There has been much talk and media coverage about the human tides of refugees pouring into Europe this summer, with Budapest Keleti train station playing its part as a transit point for so many on a route to Germany and perhaps elsewhere, with their hopes to find freedom.
Whilst the border guards are still doing what they can to control the Schengen territory, here in Budapest, police, journalists, TV crews and surveillance have been most prominent within the immediate Keleti area, in what has been a very tense atmosphere. Last week brought the worst scenes to our attention as chaos ascended with conflicts at the borders, cancellation of westbound train services and refugees left to fend for themselves.
Keleti train station, with last week’s heatwave, was completely unprepared as it quickly turned into a refugee camp for thousands of people, mostly from Syria and others from Iraq and Afghanistan, with what has been a very long and precarious journey and the biggest refugee crisis since the Second World War.
Hungarian civil organisation Migration Aid has opened a centre on the premises with local people distributing food, toys, clothes and other comforts, and is doing a very good job. But no one’s efforts were enough to attend so soon to all the needs of so many people with small children stranded at Keleti last week.
I came here on various occasions to find out more about these people who have been through so much. Not knowing what to expect, I presented some groceries to a young family with a young child and a baby boy. All were sitting in the intense heat under a tree, harboured by the busy Ring Road island in front of Keleti train station with all the noise and traffic passing by.
They greeted me and allowed me to sit beside them. The mother, who spoke good English, told me her child was born in Syria a month ago. But all her family had to leave immediately afterwards as they had lost everything. They were on the road for three weeks before arriving in Budapest and had been waiting for three days at Keleti for their passage out.
Saturday morning I returned to Keleti with children’s clothes and toys. The family I met the day before had gone. I handed out the contents of my bag for anyone else in need, and received many thanks and smiles. Despite the hopelessness, it was enchanting to see the eyes of children dance with delight as I handed out toys and teddy bears to them which they cherished. There were also other local people handing out food and drinks in this same way. All was well received, as there was little cheer beyond this point in the stuffy, airless underground passageways packed to capacity.
I sensed the feeling of respect from those I met, as I respect them in the same way. The difference is they are now having to rebuild their lives away from wars and conflicts. As so often, it is the ordinary people who are the victims of the radicals and extremists. All this has created a state of emergency for Europe. To date, no credible solution has been found by Brussels, the world community or the Hungarian authorities for the thousands of dispersed, extremely tired, traumatised and culture-shocked migrants, all in search for a new life.
After last week’s quandary at Keleti, conditions lightened over the weekend: some public transport resumed its schedule and traffic started to move again. Those with tickets proceeded but there was not enough transport to meet with all demand. Those who were left behind and fed up after days of waiting in slum conditions took to the road and started to walk the 240 kilometres to Vienna along the M1 motorway into the night. These scenes were immediately broadcast all over the world and brought back echoes of 1989 and 1956 to Hungary. Fortunately buses finally came as a surprise move, and took them to the Hungarian/Austrian border.
Fortunately for the people still at Keleti, the situation over last weekend improved enormously. A big tidy-up operation took place on Sunday and some order has been restored with Migration Aid now in full swing. Most trains are back on schedule. The heatwave moved on, finally some rain came and conditions became seemingly more pleasant – at least during the daytime, as the nights suddenly became colder than expected for those still having to sleep rough.
I returned on Monday with more clothes and blankets. After seeing last week’s suffering, it was good to see that Keleti train station had now transformed into an orderly help centre. Whilst most of the attention with everyone is with the train departures; for those who had to wait, there was now something to eat and drink, one could freely find a new set of clothes, and for the children, there was a playgroup in the vicinity as well as local people providing entertainment and folk dancing.
This is good news for some but pressure is still on for Hungarian authorities to control the situation, maintain relations with neighbouring countries and provide assistance for those in need whilst on their territory. It is not known how many have shown defiance with the new, controversial razor-wire fence along the border with Serbia and how many more will stream into Hungary and the EU without registering.
Hungary and the Balkans did not receive much good international press throughout this crisis, as Prime Minister Viktor Orbán with his strong messages continuously asking Germany and Austria to close their borders and stop allowing further flows of refugees. However, the world should also see that the situation has obviously affected many good-willed Budapesters and Hungarians alike who did come to the rescue and provide, either at Keleti or on the motorway, in the best way they could.
The crisis is not over, whilst Germany is smelling of roses for its efforts. There are the critics too who sense the dangers. This should not only be a political matter with fall-outs. There should also be further cultural understandings and awareness which we must all respect. With this comes further respect from all sides and more hope for the future.