As thousands of refugees flood into Budapest’s Keleti railway station every day, Hungary has struggled to respond adequately—and humanely—to the humanitarian catastrophe unfolding at its doorstep. Veronika Pehe, editor at Political Critique, interviews Budapest-based activist Bálint Misetics, who offers some observations on the Hungarian response to the refugee crisis.
Veronika Pehe: Can you describe what is happening at Keleti railway station in Budapest right now?
Bálint Misetics: The situation changes every few days. Less than a week ago, hundreds of policemen stood at the entrances to the station, not allowing refugees inside. This was, I think, one of the most visible applications of racial profiling I have ever seen in Hungary. They checked the ID of everyone whose skin color was not white enough. It was very tense and intimidating. Hundreds of people were lying in the so-called transit zone outside the station, children were walking around, policemen were shouting—a very disturbing scene. Every few hours, people started protesting around the main entrance to the railway station. They chanted slogans mainly in Arabic, but also in English, about Germany, freedom, and how they want to leave.
Then on Friday, the “March of Hope” towards the Austrian border took place. I think that was an extremely liberating experience, especially in comparison to the waiting, the tension, the over-crowding, and the oppressive police presence at Keleti. It was an excellent example of what Martin Luther King, Jr. and other advocates of non-violent resistance have spoken about: if you have a very tense situation, you need to provide a non-violent outlet for this tension, and I think that is what this march was about. It also created a crisis that put the Hungarian, but also the Austrian and German governments, into a situation where they were essentially forced to do something. I don’t know to what extent this was the effect of the march itself, and to what extent it was the result of hidden diplomatic debates. But in any case, that day the Austrians opened the borders for refugees to cross over into Austria and to travel onwards to Germany. At the beginning there was a lot of fear that this would only last for one or two days, but it has now been going on for several days and it has changed the situation completely. There are less people at Keleti station now and most of them are just waiting for the next train. The situation is calm.
The real crisis now is at Röszke, on the Serbian border, where refugees are registered. The registration centre itself is overcrowded, and there are hundreds and sometimes thousands of people outside in the nearby fields, where they are forced to wait to be taken to the centre by buses. The nights are not warm anymore, and you have hundreds of families there, often with children and babies, under the open sky. A lot of volunteers went there and brought tents, blankets, and sleeping bags. But when you have a problem of this magnitude—with thousands of people sleeping in the fields in a temperature of four degrees—it is not something you can solve with a few blankets.
Pehe: Who is actually providing and organizing support for the refugees?
Misetics: The Hungarian government is currently not providing anything for these refugees at Röszke, the only “service” they provide are lines of policemen who are not allowing them to leave. As a Kurdish refugee asked a Hungarian journalist: “What kind of state can send lines of policemen but not buses?” Maybe twice a day the refugees break the police line, they start walking on the highway, and then at some point, they are stopped and taken to the registration centre. It is an extremely tense situation. The scale of the problem is obviously beyond the reach of self-organized volunteers bringing blankets. You would obviously need the emergency response system of the Hungarian state, and in case of the state’s prolonged inaction, UNHCR, UNICEF and other large charity organizations. But this has not been happening.
Pehe: Are the efforts of various voluntary organizations being coordinated in any way?
Misetics: For the kind of situation we had for weeks, it was quite a well-organized system. As self-organized, grassroots volunteer initiatives, the efforts to help the refugees were quite efficient, and a lot of people participated. But this kind of system cannot really solve a situation like this. All these voluntary initiatives providing food, medical supplies, and so on for asylum seekers have been wonderful and very heroic in a sense, but it reflects badly upon how the state is handling the situation if you need heroes for small children to be given basic medical aid. And I think that one of the problems with these volunteer initiatives is that with all the enthusiasm about how helpful they have been—and they have—the most important message is being obscured, namely that the Hungarian state is not fulfilling its basic humanitarian responsibilities, which are not only of a moral nature, but are also established in international treaties. The situation at Röszke clearly shows the limitations of these volunteer initiatives because it is on a scale that only the state could handle quickly and adequately enough. Furthermore, whether people are being provided with adequate shelter, food, and medical aid is a matter of justice and state obligations. They should not be left to the goodwill, free time, and organizational capacities of citizens.
Pehe: We’ve been hearing a lot about the generosity and compassion of the citizens of Hungary, as well as of Austria and Germany, but has there at the same time been any aggression towards the refugees?
Misetics: What is visible is the compassion of the Hungarian people, which is of course very strikingly juxtaposed with the vicious xenophobia and petty political maneuvering of the Hungarian government. But then, if you look at public opinion polls, you see that the majority—including supporters of those opposition parties that have taken a pro-refugee stance—believe that refugees pose a threat to Hungary. There is also a lot of harassment going on. Volunteers