Civil Activists Thwart Attempts To Exploit Refugees In Hungary

  • 6 Jul 2015 9:00 AM
Civil Activists Thwart Attempts To Exploit Refugees In Hungary
A glass of milk, a pair of new shoes, a couple of good words. A small group of volunteers are trying to make the situation of refugees stranded in Szeged’s train station more tolerable. Hungarian immigration authorities routinely transport registered border jumpers to the station right after the departure of the last Budapest-bound train. They were supposed to catch a train to their open refugee camp, yet they end up stranded at the Szeged railway station for a night.

“I am an antiquities professor, therefore I am a humanist,” explains the middle-aged man, one of several volunteers from Szeged committed to helping refugees ending up at the station. The man was carrying cardboard milk-boxes to the nearest homeless shelter where the local city council allowed the volunteers to store donations, which arrive continuously.

A man from Budapest arrives shouting out somebody’s name. He does not know the person he contacted on Facebook in order to arrange his donation. Somebody else showed up to help. They found a shopping cart, and off they went with all the provisions – mineral water, milk – to the makeshift storehouse. “My motorway pass is good through today,” says Viktor, a former worker at Malév airline. Unemployed, he is transporting donations collected in Budapest to Szeged at his own expense.

Scenes like this are repeated every 20 or 30 minutes. Somebody shows up with a bag of food, a pack of diapers, a six-pack of mineral water, clothes, toys that later are all transported to the storehouse, and distributed during the day, as well as in the evening, when smaller or bigger groups of refugees start to appear at the station.

Among the donors you can find an American-born preacher with his whole family, an aging couple, or a pensioner who keeps asking activists (who do not accept cash) what she could possibly bring from the nearby shop. Local volunteers have set up a small kiosk next to the station to receive refugees sent there by the city border authorities or from the temporary refugee detention center at Nagyfa.

Shoes for slippers

There are those who crossed the border illegally who have been detained by the police and given over to employees of the Office of Immigration and Citizenship. Their data was registered along with their formal requests for asylum and their fingerprints.

They were also provided with details of how to get to the refugee camps in Debrecen, Vámosszabadi or Bicske, as well as entry passes and a one-way train ticket, before discharging them. During the day, these people constantly flow into the station, mostly with weary expressions and in ragged clothes. According to the activists they are mostly coming from the Immigration Office’s local headquarters at Moszkvai körút, spending a little time here, before getting on to a train to Budapest.

This Kurdish man fled the Syrian town of Kobane besieged by ISIS, then liberated by the Kurdish YPG forces and the US air force. The town recently suffered one of the worst massacres in Syria perpetrated by undercover ISIS terrorists, who killed more than 200 civilians, half of them children.

Activists provide those arriving in slippers with shoes, food for the hungry, water for the thirsty, mattresses for the dead-tired and provide them with some information as well: when the train departs so they do not need to find a taxi as they can travel to the camps free on trains, or tell them which direction to start off to.

An extension cord is hanging about the wall of the wooden cottage where refugees can recharge their phones – essential on any longer journey. And thanks to the WiFi connection provided by Szeged city council, they can even call home via Skype from there. “The youngsters will first contact their mothers,” according to one of the activists.

On of the young guys is sporting a Barack Obama t-shirt and smiling. The other has a trendy baseball cap with Ray-Ban style sunglasses, shorts and also new shoes that he got to replace his worn-out slippers. A young boy keeps returning to the booth where he asks for a new sandwich or t-shirt every time. The activists remark that this is a little bit too much to take but they do not send him away. In the end, he finally disappears, getting on a train.

Made to miss their train

On Wednesday evening life here is quite calm. Donations are arriving, refugees are arriving, they get some provisions, ask some questions, and they go away shortly afterwards. The last train for Budapest leaves at 8.45 pm and the square in front of the station is only filled with activists at that point. But this tranquility does not last. In minutes, the coach of the Immigration Office will turn up with a huge load of refugees. It is as if they deliberately make sure these people will just miss the last train of the day.

This is what, among other things, started the Szeged citizen initiative last week: the people unloaded from these buses – many of them children – were forced to camp out on the square as Hungarian Railways did not let them spend the night in the station building.

The citizens’ objective was to create humane conditions for them in front of the closed station, making the overnight forced stop somewhat more bearable. But they also felt it necessary to give the refugees sufficient information for their onward journey, including warning them not to fall for the price offered by upstart taxi drivers who would want 10-15 euros for a ride of a few kilometers to the city, and as much as 400-500 euros for a ride to Budapest.

Márk Kékesi, one of the coordinators, told us that they had serious conflicts with the taxi drivers as a result. They had a discussion with their representative lately and the conflict was resolved.

Right now, they are working on how to place signs between the Immigration office in the city and the train station so that migrants would not have to rely on taxi drivers only. As they are not allowed to place signs on columns, they may use asphalt painting. According to Márk Kékesi around 30 people take part in the actions, many of them university professors or students of the Faculty of Humanities.

There is a professor among them speaking perfect Arabic and even the former deputy dean of the faculty itself. The Facebook group so far has 1,500 members who supply most of the donations.

One activist enthusiastically explains how Hungarians living abroad order goods through Tesco’s online shop for delivery to a specific address. According to her the core of the activists consists of 15-20 people but new participants are arriving by the day.

The square indeed gets lively at 8.54 pm, when the evening bus of refugees finally pulls in. Locals try to give them directions in English and in Arabic. There are 30-40 of them there: this way to the taxi stand, that way to the train, they say.

The migrants are mostly young men in their teens and twenties, but there are families with young children as well, with dirty faces and uncombed hair. Many disappointedly acknowledge that the next train leaves in the morning. The tired people line up in front of the booth, then they settle down on the benches. Activists mix with them, and try to strike up conversations in English, asking them what they need. Somebody walks among them with a bag of peaches. Others play ballgames with the kids.

Omar came all the way from Syria. He was trying to make ends meet in the Turkish border town of Gaziantep for a long time, but his salary at the local plastic factory was not even enough to pay rent. He asks for my phone, types something in Arabic into YouTube: on the video that appears, barrel bombs are being dropped by Syrian regime helicopters. They make a huge blast, leveling the buildings underneath. Omar points to one of the buildings going up in flames: “This was my home. Now it’s ruined.” Meanwhile, his mother is sitting in the deserted station with their bags.

“These are good people”

Two civil guards appear. They invite me to help them translate as they recognize some of the refugees: a few days back they were the ones arresting them at the Szeged border – now they explain it to them in a way that sounds like they are excusing themselves. They ask how was the detention. The young migrants stand there confused, giving restrained answers: It was bad, the squalor there is enormous, the bread is not enough and does not taste good. The civil guards say sorry, and assure the small group that they “see they are good people” and wish them luck on the rest of their journey.

Ali is a Kurd in his fifties. He is coming from the Turkish border, where he was living. He left his children behind and wants to reach Germany, where he plans to bring them over. “I will learn to speak German and then English, this is vitally important,” he says.

Mehmet is 18 years old and left Syria three years ago when his army draft arrived. He dodged it. He did not want to be their soldier. He is holding a 500 Syrian pound coin: he said this is what they pay to an Assad regime soldier to kill a human being. He was living in Turkey for a while but was unable to provide for himself. His father was a car mechanic back in Syria but now he is unemployed. He still somehow managed to gather enough money for his son to make his way to Europe.

He then takes his wallet out, showing us his little memorabilia: a few Syrian coins, his foiled military draft, and a pin in the shape of Syria. “Kelbimde” (I wear it over my heart!) he says in Turkish and presses the pin to his chest. Then he shows us pictures stored on his phone: this is the family, that is his brother who died as a soldier, his uncle who committed suicide, their car that is no more.

A video footage from Greece shows how he and other migrants protested in the town of Militi on the isle of Lesbos so they can get their papers and can leave the country.

These are followed by joyful pictures with his friends on the ferry to Athens (the ticket was 50 euros), and pictures about their long walk: people sleeping exhausted in the grass, near one of the Balkan borders. He would show more but suddenly Ali turns up inviting him to the taxis: the small group speaking in Turkish have already packed their bags in and they start off quickly. Later it turned out that they went for Budapest, in a minivan for 175 euros.

They are not the only ones not waiting for the morning train. After 11pm there are only a few people remaining on the square. Local activists are outnumbering them, only 8-10 Afghan youngsters who have opted to wait for the next train are waiting there.

Some of them are already lying on the mattresses at the walls of the train station. Only one of them speaks English but with an almost perfect pronunciation. He said nothing about how he learned such good English or why he left his country. Instead, he talked at length about the importance of good deeds. He says with bright eyes that he met “with people like angels here, and no one can have anything against these locals.”

It is not only the Szeged group that actively participates in helping refugees. The Age of Hope Foundation delivers provisions for children to Nagyfa detention center twice a day. The Ocumenic Relief also donated almost HUF 1 million. Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s wife, Anikó Lévai, visited the detention center. Those who wish to help can donate at the website set up by the Hungarian Helsinki Committee.

Source: The Budapest Beacon

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