Standing on the platform in Budapest’s Keleti Station after guiding the final group of refugees onto the trains this past Friday evening, Ibrahim Kasem explained the situation to me. A kindergarten teacher originally from Syria himself (he speaks Arabic), Kasem is one of three translators consistently seen on the platform aiding refugees. He acknowledged that the shortage of professional aid was affecting their abilities to help.
“In [this] moment, I will give you help. Tomorrow,” Kasem said, lifting up the unofficial name tag he had drawn himself so that refugees could identify him as a volunteer, “when I coming here, if I don’t put this paper, nobody know me. Nobody know me. It is very, very sad.”
As people flee the violence and war of the Middle East, hoping to reach the European Union, Hungary has become one of their main transit zones. Thousands of refugees terrorized by the Syrian Civil War, the Islamic State, or both, have flooded Hungary, and Budapest in particular. Two weeks ago, the far-right Hungarian government saw an increasing swell of refugees bound for the EU border, and it initiated desperate and draconian tactics to prevent their passage on to Germany, Austria, and the Netherlands. All rail traffic from Budapest’s main terminal, Keleti, was suspended. Budapest, and the thousands of refugees stranded in the city, were thrown into crisis. Protesting the shutdown, masses of refugees began the walk of a little over 100 miles from Budapest to the Austrian border.
And yet, there is hope in Budapest. Train travel has since resumed, and large quantities of supplies, resources, and volunteers have begun to reach the city. Fundraising campaigns have helped purchase thousands of train tickets for those unable to pay. The refugees, though exhausted, praise the help that they are getting in the form of food, blankets, tents, clothing.
“This is the most organized area since we started this journey,” says Louie, a Syrian in his 20s who had been traveling with his father, brother, and cousin for eight days when we spoke in the train station. He was referring to the aid area beyond the train platforms. The space is a semi-open, sunken walkway connecting the rail station to the metro, and it has become the place where many of the refugees gather.
But despite improving conditions, substantial problems persist. The Hungarian government has failed to send any form of tangible assistance: no translators on the platforms, no doctors in the tents, no food supplies. Numerous international aid organizations, such as the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) and UNICEF, may not administer assistance until the Hungarian government requests it, despite their longstanding presence within the country.
So, with few professionals on the ground, the work of helping the refugees has fallen to a collection of volunteers from around the world—from Europe, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia. Donating what time they can, volunteers are determined and increasingly more effective, yet they lack the training and resources to fully handle the unprecedented situation. And along with the volunteers to help, the refugees’ situation here has drawn scammers to prey. To put it simply, Keleti has become a microcosm of the shitshow that has Hungary in crisis.
Though large amounts of supplies appeared throughout Thursday and Friday nights, one organization, an NGO known as Migration Aid, had no way to transport the material to the Serbian-Hungarian border, where Doctors Without Borders recently estimated that 60 percent of their patients are children. One group of volunteers arrived late Thursday evening with a van full of materials, only to be turned away.
“This is like a five-star hotel compared to the Serbian border,” said Usman, the driver of the group, and a Pakistani living in Belfast who asked to go by his first name. (Most of the people I spoke to for this story requested that we only use their first names, either because they feared for their jobs or for their safety. Usman told me that his employer had cautioned his colleagues and him against going near Keleti Station on their work trip.) “So,” he told me, “getting the supplies over here is not good enough because they’re not getting the supplies to the border. They said that it’s best if you guys—as in us—figured it out ourselves, how to get the things from here to the border... And they don’t have transport available, basically.”
Refugees arriving in Keleti are often confused and misinformed. They know nothing about the resources—such as medical attention and access to food and water—being given to them. One man, frail and probably in his 60s or 70s, clutched a sweaty handful of euros as he looked around the area. He asked me where he could buy water; I pointed him to an area with free water just a few feet away. Another Syrian group, traveling with a child whose hand had been shot by Greek police, was unaware that medical aid was being offered in an office less than 30 feet away. Many without money do not know that they can be given train tickets donated by volunteers, and those with the smallest amount saved have been targeted by scammers, Usman said, paying hundreds of euros for train tickets that are worth just ten.
Among volunteers now assisting the largest immigration wave since the Second World War, stories of scammers profiting from the chaos are endless. Jim, who has lived in Budapest for five years, said he had seen a wide range of abuses in the weeks he’s been volunteering at Keleti: “There was a family in the early days—about three weeks ago—that paid 1500 euro [to be smuggled from the Serbian border] and [the smugglers] dumped them in the forest and they took off with the money. Didn’t make any progress at all. Sometimes people come to us and they’ve spent so many thousands of euro and they’ve been fleeced and cheated all the way through this whole process.”
According to John, an American volunteer living in Budapest, on Friday and Saturday nights, an English-speaking Hungarian man appeared near the station, selling false “German Registration Forms.” The man told different groups of refugees that he could expedite their asylum applications for 100 euros. He supposedly approached migrants as they were being dropped off by taxis.
“People arriving from the border,” Usman tells me, “they don’t know anything about this place.” Once they’ve passed over the Serbian border, the vast majority of refugees then walk the some 125 miles by foot to Keleti station, traveling all day and arriving in the middle of the night.
I met Noor Mohammad Shirzad, who had just made the journey with his two cousins. Noor is 18 and from Kunduz, Afghanistan. “To the morning, six o’clock morning to nine o’clock night. Walking. No money, no food. Walking,” he said, adding that border patrols refused to take him to Budapest because he could not pay them. “Police coming just give me one water…So hungry. No food, no bread, no biscuit. Just water, they give.”
Walking home from the station one night, I came across a group of five Syrian men wandering the streets, asking for a bus station. I escorted them to Keleti. One volunteer, leaving work, found a group of Afghan refugees on the streets. They had slept three nights under a bridge in Budapest, with no money left and unsure of where to go.
The situation isn’t much better for those who can afford to stay in Budapest. Recently, local media outlets, refugees, and volunteers have identified at least five hotels in different parts of Budapest working with cab drivers to rob refugees, many of whom have been brought straight from the Serbian-Hungarian border, of what little they have. Volunteers allege that one hotel, known as Hotel Berlin, forces refugees to pay around 350 Euros a night—seven times the normal rate. Guards are placed on each floor, as well as at the lobby to block their exit. Only after they have been divested of everything are they released.
John explained that refugees were paying “200-300 euros per person to take a cab here, so, you know, for a full cab, let’s say, 800 euro. And instead of taking them to Keleti they’re taking them to these hotels. And presumably then they’re not able to leave until they pay.”
He told me he’d “met several people who have lost their families because they’ve gotten in different cabs than the rest of their families. And these people have ended up here but the families who have money with them have disappeared. They got into a cab, they were on their way to Keleti, they never showed.” Some refugees, according to another volunteer working in the same group, show up to Hotel Berlin believing that they will be taken to Germany in a few short days. She told me that some even arrive at the hotel believing they’ve arrived in Germany.
Alarmed by the stories they were hearing, a group of volunteers—John included—ventured out to the hotel. It was located in a secluded area about four miles from the train station, with no businesses or residents nearby; even with a GPS, they had trouble finding the building. “If you go there,” one volunteer told me, “you have to want to go there. You’d have to know where it is. It’s completely hidden.”
“The desk clerk,” John said, “told us that there were three or four rooms that maybe had refugees in them. But when we were there we saw more than a dozen refugees peek out of their rooms. I went up the stairs and every time I got a new floor someone [presumably hotel employees] would open the door and glare at me...as if they were standing guard.” These and other stories of surveillance teams on the property were consistent with the claims of refugees, who said they were prevented from leaving when they made attempts.
The volunteers, John said, intercepted arriving groups and brought them to Keleti instead. “We rescued between 80 to 85 refugees from going there,” he said.
According to multiple sources working at Migration Aid, the manager of the Hotel Berlin recently showed up claiming to offer aid at Keleti. He acknowledged that smugglers were using his hotel but denied any responsibility. He had come, apparently, to complain about the bad press.
As Louie, the Syrian traveling with his family, waited for trains on Thursday, he weighed the decision of seeking out a smuggler. “Not all of our friends get on a train,” he said. “They got some taxis, some cabs. But this is illegal, you see, my friend. This is like human trafficking. They get us through the border, to Germany, to Netherlands. You pay them like 500, 800 euros. This is easiest—it’s the easier way. But I think it’s kind of risky.”
I asked him to elaborate: “The problem is that people [waiting for the trains] are so violent. They pushing each other, they hitting each other. If you stay in the line, if you respect yourself, you won’t get on the train. You have to be violent. You have to push people. You have to be uncivilized. So, this is a big problem.”
Few of the refugees passing through Keleti want to stay in Hungary; their goal is to pass through to other parts of the EU. If you’re cutting northwest from Syria or other parts of the Middle East to Western Europe, Hungary’s geographical position makes it a logical intermediary. Most travel routes bring refugees on an itinerary through Turkey-Greece-Macedonia-Serbia-Hungary and onwards.
Many of the refugees I spoke to told me they were bound for Vienna or Munich, however they can only travel as far as the Austrian border, at which point they must walk for two or three miles and take an Austrian or German-sent bus for another six miles before they can continue on.
But migrants hoping to cross through Budapest move in fear of the Dublin rule, which states that the country the applicant first arrives in is responsible for processing their asylum request. The idea here is that applicants won’t be able to apply in multiple countries, and it has left refugees terrified to register themselves in Serbia (the point of entry for refugees moving northwest) or Hungary. Many seeking asylum attempt to leave either country before they have registered; they are desperate to leave Budapest behind.
“There was a [pregnant] woman here yesterday with contractions three minutes apart,” said Kathleen Leak, a volunteer in the medical center from Yorkshire, England. “[She] discharged herself from the hospital, took painkillers and got on the train because she was too frightened to stay in Hungary and deliver the baby. The border’s two hours away—the baby would have been born on the train…She was just so frightened to deliver here because she thought the police would arrest her.”
Recently, volunteers and refugees alike have been staring down a terrifying deadline. At midnight last night, the hard-right Hungarian government closed its borders to immigrants, and threatened to arrest anyone found to have entered the country illegally. As of last night, thousands of refugees were stranded in Serbia, unable to cross into Hungary, prompting a government minister in Serbia to declare that it will not become a “concentration camp” for the rest of Europe. On Friday, with no resources sent to the camp, the government deployed 3,800 soldiers south to help complete a fence along its border with Serbia.
People flooded into Keleti over the weekend, and the number of refugees crossing the Serbian border were expected to reach into the tens of thousands by Sunday night. “People are ready to die to make it here before the 15th,” one volunteer, Zach, said. But today, Keleti station is very quiet. Volunteers are decamping for the Serbian border, where they will have to figure out how to get supplies to the thousands of refugees left stranded.
Nicholas Cameron is a journalist and writer from Toronto. [Photo via Getty]