Christoph Schlessmann / Anadolu Agency / Getty Images

Volunteers defy police and traffickers with refugee convoy

More than 150 drivers from Austria and Germany collect refugees from Hungary

BUDAPEST, Hungary — Volunteers from Austria and Germany have collected hundreds of Syrians from Hungary, driving them out of the country in defiance of possible arrest and criminal gangs that charge huge sums to smuggle refugees to Western Europe.

The convoy of more than 150 cars crossed safely back into Austria early Monday morning, as officials there sought a return to normal border and asylum procedures after a weekend in which more than 12,000 refugees arrived from Hungary.

Most continued to Germany, which on Monday announced plans to spend 6 billion euros ($6.6 billion) next year to help refugees, while Hungary’s leader said he would maintain the tough line on the crisis that has made his country the “black sheep” of the European Union.

“I just knew I had to do something to help,” said Tsamira Weissflug, who arrived at Budapest’s main train station late Sunday night after driving some 400 miles from Germany.

“This is a situation in which a private person can help. Not just with ‘blah, blah, blah’ but with something concrete. Someone needs me, I have a car, I have the time, so vamonos — let’s go.”

The volunteers split up after crossing into Hungary, with some drivers stopping to collect refugees walking along the highway towards Austria, others going south to where they enter from Serbia, and the rest continuing to Budapest.

At the city’s train station, they found hundreds of refugees seeking a way to leave Hungary.

Since Friday, when hundreds of refugees forced Hungary to lift travel restrictions by walking along railway lines and its main motorway toward Austria, thousands had traveled west on buses and trains.

German volunteer Tsamira Weissflug, center, with Amar Saleh, left, and Yasim al-Eriksousi, Syrian refugees from Damascus.
Dan McLaughlin

But Hungary stopped running buses to the Austrian border on Sunday, leaving refugees in Budapest confused over which train to catch and uncertain that it would not take them to a camp for asylum seekers — as happened to hundreds of people last week; other refugees simply do not have enough money to buy a train ticket.

For those with money, all along the Balkan route from Turkey to Hungary, there is the possibility of paying large sums to traffickers — “mafia” as refugees call them — to be smuggled through countries and across borders.

“The mafia here ask 600 euro ($670) to go to Vienna,” said Amar Saleh, a Syrian from Damascus, referring to the 150-mile drive to the Austrian capital.

“In Turkey, I paid 1,200 euro ($1,340) to go on a boat to Greece. It was a tiny boat, and 38 people inside. The sea was very high, and it was a bad, bad, bad situation. I saw death in the sea. All Syrian people saw this. And we just want peace.”

Saleh and his friend Yasim al-Eriksousi, also from Damascus, left Budapest station for Austria in Weissflug’s car.

“We have no bags. The mafia on the boat told us to throw them in the sea,” said Saleh, as they finally left the station where they had lived for three days.

“I want to be in Germany, and I want my wife and daughter to join me,” he said.

“I wish they were with me now. My girl is only 14 months old, and I haven’t seen her since I left home on Aug. 1.”

Some drivers in the refugee convoy declined to give their names, saying they feared problems with the Hungarian police after four Austrians were briefly detained a few days earlier for taking undocumented migrants across a border — technically people smuggling.

“We are taking those who are brave enough to go,” said an Austrian volunteer who gave her name as Erzsebet Szabo. “They find it hard to believe we are taking them for free. People have died in smugglers’ vehicles.”

The issue has great resonance in Austria, where in late August 71 refugees, believed to be Syrians, were found dead in the back of a Hungarian-registered truck.

“First I thought it was strange they were helping. Now I see they are good people,” said Anas, a 20-year-old from Damascus who did not give his surname due to fears for the safety of relatives still in Syria.

“I want to go to Germany. I have family and friends there, and I love that country,” he said, as a volunteer beckoned him toward a car.

“I’m ready,” he said, grinning and raising a fist into the air.

As drivers found passengers, a volunteer from Hungary’s Migrants Help Association talked to refugees and gave out leaflets about the danger of going with traffickers.

“The mafia bosses find guys who speak Arabic to mingle with the refugees, persuading them to pay big money to go with them. They are almost invisible, but they are operating here,” said the volunteer, a refugee living in Budapest, who declined to give his name because the traffickers have threatened him.

Hours after the refugee convoy returned unhindered to Austria, the country’s police said they were intensifying checks for people smugglers while returning to a normal border regime after the weekend’s extraordinary events.

Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orban, said people fleeing warzones should stay in the first safe country they reach, and if they travel into the heart of Europe it is because they “want to live a German life. It has nothing to do with security."

He said it was “absurd” for Germany to spend billions of euros on refugees there, rather than “giving the money to the countries around the crisis zone, where [they] should be stopped in the first place.”

“It would be better for everyone. They wouldn't come here. It would cost less. And our approach couldn't be called into question morally either.”

Orban said his outspoken rejection of a German-led plan for all EU states to take a quota of refugees had made Hungary the “black sheep” of the bloc, but he insisted that he would continue to tighten control of the country’s border with Serbia.

“I’m therefore asking those who want to cross into Europe through Hungary — don’t come,” Orban said.

“Even though the situation won’t change overnight, we will gradually achieve results and the time will come when we can tell our Austrian and German friends that Hungary’s southern borders are hermetically sealed.”

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