The Great March

Author: Csilla Mihalicz

Photos: Áron Lukács, Budapest, 05.09.2015

 Part 1

The Background to the Sept. 4th Hungarian Migration Emergency

Tensions ran high for weeks in Hungary after several thousands of people converged and were forced to wait indefinitely at the so-called temporary transit zones in the vicinity of Budapest’s central railway stations. Provisions were supplied to the crowd, the majority of whom were Syrian and Afghans, by Hungarian civil volunteers. Facebook groups, which have become well organized over the past few months, had the help of volunteer interpreters to establish a rapport with the refugees and brought water, food and information on a daily basis. In the evenings, they even arranged film screenings for the children.

The situation became critical when, while tense political negotiations LÁ - Keleti - 20150905 - Cwere taking place between the Hungarian government and the European Union, three unscheduled trains left for Germany carrying refugees. This led to enormous diplomatic complications. The next day, many of those stuck at [Budapest’s] East railway station purchased train tickets intending to board international trains departing for Vienna. They showed their tickets in vain, however, because they were no longer allowed to get on board. Due to the untenable situation at the railway stations, train travel practically came to a halt between Budapest and Western Europe.

Under these circumstances, relief appeared on the horizon yet again when, on the morning of September 3rd, a train labeled Szombathely-Graz [stations in West Hungary and Austria – transl.] rolled into the station and the refugees were allowed to get on board. The train got as far as Bicske [town approx. 40 km West of Budapest – transl.], where 1,000 police officers stood in wait on the platforms, intent on transporting the deceived travelers to a refugee camp. About a hundred of the migrants got off the train but quickly realized the nature of the situation and, with chants of “No camp, no camp! Germany, Germany,” they demanded to be allowed to leave for Germany. The refugees still on the train saw what was happening on the platform and did not want to get off. One distraught head of a family was handcuffed by the police. He protested against being shepherded into a camp by pushing his wife and child onto the rails, even harming himself in the process.

Why are refugees so intent on leaving Hungary?

On Wednesday and Thursday night, demonstrations were organised by civil volunteer groups supporting refugees, with the purpose of protesting against the Hungarian government’s new legislation proposals regarding asylum-seekers. The proposed new laws promised even stricter regulations. The legislative package was eventually adopted on Friday afternoon by the majority party, a requirement for the introduction of these new laws. The right-wing section of the Parliament, Fidesz-KDNP and Jobbik have now introduced three new statutory definitions: illegal entry into the country; causing damage to the razor-wire border fence and obstructing the construction of the border fence will be considered felonies punishable by 1-3 years imprisonment.

Such judgments verdicts will be decided by summary jurisdiction. A jail sentence now automatically means expulsion from the country, even in cases where the verdict separates family members from each other. Should the border fence be violated by armed persons, armed groups, or “crowd disturbance”, the sentence would be 1-5 years of incarceration. If these newly defined forms of crimes are committed “during the crisis caused by mass immigration, in the territories affected”, the court procedure must be a priority and must be dealt with before any other cases. Many refugees have smartphones and follow international news, which they share with fellow refugees. They have concluded that a positive outcome is unlikely in Hungarian asylum procedures, therefore they do not wish to remain in Hungary.

The start of the Great March

While members of the Hungarian parliament were discussing the new asylum legislation, a large group of refugees stranded at Budapest East Railway Station (Keleti station – translator) simply set out to walk through Budapest city center, onto the motorway exit and to the freeway going to Vienna. Several of them carried pictures of Angela Merkel. The young man leading the march said he was Syrian, and stated to the MTI correspondent that the group was going to the border, aiming to reach Germany.

The police secured the route, partly because it had been assumed since Thursday night that Hungarian football hooligans would cause trouble, “warming up” for the Friday night Hungary-Romania European Championship match. It was expected that refugees might be harassed by them. On Thursday night the football hooligans picked fights with the supporters of the other team, they caused disturbances and vandalized whatever they could. Atrocities were expected after the match too.

Part 2

Two or three hundred refugees set out on foot by the M1 motorway from Bicske, with women and children, at the same time as the 1200-strong group left Keleti railway station. Later it was revealed that the two groups kept in touch. Volunteers of MigAid hurried to help them by transporting food and water along the route. They donated pushchairs for the children and planned for a drive-by protest at night, to sympathize with the refugees.

While the refugees marched on, a special summit of the Prime Ministers was held by the V4 countries in Prague, with the participation of the Hungarian Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán. The subject was the ongoing refugee crisis. Prime Ministers Bohuslav Sobotka (Czech Republic), Ewa Kopacz (Poland), Viktor Orbán (Hungary) and Robert Fico (Slovakia) discussed the latest developments in the refugee crisis, and they consolidated their views before the EU summit. “Hungary is one of the countries most affected by the pressures of the influx of migrants and the consequences thereof. Therefore the Prime Ministers of the Czech Republic, Poland and Slovakia wish to pledge their full support for Hungary to be able to rise to this challenge. The Prime Ministers are ready to offer further assistance to Hungary,” reads the declaration which was published in Prague after the summit. So Viktor Orbán had every reason to feel that the V4 countries offered strong background support.

LÁ - Keleti - 20150905 - BThe marchers were already on the motorway when the Hungarian parliament accepted part of the asylum legislation package of the government, which meant that a “crisis situation caused by mass immigration” was declared. The proposal of the government was also backed by Jobbik (Hungarian right-wing party – translator), but opposed by the left-wing parties.

Special measures applicable as a result of the “crisis situation caused by mass immigration” have not been voted on yet because left-wing representatives opposed any deviation from the parliamentary rules of procedure. Such measures include new, wider authority for police intervention, and military deployment. A detailed article regarding this issue can be found here: https://refugeecrisisinhungary.wordpress.com/2015/09/05/this-is-how-they-can-declare-a-state-of-emergency-due-to-mass-immigration/

There are conditions for the declaration of crisis. Such conditions are the numbers of asylum-seekers arriving in the country (500 people per day for a month or 750 people per day for 2 weeks or 800 people per day for a week), the number of residents in transit zones, and any other circumstance relating to migration, which poses a security risk for the public safety of a village, town or city. This means that the events of September 3-4 would fall into the category of “crisis situation caused by mass immigration.”

In a crisis situation the government has the right to order military personnel to register applications for asylum, to consider applying measures for epidemic control, and to allow police to enter homes without a search warrant in search of refugees.

According to the latest plans, Transit Zones will be established at the borders, within Hungarian territory. The Transit Zones will be open only in the direction of Serbia. Asylum seekers will have to wait there while their applications are considered via an accelerated procedure. The authorities will make priority decisions regarding the acceptance of the claims, within at most 8 days. If the application is refused, appeals can be made, but no new facts and evidence will be taken into consideration. The hearing will be conducted by the authorities within the Transit Zone.

Meanwhile the perpetrators of the present “refugee crisis situation” reached Zsámbék, and night was falling…

Part 3

Tensions were running high not only in Bicske, but also at Röszke, at the southern border of Hungary. According to the Délmagyar.hu news portal, two thousand refugees were chanting “Freedom, freedom! Budapest, Budapest!” at noon, after 300 others had broken out of the refugee camp, allegedly because they felt that their applications were dealt with too slowly. Police forces set out to round them up and surrounded the alien registration site. Several hundred police were deployed. According to the information provided by M1 (Hungarian news channel – translator) the spokesperson of the refugees who broke out of the camp said they would give a two-hour deadline for processing their applications. Should the procedure remain slow, they would encourage other refugees to break out of the camp too.

Later there was a fight among the refugees within the camp, where water bottles were hurled and sticks and lathes were found. These were handed out through the fence to the police by the migrants themselves. In the following 30 minutes, police faced refugees who shook the fences now and again, demanding freedom. During less tense moments policemen gave the refugees water. They prevented foreign and Hungarian journalists from approaching the migrants and talking to them. Later in the afternoon the two groups who broke out and ran away towards the M5 motorway were captured. The situation remains tense.

While the groups of marchers walked on towards Hegyeshalom, the Hungary-Romania match ended. Policemen expected football hooligans to try and assault refugees, so they tried to escort them to the underpass area and asked for the help of volunteers in doing so. The football hooligans provoked street fights at several locations. Those who had been watching the match on the screens standing near the Planetarium clashed with the police. They hurled traffic signs, bins and boulders and even set a car on fire. The police deployed water cannons and tear gas in response. A group of the hooligans tried to get to Keleti station from II. János Pál Pápa square but the police squad forced them back. Migrants and hooligans were successfully kept apart.

Approximately at the same time as the football match ended, János Lázár, the chancellor stated at a press conference that the government was offering to transport all migrants currently present in front of Keleti station and on the M1 motorway to Hegyeshalom by coach, should they wish to go there.

“We still do not know about Germany’s decision with regard to refugees staying in Hungary, and the EU was also unable to handle the issue. We have not received any help in coping with the refugee situation. We cannot wait for the EU, for Germany and for Austria, so we made a central decision in order to to enable train- and road traffic in the country to function sufficiently,” announced János Lázár. He emphasised that this decision did not apply to asylum-seekers staying in refugee camps.

Part 4

The Austrian chancellor notified Prime Minister Viktor Orbán on the 4th of September, late at night about the decision of Austria and Germany to allow migrants into their countries. He telephoned after having checked with Angela Merkel, Chancellor of Germany. Werner Faymann also stated that Hungary was expected to perform its duties as an EU country, and be ready to accept the responsibility of sharing the burden of allocating refugees equally, and handling this crisis. The chancellor published the decision on his Facebook page.

The group of migrants travelling from Budapest stopped for a rest on the M1 motorway at 27 kilometres, just before midnight. They were reached by the first 5 of the coaches there. Water and food were also supplied. Most refugees had already gone to sleep under the trees. Most were mistrustful of the coaches, saying that they did not trust the government since they had been misinformed and tricked at Bicske. One self-appointed spokesperson said they would board the coaches only if there were no policemen on board, and the coaches would not leave the motorway. The volunteers of the Hungarian Maltese Charity Organisation tried to convince them that there would be no stops before the coaches reached the border. The refugees told their interpreter they did not want to board the coaches because of the newly adopted legislation package, which shows that they have up-to-date information on the changes of regulations in Hungary.

Red Cross volunteers told the crowds waiting at Keleti station (still worried about the football hooligans nearby) that the government offered to transport them to Hegyeshalom by coaches and buses. Most were happy to go. Ten articulated buses pulled up shortly, and many people boarded. Others asked correspondents about the destination of the buses.

But events were different at Herceghalom on the M1 motorway. Refugees got off the second and the third coach. They said they would wait for the first one to reach its destination, and asked fellow refugees to phone them and affirm that they were transported to Hegyeshalom. Many went to sleep under blankets and covers received from volunteers, to rest after the trying events of the day. They were waiting for the first coach to reach the Austrian border.

There were arguments among those waiting at Keleti station. Many were fearful of boarding, worried that they would be taken to camps. Eventually, they started to get on the buses at around half past 2 in the morning, and they departed for Hegyeshalom.

Residents of Budapest were surprised to hear the press announcement of the Mayor’s Office, which stated that as the refugees had left the Transit Zone at Keleti station, it was decided that the construction of the temporary shelter at Verseny Street would be suspended. At the beginning of the refugee crisis, Transit Zones were established for the refugees at Keleti, Nyugati and Déli railway stations. (Budapest East, West and South railway stations- translator) Keleti station was the most crowded. The Municipality consulted the authorities and volunteers and decided to build a so-called temporary shelter to accommodate migrants. This shelter would have been located at the former market area of Verseny Street. The construction has been halted, which suggests that the Municipality believes the refugee crisis has now ended.

The first coach carrying migrants arrived at the Hungarian-Austrian border at half past three. Volunteers welcomed them with hot tea and blankets.

At an impromptu press conference Zoltán Kovács, the government’s spokesperson expressed his doubts about how Austria would manage to do the work that Hungary could not do. He meant that the refugees would end up in refugee camps in Austria too, which is precisely what they wanted to avoid in Hungary. The spokesman also stated that Hungary abided by all the rules. He warned the EU to be careful what they encourage the refugees to do. Finally, he announced that this transportation of asylum-seekers to the border was a one-off initiative by the government, which would not be repeated.

Part 5

The cleaning up at the underpass area of Keleti station was still in progress when (at about 5 a.m.) more refugees started to show up, hoping that more buses would come to pick them up and transport them to Austria.

In the southern part of Csongrád County policemen and civil guards intercepted 1,817 refugees entering Hungary; 423 were children. The spokesperson of the county police said most of them declared that they were Syrians. Legal proceedings against these illegal immigrants were initiated by the police. 2,181 illegal immigrants were arrested countrywide, 11 suspects are being prosecuted for human trafficking, 2 for forgery of identification documents.

Saturday morning: refugees at Keleti station are waiting around in small groups by the platforms. Waiting for trains, buses, peace, miracles…

LÁ - Keleti - 20150905 - A

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