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Hungary has no plan

Michaela KüfnerSeptember 6, 2015

Thousands of refugees were allowed to leave Budapest's main station for Austria and Germany, but Hungary lacks a convincing strategy for handling the crisis. DW's Michaela Küfner reports from Budapest.

Bus with migrants at Keleti train station.
Image: DW/M. Küfner

Thousands of refugees have traveled from Hungary to Austria and Germany in the past days. For the time being, it does not matter to these people whether or not reaching their destination will lead to a happy ending of their stories. After several days in the slum of Budapest's Keleti Train Station, their wishes are modest: they want a bed, warm food and decent sanitary facilities.

But for every person who managed to get a place in one of the buses out of the country, at least another dozen more are also hoping to make it to Germany. The Hungarian government stresses that the bus operation on Friday was a one-off measure. At the same time, only a few hours after the underpass in front of the train station was cleared, new groups of refugees arrived.

Even the three-and-a-half meter high barbed wire fence along the border to Serbia cannot prevent the daily influx of people from growing. Zoltan Kovacs, a spokesman for the Hungarian government, knows this and says, "The problem is, whatever we do, they keep on coming here." And he believes that people who "absolutely want to continue on" cannot be stopped anyway.

No more buses to Germany

The refugees are people like 20-year-old Ahmed Abdallah from Iraq. Even his parents could not stop him and his 24-year-old and 26-year old brothers from putting their lives in the hands of people smugglers. They saw no future in their hometown of Kirkuk.

After much deliberation on platform eight of Keleti station, the three decided against boarding the train to Györ, even though it would have meant that they could have covered two-thirds of the route to the Austrian border. They fear the police, who have abused them in the past. They want to go to Berlin. They are among those who were not present when the buses came - and more buses will not be departing from Hungary, said the government.

Ahmed Abdallah from Iraq at Budapest railway station
Ahmed Abdallah and his brothers cannot imagine a future in IraqImage: DW/M. Küfner

Ahmed is one of the few young refugees who are happy to be photographed. Many don't want people back home to see how badly they're doing, and feel that the relatives they've left behind already have enough troubles of their own. Despite the filth of the "transit zone" in front of Keleti train station, one has the sneaking suspicion that some text messages sent back home sound more redolent of holidays than of a flight from war.

New beginning - only in Germany

Djan Mohamed says he has nothing to lose anymore. His wife and 3-year-old daughter died in bomb attacks right at the beginning of the war in Syria. Now the 41-year-old pharmacist from Aleppo is looking for a new beginning - and he can only imagine it in Germany.

Djan Mohamed at Budapest railway station
Djan Mohamed at Budapest's central railway station: "We were treated like animals"Image: DW/M. Küfner

On Saturday morning, he arrived from the Debrecen refugee camp, deep in the eastern part of Hungary, where, as he says, the refugees are treated like animals. He reached Budapest with a hundred others only hours after the buses had left. He would also like to believe rumors that more buses will arrive, even though he's long been aware of the official "no."

Private help and donations

In the past week, Hungary's right-wing Prime Minister Victor Orban has left no doubt that these people are not welcome here anyway. It probably should have come as no surprise that Hungary would simply ignore the 3,000 refugees in the central station of its capital, leaving them completely to their own devices.

On Saturday, a number of people from Budapest apologized at a pro-refugee rally, where they held up banners on which "Sorry" and "Welcome" were written. Indeed, despite the government's stance, a great deal of spontaneous assistance and donations has been provided by private donors.

The current plan is called isolation

Hungary's official approach toward refugees is mainly based on isolating the country and discouraging people from entering. Starting mid-September, the country plans to reinforce border security by deploying more police and soldiers. In the future, anyone who tries to climb over the fence faces up to three years in prison. It is now up to the Council of Europe to remind Hungary that, according to the Geneva Refugee Convention, precisely this type of "illegal" entry of refugees cannot be legally punishable as long as the people immediately register with the police. In addition, Hungary also wants to set up so-called transit zones at the border, where asylum requests can be processed quickly.

Yet despite all the efforts to deter the entry of refugees, Hungary still has no comprehensive plan for the crisis. How will it deal with the people who are already there – now and in the future? And what about people who find clandestine paths where they are not seized at border fences?

Government spokesman Zoltan Kovacs has stressed that his country will adhere to EU regulations stating that these people cannot be detained. In the same interview, he also emphasized that, ultimately, the people could not be held back.

Dealing with and not avoiding refugees

Despite all these statements, it is clear that no coherent refugee policy has been developed to deal with the situation instead of avoiding it. Until now, all action taken has come across as a quick patch-up job and not as a series of sustainable measures: firstly, a dozen buses depart from a station that quickly refills; secondly, trains that do not take the people where they want to go; and then, increased police presence is planned. All of this does not fit together.

As a result, the conditions that Orban referred to as "Germany's problem" will continue to exist in Hungary. For weeks, we have been witnessing the failure of Europe's refugee policy there. At the refugee crisis summit of European foreign ministers on Saturday, it became clear that a common policy does not exist within the union. Eastern European countries reject a refugee quota. No agreements have been reached, which means that there are still 28 different strategies for handling the refugee crisis.

One would like to think that the European refugee summit on September 14 can turn around the situation, but that's probably a bit like hoping for the buses.