Trains to Nowhere – Hungary’s harsh welcome for refugees

4 September 2015

His brother just looked at him. The Pakistani man in his fifties lay lifeless beside a train track a few hundred metres from Bicske train station. It is unclear how he died, but he was trying to find a better life in Europe.

Both men were part of a larger group running away from a train that had been halted since yesterday in the Hungarian train station. Many other refugees and migrants are still refusing to leave the train because they don’t want to go to Hungarian reception centres.

This week, at the main Keleti station in Budapest and in Bicske, I witnessed a new low in the cruelty of the treatment of refugees in Hungary. After being barred from boarding trains for days, yesterday morning, the police at Keleti suddenly lifted the barriers.

Hundreds of people rushed to a train decorated with silhouettes hugging and celebrating and a prominently featured German flag. Many people desperate to leave Hungary after being stuck for days in dire conditions around the train station believed this train would take them to Germany, where scenes of residents welcoming refugees have beamed around the world in recent days. The carriages quickly filled and at about 11am the train departed.

But at Bicske, around 30 km outside Budapest, their journey came to an abrupt halt.

A Palestinian refugee from Syria who was on the train told me what happened:

“The train stopped. The police announced that we have to disembark otherwise they would use force. So we complied, opened the doors and started walking to the platform. Outside the station there were buses. The police were shouting and we saw smoke. I decided to escape so I walked away and continued along the railways hoping I was heading in the direction of Austria. But I was walking back to Budapest instead! Eventually I gave up and took a taxi back to Keleti [train station] for 30 euros.”

The retreat to Keleti must have been devastating for him as he knew only too well what awaited. Crowds of people have been stuck waiting at the station for days, even weeks, on end. They sleep on the hard floor, covered by their clothes and blankets or sheltered by tents distributed by volunteers. Nearby fast-food chains have turned into the main providers of sanitation facilities. Information on what will happen, as well as what options and rights people have, is scarce.

Hungary’s government washes its hands of Keleti and the wider situation of refugees in the country. They argue that the refugees don’t want to stay there anyway. But I don’t blame the refugees for wanting to leave. From the moment they cross the border, their interactions with the Hungarian institutions are fraught. Refugees referred to the facilities in the border area as “prisons” and “Guantánamo”, and they told me about rough treatment by the police officers, the lack of food and water and a refusal to provide access to sanitation facilities.

Dina, 46, came to Hungary on 14 August together with her son and his wife who is seven months pregnant. Border police detained them for 16 hours without giving them food or water. When I met her at Keleti, Dina had already bought train tickets to Germany. “I want to start a new life in peace… They are treating us like animals; worse than animals.”

After registering their asylum applications in the border area, asylum seekers are given papers to sign which assign them to a reception centre. Most people we spoke to decided not to go to the centres. When I ask them why, I keep hearing the same answers: because these places are completely full, because of bad experiences in the border facilities, because they want to live normal lives. Amnesty International was denied permission to visit the reception centres, so we can only assume what those who were inside them tell us is true. What is the government hiding?

Prime Minister Viktor Orban told the European Parliament yesterday that “Talking about a [refugee] quota system without border control is an invitation for those who would like to come. [Creating] an impression that we would be able to accept everybody would be a moral failure.”

But Hungary is already failing, abysmally. The hastily erected border fence, the lack of assistance to people around the stations and on trains, the inadequate reception conditions and recent legislative reforms all have the same root cause: the desire to keep new arrivals out. These are not just moral failures, they are generating a raft of human rights violations.

The latest in a series of laws targeting migrants and refugees, voted on today, includes prison sentences for illegal border crossing and stiff sentences for damaging the border fence, to name but a few of Hungary’s latest initiatives.

As abysmal as Hungary’s response is, there is plenty of blame to go around. For many, war and persecution were what drove them to leave their home countries in the first place. And once they reached Europe, they should not have to embark on yet another dangerous or even deadly journey.

Until European leaders finally agree on significant changes to Europe’s imploding asylum system, refugees will remain unwanted and unassisted in Hungary. Their dreams now derailed, they have no access to the protection they need, only trains to destinations unknown.