Volunteers defy Hungarian govt to welcome migrants
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Call them Hungary’s good Samaritans. While the government of Prime Minister Viktor Orban has toughened asylum laws in response to a tide of weary immigrants, ordinary citizens in the southern city of Szeged are taking them into their care.
special correspondent in Szeged, Hungary
A punishingly hot sun shines down on Szeged’s central train station on a July afternoon. A handful of passengers hurry out of a brand new air-conditioned tramway and makes straight for the station’s beckoning shade. A few metres away from the main entrance, a group of around 40 Afghan refugees stands in the sun. They are a cluster of families with infants and small groups of single, young men. In the square three water fountains serve as public baths. The migrants patiently take turns brushing their teeth, shaving or simply splashing their faces, acts punctuated by bursts of laughter.
The scene has become commonplace in Szeged, a regional capital of 160,000 inhabitants. Hungary’s third-largest city sits near its borders with Serbia and Romania, making it a magnet for migrants bound for Western Europe.
Both Hungary and Serbia have been dealing with an avalanche of refugees from Afghanistan, Syria and Pakistan in recent months. Officials and people on the ground say they are growing in numbers: Budapest announced on July 30 that the symbolic 100,000 mark had been reached. As many as 200,000 or 300,000 refugees could arrive by the end of the year, according to estimates, compared to a relatively tame 43,000 immigrants for all of 2014.
Almost all the migrants arrive by way of the Serbian border, which the Hungarian government says it wants to seal off by erecting a 175-kilometre-long fence. Prime Minister Orban’s conservative government has made the fight against immigration one of the pillars of its agenda, and in the process secured massive support among many Hungarian constituents.
But its hard-line approach has infuriated some European partners. In June, Orban’s government said it would unilaterally opt out of a key EU rule on processing asylum claims, then backtracked after widespread outcry from Brussels and other corners of the continent.
'Around 500 migrants every day'
Szeged nevertheless appears to stand as an oasis of tolerance in a vast desert of anti-immigrant hostility. “We are lucky that town hall is led by opposition parties,” Balazs Szalai, a 34-year-old IT specialist, told FRANCE 24. “It was the city government that provided the water fountains, and the shed where we keep things. But the rest is all us.”
Szalai is referring to a small unit of around 100 volunteers that goes by the name MigSzol Szeged, or “Migrant Solidarity”, and which provides round-the-clock care and legal support to immigrants in his hometown. Szalai said he was appalled by the migrants’ living conditions and by the way they were evicted from the train station earlier this year and forced to sleep in the rain. With four friends he founded MigSzol Szeged in June and quickly found dozens of other Szeged residents eager to offer a helping hand.
In front of the plain wooden shed, Szalai and other volunteers distribute bottles of water, fruit, sandwiches, soap and other essentials to exhausted refugees. They treat inflammations, sunburns and countless wounds on feet. But most of all they help the displaced people file asylum requests.
“We are in contact with around 500 migrants every day, but that number can vary widely. But it’s clear that the numbers are trending upwards,” said Orsolya Milián, a university professor who also volunteers his time to help migrants.
‘Authorities don’t give a damn’
The calmness that reigns outside Szeged’s train station is suddenly broken as a group of around 60 refugees carrying administrative forms arrives. “I can’t believe it, they gave them the wrong paperwork, again,” an irritated 21-year-old volunteer cries out. Orsi Szabó-Palócz, a student at the local university, spent the better part of the previous day guiding migrants from one government office to another, and then back to the train station in an itinerary spanning several kilometres. It appears he will have to follow the same Odyssey for a second consecutive day.
The normal procedure requires immigrants to register with local police upon arrival in Hungary. They must then register with the Office of Immigration, which is supposed to issue them an appointment with one of the four refugee camps in the country. The immigrants are supposed to reach those camps within 48 hours, and are issued a free transport ticket to their destination by the government.
It is in these notoriously overcrowded reception centres that most refugees formally file asylum requests. The problem is that few of them actually want to stay in Hungary. Many migrants bluntly ask MigSzol Szeged volunteers how they can reach Germany, Sweden or France as quickly as possible. Group founder Szalai says their response is always the same: "We are ordinary Hungarian citizens and cannot help migrants break the law. We can help you apply for asylum in Hungary."
Few migrants have obtained the correct asylum application form on this particular day, and volunteers suspect it is no accident. Far too often they return with incomplete or outdated documents. “The authorities don’t give a damn about the refugees. In fact, they are doing everything they can to frustrate and confuse them,” complains volunteer Mark Kekesi, a 36-year-old psychology professor, as he cuts slices of watermelon for a newly arrived group of migrants.
Kekesi is flanked by his university colleague Orsolya Milián, who says the summer lull on campus means she can spend two to five hours each day helping the migrants. Other volunteers, especially retirees, can spend as much as 10 hours caring for them. “It's really satisfying to help people who are in great distress,” Orsolya explained. “Some volunteers are downright addicted. They have found an escape from their boring daily routines.”
Another brief commotion breaks out when two young volunteers announce that a Budapest-bound train will be leaving the station in 15 minutes. The volunteers accompany around two dozen migrants to the platform and see them onto the ancient train cars that are reserved for them. The migrants gladly accept a few more bottles of water that are passed through the windows, and offer bright smiles and enthusiastic goodbyes in return as the locomotive leaves the station.
Other migrants are less lucky and will spend the night outside the train station. But Hares Taraki, a 23-year-old Afghan with an unlikely mob of dirty-blond hair, does not seem to mind too much. “I spent three months getting here from Kabul and this is the first time people treat me like a human being,” he said. “I slept in the forest for weeks. The Bulgarian police beat me up and robbed me. In comparison, this is a five-star hotel.”
Nobody in Szeged knows how long the humanitarian crisis will last. “It’s warm now, but winter will come around soon,” professor Kekesi points out. “Hopefully this spirit of solidarity will not go cold too.”
This article was translated from its original in French.