Crisis and Chaos

Author: Emilia Krug Original title: Válság és káosz
Publication: www. 168ora.hu Date: 20/09/2015

Crisis and Chaos

We spoke with UNHCR’s Hungarian spokesperson among unusual circumstances, sitting on a pallet in the Röszke collection point, just before the complete closure of the “green border”. Ernő Simon says that while his organisation had offered their support to the Hungarian government several weeks ago, they did not receive any meaningful answer for a long time. Developed countries – not only Hungary – were not prepared for the refugee crisis. The UN Agency warns that there could be a global, intercontinental exodus if governments and the private sector do not participate in managing the crisis.


– Over the weekend, UNHCR tents were put up, and your Central European office has opened positions, including for chauffeurs and interpreters. Why only now?

– We started negotiations with the Hungarian authorities and the government way before the crisis situation evolved at Röszke. When we saw what was happening at the Keleti and Nyugati Railway stations, we offered the help of the UNHCR, but there was a deadlock in the negotiations for weeks: we did not get a meaningful answer. Finally on 5 September, they answered that they were ready to receive our assistance.


– That was the day when they decided to put refugees on buses from Keleti Railway Station and the M1 highway to the Austrian border, in order for road traffic safety. It was obvious by then that there was a crisis. Why do you think that they suddenly became open to your assistance?

– Clearly, they felt that the situation was becoming untenable and something needed to be done. The attitude of the government has been changing every 12 hours. One example: they have been talking about transit zones for weeks, and then five days before the regulation about them went into force, János Lázár (Minister, and head of the Prime Minister’s office – trans.) announced that they would not create them. This Monday we heard that indeed there would be transit zones in Röszke and Tompa, and migrants wishing to cross the border could apply for asylum at these two points. At this moment, we do not know how these transit zones would function, whether they will provide the possibility for people fleeing war to receive a fair asylum procedure.


– It seems that the government has known about the increasing refugee flow since the beginning of the year. There was a poster campaign, an anti-refugee national consultation, but how is it that they were not prepared for the flow in terms of a humanitarian intervention?

– That is a question to ask the government. The UN is unable to intervene without the co-operation of the local authorities.


– We are sitting at the centre of the collection point in Röszke, the green border will be closed soon, and even though there are several volunteer and humanitarian organisations, there is considerable chaos: volunteers are selecting clothing, collecting trash, others are distributing food.

– There are lot of individuals here who donated, volunteers come in minibuses and bring in-kind donations. Unfortunately, this has led to considerable chaos in the distribution of clothing and blankets. There are areas of this field in front of us where these items were simply dumped, and all the refugees could pick and choose from the pile. As a result, a lot of the blankets and clothes ended up in the mud. It was sad to see how a lot of food went to waste, as well. My experienced colleagues who had built refugee camps in the past told me it always started like this. It takes weeks to create order from the chaos.


– By the time this interview is published there will be a new era starting – according to the government: in their estimation, there will be nobody crossing the border here, i.e., you can finish the work you have just started.

– We have expected this in part. The September 15th deadline was well-known. What we did not expect was that special trains would take most people from Röszke to the Austrian border. We thought that there would be a couple of days more to care for refugees at this location, too. It is certain that refugees will continue to migrate from the Balkans towards Europe. It is possible that seeing the Hungarian developments they will look for new routes towards Bulgaria and Romania, but mostly to Croatia and Slovenia. As there is no fence along the Croatian-Hungarian border, it is also possible that they will try to go through there.


– According to the plans of the government, all of those who have not submitted an asylum claim in Serbia would be returned, while others should not expect a positive assessment either, as Serbia is considered (officially by Hungary – trans.) as a safe third country. Those coming through illegally will be indicted immediately, and will be deported. However, Belgrade refuses to take in those who Hungary deports.

– According to the UNHCR and the UN, those fleeing war cannot cross borders illegally. In such cases, those who cross borders without proper documents cannot be persecuted or sentenced.


– This does not really interest the Hungarian government.

– Beyond this, there is an internationally accepted guideline of the UNHCR – that several EU Member States have accepted – that Serbia, FYROM and Greece are not regarded as safe countries for returning asylum-seekers, as their asylum systems are barely functioning or with serious shortcomings.


– Even this is ignored by the Hungarian government. Europe has its own set of problems, and beyond a couple of resonant statements, they do not seem to care about the Hungarian legal changes.

– At this point, we do not know how the decisions of the Hungarian authorities will be put into practice. We also have no foresight as to how the Serbian authorities or the refugees themselves will react. It is quite feasible that those who receive treatment contradictory to UN conventions and other international resolutions, will seek redress at international courts. We will see what the outcome of these processes will be.


– There is more to it: (the online news portal – trans.) Index has found incredible exceptions in the omnibus law regarding refugees. One among these is that special procedural safeguards for unaccompanied minors “cannot be implemented” when the border is closed. This means that unaccompanied minors will not benefit from special protection afforded to vulnerable groups. Moreover, neither the indictment, nor the sentence needs to be translated for them in these cases.

– One of the cornerstones of international law and of the principles of the UN is that children benefit from special protections, and their best interests must be upheld. Another basic principle is that if a legal process is started against someone, that person should understand what is happening: s/he should receive legal representation and the possibility of legal remedy – within an appropriate length of time. We are afraid that the three days afforded for appeal after the 8-day-long asylum procedure will not be enough. Especially if people will not understand the decision, and if they have to get an interpreter. All of this contradicts international provisions.


– The government does not care about this either.

– We need to see how the new regulations work after they have come into force. Not even trying to provide interpretation and not giving a chance for legal remedy goes against all regulations.


– The government is persistent: the fence is being built, and the army has arrived at the border.

– The authorities need to control traffic across borders, it is unacceptable that tens of thousands cross without control. However, for a person fleeing war there can be no fence, or razor wire stopping them from claiming asylum at the border. Even the newly approved “Basic Law” (the Orban government’s replacement of the Constitution) states: Hungary provides protection to those who have proven to have fled wars.


– Montserrat Feixas Vihé, head of the Regional representation of the UNHCR, has written to Representatives of Parliament back in July, criticising the legal changes and offered UNHCR’s co-operation in finding solutions that abide by international law. Has anyone asked for your help?

– As far as I know, only one representative answered her letter. In the recent past, our co-operation with the government suffered glitches. When making amendments to regulations, we have experienced that they have not even approached us, or if they had, they provided us with impossibly short deadlines for feedback.


– Not only Hungary, but several other EU countries also neglect your organisation – the UNHCR has run out of money. In 2015, the target was USD 1.26 billion raised, and 40% of this – or USD 463 million – is still missing. As a result, the situation in refugee camps in countries neighbouring Syria has deteriorated, food rations – according to local reports – are only sufficient for the following two weeks, and there are some who have used the same blanket for the past four years.

– This amount is only a part of our request for funds. The UNHCR does not have a fixed budget. We operate from pledges made by governments, private donors, NGOs and the private sector. However, these pledges have been dwindling.


– Even if it is quite evident: if a refugee cannot return home, and the conditions in camps deteriorate, he will continue his journey towards more developed countries.

– We have tried to highlight this issue, but developed countries did not prepare themselves. Four million people fled Syria into Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt. They do not stop there anymore, as these countries are full. In Lebanon, with a population of 4.5 million, they have received 1.5 million Syrian refugees, in Turkey there are two million – ten times more than in all EU Member States combined. The situation of refugees cannot be solved by increasing aid; this is a much more complex issue. Last year alone, fifteen new conflicts broke out in the world. In Ukraine, there are 1.5 million internally displaced people who have fled their homes, although they have not crossed borders. The international community is not able to stop the bloodshed. The Head of the UNHCR, António Guterres, appealed to the participants of the Davos World Economic Forum, reiterating that the current asylum system is reaching its limits, both in terms of its resources and its forms. Voluntary pledges do not suffice anymore. The participation of the private sector would be needed but not only in the form of donations. They need to bring investment into countries where the refugees go, i.e., Jordan or Turkey, so that these countries can bear the increasing burden. If the locals and the refugees do not find employment and sustenance, we will experience a global, cross-continent exodus.

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