Attila Volgyi / Xinhua Press / Corbis

Volunteers defy hostile leaders to welcome refugees to Europe

States cite possible security threat and absence of mosques as reasons not to take Muslim refugees

BUDAPEST, Hungary — Returning after a confusing and chaotic morning to the impromptu refugee camp at Budapest’s main train station, its reluctant residents resigned themselves to staying a while longer and took solace from a familiar source.

“They help us every day, all the time,” said Ahmad Rashid, an engineer from Herat, Afghan, accepting a sandwich, an apple and a bottle of water from volunteers who have also made camp at the station.

“The government here gives us nothing. We want to leave — everyone here wants to leave — but they won’t let us go,” he said, after a single train packed with refugees pulled out on Thursday morning, leaving well over a thousand more stranded. “But these people treat us like humans. We are so thankful for them. We thank Allah that they are here.”

The volunteers are from Migration Aid, which unites locals and foreigners in Hungary to help the huge numbers of refugees passing through the country.

With hundreds of volunteers and more than 22,000 Facebook followers, Migration Aid offers food, water, medical help and information to refugees who each day cross Hungary by the thousands, even as Prime Minister Viktor Orban and his populist right-wing government wash their hands of them.

Zsuzsanna Zsohar, center, a volunteer with Migration Aid, at a transit zone help center for refugees at a train station in Budapest, Hungary.
Dan McLoughlin

“This is a normal human reaction to what is happening,” said one of Migration Aid’s main organizers, Zsuzsanna Zsohar. “It’s what we all should do.”

All along the Balkan route to Western Europe — through Turkey, Greece, Macedonia, Serbia and Hungary — volunteers are stepping in to help refugees, defying their leaders’ indifference or hostility to the new arrivals.

As a solitary train left Budapest’s Keleti station on Thursday, crammed with refugees who thought they were going to Austria, Orban was telling top European Union officials in Brussels that the crisis was “a German problem.”

“Nobody would like to stay in Hungary,” he said. “All of them would like to go to Germany.”

With Hungary’s asylum system facing collapse and pressure growing on his government from the far-right Jobbik party, Orban has promised to introduce tough measures to ensure that “a different era will start from Sept. 15.”

Razor wire now lines Hungary’s 109-mile frontier with Serbia, and a 13-foot-high steel fence will soon be in place; new laws are being prepared to further tighten security on the border and to ease the deployment of troops to support more than 2,000 police officers who are already in the area.

“We Hungarians are full of fear. People in Europe are full of fear because they see that the European leaders … are not able to control the situation,” Orban said.

The crisis has revealed a stark split in the EU, with Germany ready to accept some 800,000 refugees this year but insisting that the only sustainable solution is a quota system in which all member states take some refugees.

Orban has derided such a plan, however, in chorus with leaders of other Central European states with small Muslim and refugee communities.

This, despite their people’s familiarity with the need to leave home to find a brighter future — after the Soviet invasions of Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968, the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s and in the last decade’s vast westward flow of job seekers from Poland, the Baltic states and Romania.

“We must not forget that those who are coming in have been brought up under a different religion and represent a profoundly different culture,” Orban wrote in the German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung this week. “The majority are not Christians but Muslims. That is an important question because Europe and European culture have Christian roots … Or is it not already and in itself alarming that Europe’s Christian culture is barely able to uphold Europe’s own Christian values?”

To reinforce his point during his visit to Brussels, he recalled Hungary’s “experience with Muslims” when it was ruled by the Ottomans during the 16th and 17th centuries. “We do not want a large number of Muslims in our country,” he said. “No one can force us to accept more than we want.”

Orban has found common cause on the refugee crisis with other Central European leaders and on Friday discussed the issue with his Czech, Slovak and Polish counterparts in Prague.

Slovakia says it will accept 200 refugees from the Middle East but wants only Christians because, among other issues, the country doesn’t have any mosques.

“Since Slovakia is a Christian country, we cannot tolerate an influx of 300,000 to 400,000 Muslim immigrants who would like to start building mosques all over our land and trying to change the nature, culture and values of the state,” Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico said earlier this year.

A volunteer distributes food to refugees near the village Miratovac, Serbia, near the border with Macedonia, Aug. 23, 2015.
Igor Pavicevic / AFP / Getty Images

Echoing Orban’s claims of “a clear link between illegal migrants coming to Europe and the spread of terrorism,” Czech President Milos Zeman has said that “by accepting the migrants, we strongly facilitate Islamic State’s expansion to Europe.”

After police fired tear gas to stop asylum seekers breaking out of a refugee camp last month, Zeman said, “Nobody invited you here … If you are already here, you have to respect our rules. And if you don’t like it, go away.”

Central Europe’s leaders say such statements reflect the views and defend the interests of their people, but civil society keeps telling them otherwise.

In Slovakia, more than 10,000 people have signed an online Plea for Humanity, which was created after 71 refugees, thought to be Syrians, were found dead Aug. 27 in Austria in the back of a truck abandoned by suspected people smugglers.

“This tragedy shows that refugee’s crisis is not some abstract political problem. It is a matter of life and death of real people,” the petition states. “We call on the Slovak government to immediately take measures to ease the burden of countries most affected by the influx of refugees and to alleviate the suffering of people. Hundreds of individuals and communities have offered to help. These people can be the cornerstone of our effort.”

In the Hungarian town of Szeged, 10 miles from the border with Serbia, refugees are met at the train station by volunteers from a group called Migrant Solidarity.

“This is the most divisive issue in Hungarian society today,” said Mark Kekesi, a psychology professor and volunteer. “We can work well in Szeged because it is the only major Hungarian city run by the liberal opposition party. But the country is split on this question.”

Orban’s fence, Kekesi explained, has done nothing to reduce the number of refugees from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Eritrea, Somalia, Bangladesh and many other countries who seek help as they pass through Szeged.

“It’s ridiculous,” he said. “Anyone can crawl under or over the fence in a couple of minutes. It is very expensive and will never stop anything. But this is a political statement. Orban wants to project the idea that he is protecting Hungary and Europe from invaders.”

Ahmad Rashid, 28, crawled under the razor wire on Sunday and hoped to be on the one train that took refugees west from Budapest on Thursday.

Its passengers did not get far, however.

Just 20 miles outside Budapest, the train stopped at the town of Bicske, where police tried to take the passengers to a camp for asylum seekers.

Some scuffled with police, ran away or refused to leave the carriages, while others threw themselves on the rails in front of the train — which was painted to celebrate a borderless Europe and 25 years since the fall of the Iron Curtain and showed people running free past a watchtower and broken barbed-wire fence.

When news filtered back to the train station, many refugees said they would not trust anything they were told Hungarian police or officials after what they called a trick.

“What the authorities did with that train was very dangerous,” said Zsohar. “As far as we know, many people were stuck inside the train in baking heat, without any volunteers there to help them. It was like a trap.”

On Friday afternoon, hundreds of refugees left the train and broke through police lines at Bicske, setting off down the tracks toward Austria; at about the same time, hundreds of people at Keleti station packed their bags, rounded up their children and walked out of Budapest and along a westbound highway.

In the end, they may not have to walk the full 120 miles to Austria, because more than 2,000 people there have joined a social media campaign to find drivers who are willing to use their cars to go to Hungary to transport refugees.

“The Austrian government and the EU stand by idly and watch as people on the streets of Budapest — without any appropriate supplies — have to endure appalling conditions,” the project’s organizers wrote on its Facebook page. “That’s why we are intervening and starting a convoy of buses and cars to bring the refugees to safety.”

As Orban and other central European leaders turn their backs on the refugees, volunteers across the region are showing what activism can achieve in countries where civil society often faces strong pressure.

“Volunteering is a perfectly natural thing to do,” said Evelina Politidou, a council official in northern Greece, where she handed out food and drinks to weary refugees following a rail line into Macedonia near the village of Idomeni. “I couldn’t do anything else, seeing this situation,” she said.

“And anyway, my surname shows that my ancestors came here from Asia Minor at some point. We were all migrants once.”

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