Crisis and Chaos at Röszke

September 21, 2015

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Translation of Emilia Krug’s interview with UNHCR spokesperson Ernő Simon published under the title “Crisis and Chaos” (“Válság és chaos”) in the September 17th, 2015 edition of 168óra.

Amidst extraordinary surroundings, sitting on wooden palettes, we interviewed the Hungarian spokesman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).  Ernő Simon says his organization offered its help to the government for weeks without receiving a response.  Not only Hungary but other developed countries did not prepare for the refugee crisis either, even though the UN organization believes if governments and the private sector do not play a role in the crisis management, we will experience a global exodus that will affect the entire continent.

UNHCR set up its tents in Röszke at the weekend.  Its central European office placed a number of want-ads.  For example, you are looking for drivers and interpreters.  But why only now?

We have been meeting with the Hungarian authorities and the government for weeks, and started long before a crisis situation developed in Röszke.  When we saw what was happening at the Keleti (Eastern) and Nyugati (Western) train stations (in Budapest), we offered the help of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, but for weeks the negotiations went nowhere and we did not receive a definite answer.  Finally, on September 5th they notified us that they were prepared to accept our help.

On that day they decided that in the interest of public transportation safety they would transport refugees from the M1 motorway and from Keleti to the Austrian border.  Chaos was already apparent then.  Why do you think they became open all of a sudden?

Obviously they came to experience more and more that the situation is getting worse and that something needed to be done.  It has been apparent since then that the government’s position changes every twelve hours.  Just one example: they talked about transit zones for weeks—then five days before they came into being (Minister Overseeing the Prime Minister’s Office) János Lázár announced that they would not be created.  On Monday of this week it turned out that there would be transit zones in Röszke and Tompa, and that refugees can apply for asylum at these two points.  For the time being we don’t know how this is going to work, and whether it will provide refugees fleeing war the opportunity to apply for asylum and participate in a correct refugee procedure.

It is as though the government has known since the beginning of the year what kind of wave of refugees we could expect.  There was a billboard campaign, an anti-refugee national consultation. Why didn’t they prepare from a humanitarian point of view as well?

You have to ask the government.  The United Nations is not able to do anything in any country without the cooperation of local authorities.

We’re sitting here in the middle of the collection area in Röszke.  They are about to close the green border.  And while a number of civil and humanitarian organizations are present, the chaos is rather great: volunteers sort through clothes, collect garbage, others distribute food.

There are a lot of individual donors.  Civils are bringing supplies with minibuses.  Unfortunately, this comes at a cost, because the  distribution of clothes and blankets took place carelessly in a disorganized manner.  There are places in the fields around us where these were not distributed.  They simply deposited them and everybody helped themselves.  The result of this was that a lot of stuff got covered in mud.  It was painful to see that a lot of food met the same fate.  Experienced colleagues of mine who have built refugee camps say that, unfortunately, it always starts like this.  It will take weeks for order to emerge from chaos.

Except that by the time this interview is published, a new era starts according to the government, which calculates that nobody will be able to walk across the border here.  In other words, the work that you started will also end here.

We partly calculated with this.  We are aware of the September 15th deadline.  However, we did not calculate that they would transport such large groups of people in the days leading up to the closure of the border.  From Röszke they were taken by special train to the Austrian border.  We think that it will be necessary to provide for refugees for another couple of days.  What is certain is that refugees coming from the Balkans will continue to try to enter Europe.  It is possible that they will look for new routes to Bulgaria and Romania as a result of the changes in Hungary, but rather in the direction of Croatia and Slovenia.   But it cannot be ruled out that they will also try the Hungarian-Croatian border where there is no fence.

(He sure called that one!-ed.)

The government’s idea is that if someone did not apply for asylum in Serbia they should automatically be returned to Serbia. However, they cannot expect their applications to be approved because we believe Serbia to be a secure country.   On the other hand, those who enter the country illegally are to appear in court and deported.  Except Belgrade won’t take anyone we want to send back.

The position of the UNHCR and the UN is that those who are fleeing war cannot illegally cross a border.  Those who arrive across a green border at such times without proper documentation must not under any circumstances be punished or persecuted.

The Hungarian government doesn’t care about that.

Beyond that, the recommendation of the UNHCR, which is valid internationally, and which the majority of EU countries accept, is that Serbia, Macedonia and Greece are not secure countries for asylum seekers from the point of view of returning them, because there are hardly any systems for dealing with refugees, and those that exist operate with serious deficiencies.

That doesn’t interest the Hungarian government either.  Europe has its own problems.  Apart from a few loud pronouncements, I don’t see that they want to deal with the changes to our laws.

For now we do not know how all of this will be realized in practice.  Nor do we see clearly how the Serbs and the refugees themselves will react.  It could easily happen that those countries that participate in abuses and go against UN regulations and international official points of view will seek legal redress at international courts.  We’ll see how these procedures end up.

But there’s more.  Index realized that a large number of exceptions were incorporated into the salad law on refugees.  One is that special procedures pertaining to minors cannot be used.  In other words refugees under 18 no longer belong to the circle of those entitled to special protection.  Furthermore, other important provisions of the criminal law no longer need be applied in these matters:  it is not necessary to translate for them either the indictment nor the judgement.

It is a fundamental basic principle in international law and in the operations of the UN that children enjoy special treatment regardless of location.  Their interests must be especially protected.  It is also a fundamental international norm that if there is an official procedure against someone, especially a legal one, that he should understand what is happening with him, and that he receive legal defense and the opportunity for legal redress, and that sufficient time be allotted for this.  For this reason we are worried that a three-day appeal period won’t be enough after a procedure lasting eight days to prepare an appeal.  Especially if the people will not understand the judgement and if they must obtain translators themselves.  All of this contradicts all international regulations.

All the same, the government doesn’t care.

We need to see how these developments work in real life.  If it happens that they do not try to provide translators for the refugees and they are not given a chance for legal redress, this goes against every law.

The government is determined: the fence is being built, the army is stationed on the border.

It is necessary to check traffic across the border.  Even we cannot accept that tens of thousands cross the border without control.  At the same time no fence, razor wire can be an obstacle to people fleeing war when people arriving to a country’s border want to apply for asylum.  Hungary’s recently adopted Basic Law also says that Hungary takes care of those about whom it is proven that they are fleeing from war.

Montserret Feixes Vihé, the regional representative for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, wrote a letter in July to members of parliament in which he criticized the changes to the law and proposed that the UNHCR cooperate with the Hungarian border authorities in finding solutions that were in accordance with international law.  Did anyone ask this assistance?

As far as I know only one opposition member of parliament answered us.  In the past our cooperation with the Hungarian government has been anything but smooth.  What we experienced was that changes to the law had already taken place before anyone contacted us, and when they did they gave us an unreasonably short time to react.

It is not only we Hungarians but the other EU Member States who have not paid much attention to your organisation.  The UNHCR has run out of money.  It wanted to raise $1.26 billion in 2015 but 40 percent of this, $463 million, is still missing.  As a result of this the situation in refugee camps in countries bordering Syria has deteriorated, and the monthly food allocation is only enough for two weeks according to our sources.  Those who have been sleeping under the same blanket for four years are alarmed.

This amount is only part of what we requested.  UNHCR does not have a fixed budget.  We operate on what we get from governments, private individuals, civil organizations and the private sector.  However, that is less and less.

Despite the connection being obvious:  If a refugee cannot go home, and the situation in the camps gets worse, he will leave for a more developed country.

We have been trying to continuously call attention to this but the advanced countries still did not prepare.  Four million people have fled Syria for Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt.  But they are not stopping there because these countries are full.  There are one and a half million Syrians in Lebanon with its population of four and a half million.  Two million are living in Turkey, that is ten times more than all those who departed for EU member states.  Speeding up relief does not solve the refugee situation.  It is much more complicated than that.  Just last year 15 new crises exploded in the world.  There is also a crisis in Ukraine, where there are 1.5 million internally displaced people, who have not crossed the border but have left their homes.  The international community is still not able to stop the bloodshed.  The head of UNHCR, Antonia Guterres, issued a call to action earlier this year addressed to World Economic Forum participants in Davos, in which he emphasized that the current refugee system is bordering on being unworkable, both in terms of sources and its structure.  Donations from volunteers are no longer sufficient.  Involvement of the private sector is required but not only in the way of donations.  There, where the refugees are going first, for example Jordan or Turkey, it is necessary to undertake investment in order for the countries to withstand the growing burden.  If both those living there and the refugees do not find work, means of survival, then an exodus will take place with global and continental implications.