On the road with volunteers offering refugees rides from Hungary | Europe| News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 07.09.2015
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On the road with volunteers offering refugees rides from Hungary

Moved by the plight of thousands of people stuck in Hungary on journeys to seek refuge in Austria and Germany, volunteers have rushed to the border to assist. Alison Langley reports from the road.

For the last two days, Richard Pigal has followed from afar the plight of the Syrian refugees holed up in Budapest. Finally, he decided he couldn't sit idly by.

Families, some with small children, were sleeping on the floor of the Keleti train station in Budapest until they were forced out by police. Then they slept outside, until some were sent to a camp and others started a 175-kilometer (108-mile) journey to Austria by foot.

"I wanted to do something. It's a signal. For myself, for humanity and for Europe," says the 54-year-old Pigal.

So on Sunday morning, when he saw a notice that people were organizing a convoy to pick up the walking refugees, he quickly set up a Facebook account in order to join them. With help from his wife and 10-year old daughter, he filled their Citroen C4 with warm clothes and stuffed animals. By 8 a.m. Pigal had raced off for the two-hour drive from his home in Wels to the convoy meeting point in Vienna.

Erzsebet Szabo, a Hungarian woman living in Vienna, posted the event "Konvoi Budapest Wien" on Facebook. Several of her friends are around to help, but it's unclear if any of them is in charge.

More than 3,200 people said they were coming to take part, but hundreds have arrived not with their cars but with their feet - to drop off clothing, food and toiletries. Perhaps 150 people with cars have actually arrived ready for the journey.

Freiwillige Helfer Flüchtlinge Konvoi von Ungarn nach Österreich

Pigal was moved to help by the images of Syrian refugees stranded in Budapest

Willing to take the chance

What they're planning to do - take undocumented migrants across a national border - is not legal. But the group is prepared. They take the names of each driver who intended to help refugees, and give them each a page explaining what to do and not do if stopped by Hungarian police. Four Austrian lawyers have volunteered to be on standby, in case of problems.

And there could be problems: Early last week, four Austrians were briefly detained in Hungary on illegal smuggling charges. But Manfred Ihle, a lieutenant colonel of the Vienna police, says Austria informed Hungary of the convoy in advance.

Pigal says he is willing to take the chance because the images of war refugees with small children walking along the highway were too painful.

No one in the convoy seems particularly nervous about being arrested.

The group is mostly young, people under the age of 35 - many nose piercings, a few tattoos, some Rasta curls, lots of cigarette smoking. Some people, like Pigal, are there for the first time.

"The organization was chaotic," says Pigal, an insurance manager with an easy smile and mild manner who wears a blue Scouting t-shirt and a Boy Scout scarf around his neck.

Chaos and confusion

The group leaves a half hour later than planned, creeping along at 15 kilometers per hour accompanied by police cars. Camera crews speed past, stop and photograph the cars as they pass by. It takes longer than the planed hour to reach the border.

The toll station at the border is closed, so all 150 cars have to find another station, not far away, to pay the toll. Then comes the rumor that Budapest police are arresting people in cars with Austrian plates. So, one group unfurls a banner that reads, "Refugee Convoi Welcome."

Jim Mueller, one of organizers, suddenly declares that the group is now a demonstration. "We're here in solidarity and to claim freedom of movement for everyone," Mueller yells into a megaphone first in English, then in German, in front of a row of probably a dozen cameras.

Helping out journalists, rather than refugees

Camera crews look around for interviews. A woman carrying a microphone yells out, "Who speaks English? I'd like to interview you for Al-Jazeera." A Hungarian television crew asks the group to keep on moving; they're going live in a half hour and don't want the A4 highway as a backdrop to their report.

Many in the crowd don't look happy. Two hipsters, Ben and Oliver - no last names, please - say they drove from Oxford after they saw the Facebook event. They want to help asylum seekers, not take part in a demonstration. They jump back into their car and drive off to meander through Hungary's side roads in search of refugees.

Three social workers from Cologne drove 24 hours to join the convoy. They aren't planning to stick around for a demonstration, either. Neither is Pigal. "I'm not here to protest. That doesn't interest me," he says.

After much discussion, the convoy, now smaller, drives to the border town of Hegyeshalom. But when they arrive, they find two Austrian trains dedicated to transporting the refugees to Vienna and Salzburg. This is a new development.

A small group of volunteers is already on the platform handing out bananas to the refugees as they change trains. Pigal and the rest watch and ponder what to do next.

"Well," suggests Mueller. "Some of us can stay here and greet the refugees as they change trains." No one takes him up on the suggestion. A few more people decide to cut their losses and head back to Nickelsdorf; others have had enough and drive back to Vienna. Still others decide to go to Budapest in spite of the arrest rumors.

"That took the wind out of the sails," Pigal muses as he beeps open his car. He thinks for a while, driving in silence. "I believe, I hope our little action is in a small way one of the reasons that the police are now allowing refugees to take the train again," he says.

It is now past 1 p.m., and Pigal has not yet even spoken to a refugee.

But he has spoken to journalists. By the end of the day, he ticks off the interviews: Reuters, Bayerischer Rundfunk, Servus TV, "Salzburger Nachrichten," "Wiener Zeitung" and NapiTV. He laughs. "And this from someone with no Facebook page," he quips.

Freiwillige Helfer Flüchtlinge Konvoi von Ungarn nach Österreich

In Gyor, refugees picked over donations looking for jackets and shoes that fit

On to Gyor

The remains of the convoy spend about a half hour contemplating their next move. They wait for a white van with a broken back window to lead them to Gyor in northwestern Hungary, about an hour away.

Less than 10 minutes into the ride, they pull over to the shoulder. Pigal is losing his patience, and pulls up alongside the lead car and tells them he is going ahead.

When he arrives in Gyor, Pigal finds refugees milling about. He jumps out of the car as soon as he parks, immediately pulling bags out of his car. He finds a father with two small children and gives them a pair of shoes for the youngest, about 3 years old.

Even in Gyor, though, trains were taking refugees to Austria. Pigal offers a family a ride to Vienna, but they decline. Word is, Hungarian police will turn people back if they are caught. It's best to travel with the group in the trains, they say.

Freiwillige Helfer Flüchtlinge Konvoi von Ungarn nach Österreich

Pigal was able to give two Pakistani men a lift to Vienna

In the parking lot some cars from the convoy that had earlier separated from the group pull in with refugees found walking along Route 14 in Vamosszabadi. The refugees were living in a camp in the woods, not far from the Slovak border.

Pigal hops into his car and races toward Route 14. After a few wrong turns he finds the road, but no refugees.

'Welcome to Austria'

Pigal heads back to Gyor, unloads the rest of the donations in his car and, at long last, comes across two Pakistani men looking for a ride to Vienna. Pigal agrees to take them, but wonders whether they will be eligible for asylum.

"I have to wonder whether it was worth it. But then I think about that father with the two little children. They were so happy when I gave them the stuffed animals. I really got the impression that he was a very loving father. I would have liked to have taken them back, but they were already taken," he says.

Pigal calls his wife. "We're on our way home," he tells her. An hour later, Pigal and his Citroen cross the border with no problems. He looks into his rearview mirror at the two migrants.

"Welcome to Austria," he says.

They smile. "It's so beautiful," they reply.