easily reach ten thousands by the time this blog is posted – are trapped behind the border. Now Hungary has official opening hours, and by the time the gate was opened, a lot of people gathered, and they are let into Hungarian territory very slowly. When they got in, they are handed a paper in Hungarian, according to which they request that in their individual case, Serbia should not be considered as a safe third country. Sixteen persons already got their asylum request rejected (in two hours), reasoning that they came from a safe third country, i.e. Serbia. The rejection comes with an one-year entry ban valid in the entirety of the Schengen area. People start threatening with suicide, while the hunger strike is ongoing. Several refugees who fell ill were taken by Serbian ambulance cars. Volunteers on the spot are both asking for help, and begging that if you are not in the strongest mental and physical state, please, do not come, since the situation is extremely tense.
The Minister for Foreign Affairs declared we’ll build a fence also on the Romanian border. Croatian authorities advised refugees not to cross Serbo-Croatian border except on official entry points, as there might still be mines from the war. The European Commission allegedly started to examine the new Hungarian laws today. Angela Merkel keeps talking about the importance of human rights and safe borders.
This is the state of affairs on the 15th of September in the early afternoon.