Volunteers and vigilantes watch over refugees in Hungary | Europe| News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 28.08.2015
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Volunteers and vigilantes watch over refugees in Hungary

The more than 2,000 refugees who cross into Hungary every day may be met by police, vigilantes or helpful locals. None believe the border fence being built will stop the migrants. Csaba Tibor Toth reports from Szeged.

They usually cross through the forests along the border to Hungary in groups of 12-15, routinely arriving on the narrow asphalt road leading to Asotthalom. Locals have grown accustomed to scenes of young men, women and children, walking with backpacks along the roadside. They've also become used to the sight of Hungarian police officers, prepared to take the people into custody. More than 2,000 migrants - mostly refugees from Afghanistan, Syria and Sub-Saharan Africa - make this journey every day.

As a new group arrives, policemen keep watch over a dozen people from Senegal, South Sudan and Mauritania next to a farmhouse fence by the road. The Africans are eager to explain that they have fled from Greece, where some of them spent more than a year as illegal workers.

"There is no humanity in Greece," says a middle-aged man in a yellow, green and red cap in French. "And racism is everywhere. They attack migrants on a daily basis, black or Middle Eastern, it does not matter to them. We just wanted to be out of there."

police officers watch over newly arrived migrants at Asotthalom

By the end of August, the average daily number of migrants arrested rose to around 2,000

Most of the refugees say their destination is Germany, where they hope to secure a safe haven as well as a decent living. But they fear that due to compulsory registration in the first EU member state they set foot in, they will be unable to apply for asylum elsewhere.

Little confidence in Budapest

The right-wing populist government of Prime Minister Viktor Orban certainly does not want them here. In July, Budapest began building a four-meter fence along 175 kilometers of the border to Serbia to keep migrants out. His plan means that by August 31, a so-called "preparatory fence" (shorter in height but covered in barbed wire) should be finished along most of the border area.

Laszlo Toroczkai, a well-known far-right figure and mayor of the village of Asotthalom, shares some of the government's ideas, though he is not confident they will work.

Laszlo Toroczkai

Toroczkai was the first to demand a physical barrier on Hungary's southern border

"I have been calling for a border fence ever since last autumn," he told DW. "I do not think the physical barrier will be able to tackle immigration to Western Europe, yet it will divert it from this village. Honestly, we tried to save Western Europe from the end it faces with this immigration wave; they did not care about us. Now, I am only interested in saving my village from these people."

The mayor admits that no violent crimes have been committed by the hundreds of migrants passing through Asotthalom. He is, though, concerned that they could bring epidemics of "exotic illnesses" to the village.

This is partly why he ordered his own village auxiliaries, "field guards," to track and catch migrants around the outskirts of Asotthalom and hand them over to the police. "The traditional job of field guards is to keep private property safe. As these migrants often eat all the fruit and destroy fields, it is only natural that these people prevent them from doing so.

A field guard watches law enforcement procedures at the border

One of the members of Asotthalom's de facto militia regularly observes law enforcement procedures at the border

The mayor has been accused of welcoming "Outlaws' Army," a small extreme-right militia with close relations to the xenophobic Jobbik party, a backer of Prime Minister Orban. Toroczkai denied the vigilantes were at large at the border, but said they had "paid a visit" to Asotthalom, adding that many local civilians were patrolling the border out of a sense of patriotic duty.

"Illegally crossing a border is now only a minor violation, but hopefully it will soon constitute a major crime," he said and asserted that if the government does not live up to its promise to man the border around the clock, "my field guards and many volunteers are prepared to do this job."

Relief at the station

"Over here! Food, water, no money!" A young man calls a busload of confused refugees over to a wooden shed in front of the grandiose yellow-brick edifice of the train station in the southern Hungarian border town of Szeged. The man is one of the many who do not share Toroczkai's views. He is a volunteer at MigSzol (migrant solidarity) Szeged, a group organized on Facebook to offer direct assistance to refugees.

When the 60 or so mostly Afghan and Syrian people cross the tramline to get to the small square, the surroundings are already bustling with local helpers. Some guide the tired newcomers to outdoor facilities where they can shave and wash their faces, others distribute halal sandwiches, fruit and bottled water to those queuing.

Many of the migrants struggle to believe what they are seeing. A Syrian man in his twenties tries to pay for the food and drinks he receives and puts his wallet away once it sinks in that the volunteers' assistance comes free of charge. The food, drinks, shoes and clothes here are donations from Hungarians across the country in response to Facebook appeals from volunteers.

An Afghan man helps shave one of his compatriots at the Szeged train station

For many migrants, this is the first opportunity in a long time to use hygiene facilities

Refugees typically spend 40-50 minutes at the station resting or trying to make calls once they've been able to recharge their phones in outlets near the shed. Many take advantage of the free Wi-Fi which, in addition to portable toilets and water taps, the Szeged city council has made available.

The migrants are regularly dropped off here by buses operated by the local police. Local law enforcement catches the vast majority of those who are detained at the border. The refugees are then collected in the nearby police detention centers in Röszke and Nagyfa, where they typically wait two to three days for their asylum requests to be registered and to be issued registration papers. Next, the migrants receive a placement in one of the distant refugee camps and a document entitling them to a free train trip there.

Local aid

MigSzol Szeged volunteers know the routine well. The group deals with around four to eight buses per day, each carrying 60-80 migrants, MigSzol organizer Balazs Szalai told DW. The activists took action after Szalai discovered in mid-June that some of the buses drop off the refugees after the last train of the day departs, leaving them stranded. In addition, migrants are not allowed to sleep on the station premises.

A Facebook group was founded in solidarity with MigSzol, a Budapest-based NGO, which started to gather donations as well as volunteers to try to make the situation at least bearable for refugees. More than 2,000 people have joined the group as well as around 200 regular and irregular volunteers. The donations they receive barely fit in the lofty storage room the group uses in a nearby homeless shelter.

The helpers are a diverse lot, both in terms of age and worldview, from an atheist anarchist activist to a Lutheran preacher.

Maria Volkov, a student at the University of Szeged, has been working at the station as a volunteer almost every day of her summer vacation. She got wind of the group on Facebook and was driven to take part after seeing news reports about helpless migrants left to sleep on the streets. "It is mostly university students who join, as the news of the groups spread amongst us rather quickly," she says.

"Most of us are either students or pensioners," commented an elderly woman who was giving out readymade sandwiches in the shed. "We have enough free time on our hands, but others join us irregularly too.”

A refugee takes a bottle of water from a volunteer before departure

Volunteers see off refugees at the station

Back at the square, the call for the next train rings out, and volunteers gather those refugees intending to resume their journeys and see them off at the platform. From Szeged, migrants may carry on to refugee camps in Bicske and Debrecen via the express train to Budapest. Many, however, see the trip as the next leg on their route north, and try their luck from the Hungarian capital. Others, usually those without registration documents, do not even take the trouble to board the train for fear of getting caught, even if that means paying as much as 500 euros ($565) for a lift to Budapest, a 22-euro train ticket away.

Once the train departs Szeged station, the volunteers alert their peers at the next stop, in Cegled, central Hungary, telling them how many people they should reckon with. There, local volunteers will try to make sure the refugees don't miss the connection to Debrecen camp.

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