In Hungary good Samaritans come to aid of asylum seekers

September 5, 2015

Hundreds of asylum walking to Vienna on the M1 motorway
Hundreds of asylum seekers walking to Vienna on the M1 motorway

Responding to an urgent plea for help from Migration Aid and other NGOs, hundreds of Hungarian and Austrian volunteers converged on Herceghalom, Hungary, to distribute water, food, blankets, clothes, and even baby strollers to an estimated 3,000 to 5,000 Syrian refugees camped out in the open by the side of the M1 motorway.

Asylum seekers sleeping by the side of the M1 highway. Photo: Ben Novak
Asylum seekers sleeping by the side of the M1 highway. Photo: Ben Novak

Under the watchful eye of international film crews and Hungarian police, volunteers moved from family to family, distributing bottled water and sandwiches to the refugees visibly exhausted from the ordeal of the past few days.

Asylum seekers sleeping by the side of the M1 motorway. Photo: Ben Novak
Asylum seekers sleeping by the side of the M1 motorway. Photo: Ben Novak

Denied permission to board trains to Austria, some 400 asylum seekers departed for Vienna on foot Friday shortly before 1 pm.  Within hours thousands of asylum seekers had gathered their meager belongings and set out for Vienna on foot, many in bare feet.

One of hundreds of families along the M1 motorway. Photo: Ben Novak
One of hundreds of families along the M1 motorway. Photo: Ben Novak

By nightfall some 2,500 refugees had reached Herceghalom before bedding down by the side of the M1 for the night, having walked 20 miles (32 kilometers) without stopping.   A number of families with small children or seniors only made it as far as Biatorbagy before trying to sleep.  Many lacked so much as a blanket to protect them from the drizzling rain.

Volunteers distributing clothing to shivering asylum seekers
Private Hungarian citizens distributing water to asylum seekers  Photo: Ben Novak

The trek proved too much for one older refugee, who had to be taken to hospital.

Refusing to be diverted onto secondary roads, the asylum seekers left Hungarian authorities little choice other than to dispatch hundreds of police cars to keep guard on the outer westbound lane, bringing westbound traffic on the M1 to a virtual standstill.  In Budaörs and elsewhere police accompanied the migrants on foot to prevent them being attacked by right-wing extremists aroused by the government’s xenophobic propaganda of late.

Good Samaritans distributing food and clothing by the side of the M1 motorway. Photo: Ben Novak
Good Samaritans distributing food and clothing by the side of the M1 motorway. Photo: Ben Novak

And then a miracle happened.  Under pressure from European politicians, and with the eyes of the world on Hungary, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán appears to have had a change of heart.

At 10 pm Minister responsible for the Prime Minister’s Office, János Lázár announced that the government of Hungary was dispatching 100 buses to Herceghalom to transport the refugees to the Austrian border some 80 miles (129 kilometers) away, although he could not guarantee that the government of Austria would allow them to cross.

Buses arrive to transport asylum seekers to Austria.
Buses arrive to transport asylum seekers to Austria. Photo: Ben Novak

Austria subsequently announced that the asylum seekers would be allowed to enter, and that it would facilitate their passage to Germany.

Among the refugees were two teenage boys who said they had each paid EUR 1,100 to be transported in a 6-meter-long boat along with 43 other asylum seekers from Turkey to Greece.  They said they had walked from Iran to Turkey and then from Greece to Hungary.  Their final destination was Sweden, where they have relatives.  They were delighted to learn that buses would take them to Vienna whence they would be transported to Germany.

The Budapest Beacon’s Ben Novak and the Financial Times’ Andrew Byrne were among the hundreds of volunteers distributing aid late into the night.