As I stared into the eyes of the thirteen-year-old Mohamed from Syria standing alone one August night at the Keleti railway station – one of the thousands of unaccompanied minors passing though Hungary during the summer – I realized that the world is far more ready to mourn the death of a three-year-old toddler and far less ready to embrace the living. Thousands of desperate migrants began pouring into Europe daily over the summer. Their numbers are in the tens of thousands by now, yet as a community of nations we seem to be as far from a humane and sustainable solution as ever. However, there may be hope within the ever growing, international community of civilian volunteers. Indeed, the despair over the massive scale of human suffering I’ve witnessed since I joined the volunteer efforts has been alleviated only by the equally massive scale of humanitarian activism. It has been one of the most compelling experiences of my life, both as a human rights lawyer and as a civilian activist.
The global scale of crisis regarding displaced populations is ever growing. A portion of this crisis has been directly affecting some European countries (especially Italy, Spain, and Greece) in recent years. Meanwhile both the EU and its member states have systematically narrowed safe and accessible avenues for asylum applications. By the spring of 2015, with the ongoing escalation of multiple armed conflicts in the Middle East, unbearable conditions in local refugee camps, and no hope for effective protection in nearby countries, thousands of migrants redirected their movements, propelled by multibillion dollar smuggling networks, to the relatively cheaper though longer West Balkan route, which includes a shorter though consistently deadly sea passage. Migration experts in the past years have functioned like canaries in the mines warning of the consequences of inaction, impending humanitarian disasters and of new migratory routes. Yet this either fell on deaf ears or triggered only one response: massive securitization, by the erection of physical and legal barriers.
An exclusive focus of securitization – when unmitigated by humanitarian objectives – provides only the illusion of safety and stability. It may be a valid objective, but it must not come at the expense of gross violations of basic human rights and international norms. Unfortunately many countries – including Hungary – followed this path. By spring, the Hungarian government’s national consultation campaign consistently conflated migration with terrorism; the enormously expensive billboard campaign doubled down on the narrative of the danger of illegal economic migrants. Government politicians consistently used the terms “illegal immigrants,” “invasion,” and “threat.” They carefully avoided using the term “refugee,” even during the summer when it was obvious that about 70% of the arrivals are coming from war torn regions, mainly Afghanistan and Syria, and would therefore likely qualify for some form of international protection. Unilaterally declaring that people who merely pass through Greece, Macedonia, and Serbia are no longer refugees is a fallacy inconsistent with appropriate application of international rules of asylum. Even before the crisis, Hungary had a poor record with regards to asylum procedures. Yet proper resources were not diverted to enhance the contingency and preparedness of holding centers and immigration authorities. Although by July the number of daily arrivals exceeded a thousand, the overall capacity of holding centers in Hungary stagnated at 3-4000. Neither was there meaningful cooperation with local representatives of UNHCR, or real intention to work on a collaborative system of processing and settlement with other countries. Granted the general lack of coherence in the EU’s response to the crisis provided Hungary additional incentives to act alone, as it had no intention of becoming the “Ellis Island” of the EU. In part this is understandable; there should have been an EU-wide acknowledgement that the Dublin III processing system is defunct. But the notion that we are protecting Europe by fencing up a part of the corridor, rejecting any discussion on quotas and clinging to the notion that no form of settlement is acceptable is absurd. The argument that if all other EU countries would do the same – thereby pushing people back into death and misery – the problem would be solved is simply cruel. In fact it’s what we’ve been doing all these years.
Nevertheless the Hungarian plan was clear: stem the tide and wait for the remaining migrants to leave. The final step of the Hungarian “solution” was the rapid erection of the fence along our Eastern borders and the series of new immigration and criminal legislation enacted over the summer and fall, cementing the barriers by eviscerating the Hungarian asylum system and making it all but impossible for the vast majority of new arrivals to register, or claim asylum, let alone enter Hungary legally.
In the interim, however, having left society and social services so ill prepared for what was to come, the stage was set for social tension and the escalation of an unmitigated humanitarian crisis. But something unexpected happened in Hungary over the course of the summer that changed the playbook, not just for migrants, but perhaps for all of Hungarian society. Thousands of people began stepping up to donate their time, talent and money out of genuine concern for the wellbeing of refugees and their fellow citizens. They became guides and guardians, mediators between migrants and society, and vital aids to overwhelmed authorities.
There were the well-known groups like Migration Aid, Let’s Help Refugees in Hungary and MigSzol, and the thousands of nameless, spontaneous acts of kindness from those who donated an hour, or a day, or their entire summer vacation to help. To give an idea of the scope of operations: Migration Aid estimated that in July and August alone, they had 500 active regular street volunteers; about 8000 group members and tens of thousands of followers and supporters on Facebook. During these two months, their work totaled 70,000 volunteer hours. “Let’s Help Refugees in Hungary” – a group that worked out of a basement converted into a makeshift kitchen – was bold enough to disregard the lack of licensing and kept providing warm meals throughout the summer. In their first 71 days of operation they provided around 30,000 portions of warm meals and over 100,000 sandwiches to migrants stuck in Budapest. To this day these groups, much like their foreign counterparts, operate primarily within the relative informality of social media networks. Daily operations and communications are coordinated on Facebook and Google. The donations are almost exclusively in-kind, to avoid allegations of misuse of funds. They represent the best of Hungarian ingenuity by having created InfoAid, an android based app to aid migrants and volunteers with live updates in six languages (Urdu, Pashto, Farsi, English, Arabic, and Hungarian). Translators are recruited worldwide. On top of that, for weeks locally and internationally situated volunteer translators and editors of the online blog Refugee Crisis Hungary combed through the most relevant Hungarian language articles and translated them into English to make the often isolated discourse accessible to the world.
Thus from the beginning of the crisis, civil volunteers have taken on tasks of migration management that should have been organized, supervised, and largely performed by government agencies: guiding the arrival and internal transit of migrants; providing immediate medical assistance, information, clothes and food. They have continued to conduct their work in the shadow of informality, constant government critique, charges of aiding and abetting migrant illegality, and the looming danger of reprisals for cutting into the business of an enormous smuggling network, by sheltering and informing migrants of their rights and advocating for safe and legal accommodations and travel options.
The Hungarian obstacle course
Upon arrival during the summer months, migrants were apprehended at the border and detained for 24-48 hours before being released with a certificate from authorities stating their name, age, origin and that they are applying for asylum and designating the holding center they must report to, generally within 24 hours. The document was in Hungarian, accompanied by a blind map of Hungary highlighting the location of holding centers in Bicske, Vámosszabadi, Győr, and Debrecen. They were to make their way on their own on time or risk violating their “duty to cooperate” with Hungarian authorities, which could have a disastrous impact on their subsequent asylum procedures, including immediate expulsion to Serbia. With the exception of unaccompanied minors, no official effort was made to transport migrants or aid or supervise their transit to centers within Hungary. By early August, unaccompanied minors were no longer properly screened or transported to the designated holding center at Fót.
Given the structure of the Hungarian railway system, the vast majority of people had to pass through Budapest, transfer trains – most often change railway stations – and continue their journey from the capital. Never mind their unfamiliarity with the Hungarian language, most migrants came from countries where Latin letters are not used. It was obvious that they were put on an obstacle course that was all but impossible to navigate. Implicit expectations were that most would give up and make their way westward instead of checking into holding centers. This behavior would match the overwhelming narrative of the “illegal immigrant” who is “unwilling to cooperate.”
At Budapest’s Keleti Station
It was in this daily management of flows and needs where the work of volunteers became essential. Task forces from the southern border city of Szeged would send an online or text message to the appropriate train station group in Budapest on the expected size, demographics, and needs of an arriving migrant group:
- “Watch out for this woman in the picture, she is pregnant due to deliver any minute”; “there are three children with fever, they need medication”; “prepare size 40-42 shoes for about 10 barefoot guys”; “the man in the picture is looking for his family could you forward it to our family reunification group?”
Upon arrival, volunteers would check migrants’ documentation, explain the basic legal content, attend to the immediate needs, and arrange for their transfer to the appropriate train station. Sounds simple enough? Not in reality. Families were often separated and wanted to wait for lost members before moving on; some needed rest or medical aid, which was clearly going to result in people missing the last train out. Many were sent up to Budapest far too late to continue their journey and were consequently forced to spend the night on the streets. And within a month it was obvious that people would trickle back from holding centers due to lack of space, lack of clarity as to the legal procedures as well as the wish to move on towards Western Europe as soon as possible.
By August, the three main train stations of Budapest turned into make-shift refugee camps. Though the turnover rate was quite high (population usually changed within 3-4 days) it seemed like a permanent settlement, with an unending supply of new arrivals. Entire families, unaccompanied men and boys, elderly couples, pregnant women and hundreds of children ate, played, slept, and waited for deliverance on our streets. Yet volunteer groups operated without any official logistical support from the state for much of the summer. There was also a conspicuous absence of longstanding humanitarian organizations such as the Red Cross and UNHCR, as most were denied authorization or remained reluctant to join street efforts, in lieu of government approval.
So Hungarians got “creative.”
Pubs and cafés donated their spaces for storage and food-prep. Others provided access to sanitation when migrants were banned from train station bathrooms. Private citizens showed up at night to gather families and take them to their homes for an overnight stay, regardless of the status of their papers. There were specialized groups for medical aid, family reunification, and the transportation of goods and donations to wherever they were needed, including state run holding centers. The Hungarian Helsinki Committee provided constant access to legal aid and information, as did those of us lawyers on the ground. Artists, teachers, social workers turned out in droves to organize play activities for children, photographers offered to take family portraits, hair dressers offered free haircuts, musicians held impromptu concerts, and doctors and nurses as well as lay volunteers put in thousands of hours to provide medical care, including cleaning and draining infected wounds and IV-drips set up on the street for dehydrated patients, thereby significantly reducing the burden on the Hungarian health care system.
But perhaps most importantly, people committed to bearing witness and taking part in the plight of others every single day. They gave names and faces to an otherwise dehumanized mass of “illegal aliens”; they acknowledged migrants’ dignity by listening to countless accounts of hardships endured and homelands left behind; they lent a voice to the voiceless with personal testimonies even if it meant losing the support of friends and family members; they created a system of transparency by posting images and video footage that travelled around the world; and they did all of this amidst their own early fears and prejudices.
With the willful negligence of authorities, social interaction with migrants was supposed to incite only anger and frustration, or worse: violence. Yet through the commitment and courage of civilians, interaction gave way to a collective recognition of humanity as best described by a migrant’s writing on the wall at Keleti station: “The umma (community of people) is like one body, if one part of the body is in pain the whole body will feel it” – or as we Christians would say “If one member suffers, all suffer together” (1 Cor 12:26).
Finally advocacy and tenacity paid off, and in mid-August authorities in Budapest were compelled to allocate official “Transit Zones” at the Keleti, Nyugati, and Déli railway stations. This included indoor spaces for the volunteers and medical staff, a limited number of toilets and showers, as well as clean water supplies. The city also provided transit buses between the three stations. This alleviated some of the pressure volunteers faced having to pay out of pocket for the transportation of thousands of migrants who otherwise were not eligible to use the Budapest mass transit services. The transit zones represented a huge victory, the first formal recognition of the civilian efforts. The sign that perhaps Margaret Mead was right: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
Upon the closing of the border on Sept 15th Budapest – and gradually the country – was mostly cleared of its migrants. The last days before the closure, with masses stuck out on open fields near Röszke waiting for processing, were unbearable. The sudden closure made the well-functioning civilian mediation between law enforcement and migrants briefly impossible, culminating in the otherwise unprecedented and traumatic incidence of violence at the Horgos-Röszke crossing between a group of asylum seekers and counter-terrorism police, leaving scores injured. Now, out of sight, but not out of mind, the volunteers continue their efforts. Groups reconfigured themselves, creating domestic and cross-border task forces. They are scaling the fences by finding new routes to accompany asylum seekers, setting up stations in Croatia and Slovenia. Migration Aid is even considering taking part in humanitarian and development efforts within the refugee camps of Turkey. The work is harder and perhaps more essential than ever as winter sets in. Having joined up with counterparts from other countries, we are witnessing one of the largest transnational humanitarian collaboration in Europe’s history. While governments are playing political dodge ball with the lives of thousands of migrants, civil volunteers from across Europe are stepping up to find solutions.
But one wonders what will take the place of the “migrant,” for better or worse, in Hungary?
Looking at the dominant government narrative, titles like “human rights activist” and “civilian volunteer” have become strangely tainted over the course of past months and perhaps years. Humanitarian efforts have become politicized. The pejorative overtones were most recently accentuated by the comments of Prime Minister Orban in his recent speech on “Signs of the Times” and in a recent radio address. At best, human rights activism is regarded as naïve; at worse, as a subversive political movement aimed at undermining the “nation state.” It is viewed as criminally complicit, alongside smuggling networks, driven by some grand conspiracy to overwhelm and destroy “Christian Europe.”
Given this climate, I cannot overstate the level of courage, ingenuity and commitment that volunteering entails. And most importantly, the love and solidarity it represents, as foundational moral principles of the Christian Europe so many leaders claim to defend nowadays.
To call civilian volunteers or the human rights activists of this crisis pawns of some grand left-wing conspiracy is both insulting and inaccurate. They in fact represent every imaginable political or religious stance or social group, from the CEO to the homeless man who couldn’t bare the sight of children sleeping on the streets at night, even though it was his daily reality. Their commitment has little to do with partisan politics. Yet this form of activism is profoundly political insofar as it demonstrates the ability to act and effect changes in a society all too often paralyzed and fearful. As of yet, grass roots organizations, civilian volunteerism, or community activism have little space or prestige in post-soviet states like Hungary. During the soviet era, there was no room for such bottom-up civic action. The state was terrified of any collective initiative it did not have complete control of and mercilessly persecuted those that tried to self-organize. This resulted in the modern day passivity and a pervasive etatism in our society, leaving fertile ground for the growth of an overly centralized governing leadership, resulting in ever narrowing parameters of democracy.
Yet if we learn to continue to march, organize, use public spaces, and act on behalf of those in need and ourselves, with half as much vigor as we did this summer, the sky is the limit.
If any good comes out of the human suffering we have witnessed, it will perhaps be that we recognize that our humanitarian intervention was in a way opposition by proxy – as the recognition of disenfranchised and vulnerable masses provided a unique opportunity for a social movement to take off. But this must continue as outreach on the home front. There are small signs of this already with domestic outreach efforts spurring from previous migration aid related groups. In this sense this is a subversive movement – though not more than Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s was – in the sense that many of us refuse to hold the nation state as a value above human beings; or to adopt a hollow, ethnically and real-politically ordered notion of Christianity as the future of Europe, or Hungary. Rather – for those of us so compelled by faith and practice – we should advocate for substantive Christianity as the future of our moral and social-economic ordering. It is mere Christianity – as C.S. Lewis puts it – which compels us to embrace our common humanity that transcends religious, ethnic and racial lines and extends our obligations beyond the boundaries of our own religion or society. Pope Francis warned us recently of the globalization of indifference, lest we should “become indifferent and withdraw into ourselves,” as isolationist politics would mandate. Indeed Europe’s humanity and Christianity are in danger. The threat is not external. It is corrupt indifference and the comfort of cowardice within.
We now see glimpses of an opposition to this indifference, when instead of appealing to the perceived Zeitgeist of fear and prejudice as the lowest common denominator, free thinkers decided to appeal to a higher common denominator: an over-arching moral responsibility to treat the “aliens” in need as equal members of our greater human society. In other words, recognizing the true essence of the Christian ethics of love and solidarity makes us inevitably each others’ keepers. Accepting this as our new European paradigm and guiding principle of integration would ensure our sustainable development and collective future.