The struggle of refugees to reach Austria's border echoes brutal scenes from Hungary's history

Scenes at Keleti station in Budapest conjure up echoes of past brutality towards Hungarian Jews, and the uprising against the Soviets in 1956.

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Smartly dressed commuters pick a path through crowds of sleeping families. A forest of satellite dishes, mounted on television vans, points skywards. Rows of refugees sit quietly as a squad of Hungarian riot police watches over the morning scene.

Welcome to Budapest’s Keleti railway station. It is the first day of September and the ochre-coloured, 19th-century terminal has become a main pressure point in Europe’s refugee crisis. More than 170,000 people have arrived in Hungary so far this year. Most cross the country’s border with Serbia to the south, entering the Schengen area of visa-free travel within the European Union.

Keleti has become a temporary home for Afghans, Iraqis, Syrians, Africans and others fleeing war-torn countries. It is the primary rail route out of Budapest to the west, and the people here are hungry and exhausted. But they are also connected and media-savvy. They use WhatsApp to exchange information; Google Maps to plot their routes. Each time a TV camera swings round, a boy sits up straight holding a sign reading: “Syria ♥ Germany”. A ripple runs through the crowd: “Germany, Germany,” the chant fires up.

Hungary is missing an opportunity. Hundreds of thousands of educated, entrepreneurial young Hungarians have left to forge new lives in western Europe. The country lacks doctors, engineers, craftsmen and technicians: precisely the kind of people waiting at Keleti for the next train out.

Most of the refugees are from Syria. Mohammed, a mechanical engineer from Damascus, is travelling with his wife, Wesal, a physics teacher. Both intend to settle in Germany. Ahmed is a lawyer from Tal Hamis travelling with his wife, son and parents, having taken the Balkan route from Turkey through Greece, Macedonia, Serbia and Hungary. “The war in Syria is very bad,” he says. “In Germany I can live in security and freedom.”

At the back of the plaza, in front of the main entrance to the station, a small sign reads “Transit Zone”. Municipal officials and volunteers have set up three transit zones, one at each of the city’s main terminuses. When I visited Keleti in mid-August there were two or three hundred people camped out here. The system was overloaded but provided basic services. Open taps dispensed water for drinking and washing, and there was a handful of showers and toilets. A rota distributed food, water, clean clothing, soap and nappies, and a doctor and nurse provided rudimentary medical care.

The transit zone is now a favela, with families huddled on scraps of cardboard. Syrian teenagers play football on an open plaza. “Shabab, shabab” (“youths, youths”), shouts a middle-aged man, as the ball keeps bouncing into him while he sits against a wall.

In Hungary, as in its eastern neighbours, civil society is still in its infancy. There is little tradition of organising to help others – yet streams of people have been arriving to donate and volunteer in the transit zone, setting up an ad hoc nursery in the open space in front of the Metro. A crowd of people gathers at the office of Migrant Solidarity, a volunteer network, waiting for more water and food.

“It’s fantastic to see the amount of people coming to help,” says Eszter Forgacs, a child psychologist who is volunteering at Keleti. “People are co-ordinating volunteers and food supplies, even organising baby bath mornings for mothers. Hungary has a bad image now – but people need to see this as well.”

A few feet from the Migrant Solidarity office sits Niloofar, a 15-year-old Afghan girl who has been travelling overland with her family for a month, hoping to get to Sweden. “The volunteers are very kind and help us a lot,” she says. Yet some here are angry. “The government is doing everything to make it difficult for us,” says Gergely Komaromy, a reggae musician and volunteer. “They give us zero support and zero help. All the food, clothes and blankets are donated and the translators, doctors and nurses are volunteers. The government says it believes in European civilisation, but we are the ones who are standing up for European and human values.”

Asked why the government does not provide better services, officials say that they “do not want to institutionalise an illegal situation”. The conservative government of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has taken a pounding over the matter, from which it will take a long time to recover.

Orbán says his country is overwhelmed and Europe’s immigration system is broken. Certainly Hungary’s attempts to stem the tide of migration do not appear to be working. A razor-wire fence built along the 110-mile border with Serbia has proved ineffective. Many simply lift the coils to slide underneath, or place coats or blankets on top to climb over.

Earlier this year the government launched a billboard campaign to deter migrants, warning them not to take Hungarian jobs, and to respect local customs. But the billboards were in Hungarian – a language none of the refugees is likely to speak. This confirmed suspicions that the ruling Fidesz party’s “hardline policy on immigration” was being driven by fear of Jobbik, the far-right party chasing Fidesz in the opinion polls. For the next campaign, by J Walter Thompson, the American ad agency, billboards, flyers and a multilingual online campaign will discourage illegal migration in the refugees’ countries of origin and transit.

The sight of weary people trudging from Budapest to the Austrian border has a powerful historical resonance. In November 1944, thousands of Hungarian Jews were forced to walk to Austria on one of the Nazis’ “Death Marches”. Many died on the way or were shot. Those who survived were used as slave labour or sent to concentration camps.

In 1956, in the late stages of the Hungarian Uprising, 200,000 refugees fled west through the same forests in which Syrians, Afghans and Iraqis now dodge police patrols. Upon arrival in Austria they were welcomed and encouraged to make new lives in the democratic west. The comparison is a sensitive one for the Hungarian government, which has denied all parallels, arguing that the 1956 refugees were Europeans, fleeing a Soviet dictatorship that had artificially divided a once-united continent.

And yet, 25 years after the Iron Curtain was breached, a cultural wall remains. The social movements that reshaped the west in the 1960s and 1970s – anti-racism, feminism, gay rights and an openness to and enjoyment of distant cultures – had less impact on the former Soviet bloc. Budapest, like Prague, is a cosmopolitan city, but much of the country remains highly suspicious of outsiders.

Together with Spain, Hungary, Poland, Slovakia, the Czech Republic and the Baltic states have been most opposed to the possibility of mandatory refugee quotas across the EU. Robert Fico, the populist prime minister of Slovakia, has said his country will take 200 Syrians – as long as they are Christian. A poll in August by the research company Tarki showed that 39 per cent of Hungarians thought no asylum-seeker should be allowed to enter Hungary, though 56 per cent thought that the government should consider applications.

For now, the crisis at Keleti has eased. Thousands of refugees set off on foot on 4 September, accompanied by television crews. After a few hours the government buckled, sending a fleet of buses to transport them to the Austrian border. But more refugees are on the way. On the same day, more than 2,000 migrants crossed into Hungary. A thousand more arrived on 5 September and more than 2,000 on 6 September, according to Hungarian police. The government is planning a further crackdown. New laws make it a crime to cross the border illegally. Transit zones will be set up so that migrants and refugees can be processed there. Hungarian police said on 8 September that they have detained 169,000 people for crossing the border illegally.

“Europe is now engaged in a struggle for its existence,” Orbán wrote in an op-ed column for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung on 2 September. “We must acknowledge that the European Union’s misguided immigration policy is responsible for this situation. If Europe does not return to the path of common sense, it will find itself laid low in a battle for its fate.” 

This article appears in the 10 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Syria: the world order crumbles