Recently Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán stated that the refugee camp in Debrecen should be closed and the people in shelter there returned to their country of origin on account of the vast majority of them being “unruly subsistence migrants” (i.e. foreign criminals who want your job).
Abcúg correspondents Eszter Neuberger and Márton Magócsi visited the refugee camp this week. The people they met claimed their lives were in danger in their home country, either because war is raging or because they are persecuted as members of a minority. Many of the people the writers met there spoke excellent English and claimed to hold university degrees. Many said they had been gainfully employed for many years before being forced to flee their country.
The people spoken to were fully aware of just how difficult it is to achieve refugee status in Hungary. Many of them are eager to leave Hungary even if it involves spending months in hiding or paying human traffickers hundreds of thousands of forints to transport them further west.
The refugees are housed in a former Soviet army base to the south of Debrecen. During the day one can see groups of men walking alongside road no. 48 towards the city center. Women and children seldom leave the refugee camp. The HUF 400 (USD 1.5) bus ticket is too expensive. Fortunately, they needn’t walk as far as the distant city center to access basic services. Across the road there is an internet café whence they can place cheap international calls via Skype, and an exchange office offering money wiring services.
Just opposite the camp there is also a small pub. A lot of people can be seen here but few can afford the price of a beer or a coffee. Most of them are saving up to leave Hungary for Austria as soon as possible. People line up in front of the exchange office every day to receive financial aid from friends and family living in Germany, Sweden or elsewhere. It is this money that will cover the cost of their journey.
According to the Dublin regulations refugees are required by law to await decisions regarding their status in the country where they applied for it. Nevertheless, many will risk traveling west illegally and having to hide from authorities. However, if they are caught in an EU member state, they risk immediate deportation back to Hungary, as this is where they entered the European Union.
“We will never get refugee status here”
We met Adman in the courtyard of the internet café just across from the refugee camp. He is from Pakistan and speaks excellent English. Possessing a degree in international relations in his home country, Adman arrived in Hungary just ten days ago but will leave for Austria within the next day or two. “We will never get refugee status here,” he explained. The 25-year-old man said he does not yet exactly know where he will settle down as he has never been to any of these countries before. He has no family obligations and is not even traveling to some relatives, like most of the refugees.
“I only have to protect myself, I am only responsible for myself,” he said. Although his parents and siblings are still in Pakistan, the young man does not plan to bring them over to Europe later on. He wants to live a self-sufficient, independent life.
The part of Pakistan Adman comes from is suffering from a proxy war between NATO forces and the Taliban that spread across the Afghan border. Bombings are continuous, and people are forced to flee to other regions within Pakistan. “My whole family lives in a refugee camp inside Pakistan,” Adman said. He was less talkative about the circumstances of getting to Hungary, but he told us that it took three months of travel through Iran, Turkey, Bulgaria and Serbia. It only cost him 1,200 euros.
An Afghan Hazara but not a refugee?
16-year-old Nazer Nasiri made it to the Southern Hungarian border from Afghanistan and ended up in Debrecen only five days before our report. Nazer is a Hazara, that is the third largest ethnic group within Afghanistan. As the Taliban persecute the Hazara for being members of the Shia Muslim denomination, Nazer would be in mortal danger in his country of origin. The boy’s family remained in the country, and collected money for his journey. He hopes to end up in Sweden. Nazer intends to reach the Scandinavian country as soon as possible, meaning that he is getting out of Debrecen within the next day or two, no matter what.
“Right now, I am collecting money to be able to call my family, telling them to send me more money” Nazer explained. Like Adman, he came here by train, bus and on foot to arrive at the Serbian-Hungarian border. He paid smugglers the equivalent of HUF 430,000 (USD 1,500) in British pounds for the trip. Nazer, however, wants to bring his family over to Sweden as well. Not wanting to lag behind in his studies, he is eager to return to school as soon as possible. He says he was forced to interrupt his studies in the seventh grade due to war. Nazer wants to become a teacher.
I want to continue playing football in my new country
Christopher is a Nigerian man in his thirties. He was a professional soccer player, first in his home country then in Greece. Were he successful in securing Hungarian asylum, he would like to continue his profession here. Christopher claimed that he has been training with one of the local soccer teams.
“I have been living in Debrecen at the refugee reception facility for nearly five months now. During this period even the most lonesome wolf will make some friends.” Christopher does not seem to be the lone wolf-type anyway: he even said that he has many friends, some of them students at the University of Debrecen, mostly Nigerians, but not exclusively. “We go out a lot with them,” he added. He cannot wait for his asylum papers to finally arrive, so that he could move out from the camp in possession of a residence permit, “as being forced to return here every day is quite embarrassing.”
Christopher is really not so far from this objective: he just passed his second asylum interview, and this is the one before the final stage of the official process. If the third interview yields a positive result as well, his protected status will be converted into a refugee status, meaning one, five or ten years of permitted residence in Hungary. “I love Hungarians. I want to live and work here. If refused, I will be utterly disappointed” Christopher explained.
“I had a good life before the Taliban picked on me”
What is a source of genuine excitement for Christopher, has just been secured by Omar, another young Afghani, whom we met in the above mentioned pub. Omar was notified two days ago that his request for asylum had been granted, and he would receive a ten-year residence permit in Hungary. Omar could not wait to tell the good news to somebody. Soon, he will be able to move out of the camp, to look for an apartment and a job. He will likely have a much easier time finding both than others, possessing two degrees in international relations and literature. He received the former at England’s Liverpool University.
Like many refugees we met, Omar was not making this huge trip for the sake of material welfare. “I had a good life in Afghanistan before the Taliban started picking on me. I had a good job and made a lot of money by local standards,” he recalled. However, because he worked for the US Armed Forces during the war, he was never safe from the vengeance of the Taliban, and frequently had to change his place of residence within the country. Only when the Taliban ambushed and nearly killed him in 2012 did he decide to leave the country for good.
“I am a migrant, arrest me!”
Omar has been living in Debrecen camp since mid-February, that is two years after he left his old life and Afghanistan. By the time he reached the Bulgarian-Serbian border, he had already spent considerable time working in a food store in Iran and in a bakery in Istanbul to collect the USD 10,000 he had to pay smugglers to take him across three borders. His journey was not free of hardship. Once he lived in a forest for an entire month, and even spent 3 or 4 consecutive days walking part of the journey. In the end, someone helped him by giving him food and clothes and guiding him to the Serbian-Hungarian border.
“I am a migrant, arrest me,” is how Omar approached the Hungarian police after crossing the border. After spending 24 hours at a police station in the southern village of Ásotthalom, he was sent to the Debrecen camp. “I had no money at all, and asking for money around here is impossible,” he told us. After three weeks of deliberation, he has decided to stay in Hungary. Now that he has been accorded refugee status, he is planning to settle down, learn Hungarian, look for a job and get a Masters degree. He knows that this is not an easy task. Omar even wants Hungarian citizenship. “I would really like to go back and do something for my country, when it will be safe,” he explained. “But I would like to be able to do this as a Hungarian citizen.”
Debrecen station is an open camp, and residents are able to move freely in the possession of their camp card. The facility is under the auspices of Hungary’s Bureau of Immigration and Citizenship, and its duty is to “offer shelter, feed and process asylum seekers arriving to Hungary.” Altogether there are four such camps in the country: Debrecen, Vámosszabadi, Bicske, Nagyfa and Balassagyarmat. The total capacity of the network of camps is around 2,000. Debrecen, the largest, has 832 places. The reception facility houses refugees who are technically asylum seekers, as an ongoing request for asylum is required in order for them to legally reside within the European Union, as well as ensure them access to food and shelter in Hungary.
Viktor Orbán`s threat to close the camp prompted fierce criticism from UNHCR and many other organizations, who warned that among those migrants arriving in Hungary are 14,000 from war zones such as Syria, Afghanistan or Iraq. Forcing them to return to their country of origin would put their lives in mortal danger. In addition to being inhuman, it is a violation of international law.
“We cannot put them underground after all!” the bartender at the local pub commented on plans to close the camp down. The woman, who has been working in the pub for a long time, does not understand how the prime minister could have come up with such an idea at a time when more and more refugees are arriving. She added that refugees never really asked Orbán for permission to come here, and they will not do so in the future. One of the employees of the local car salon agrees, saying that coexistence with refugees is undisturbed. “Well of course, if anything ugly happens in town, they will blame the camp,” the woman told us, adding that she thinks “there are all kinds of people here, good and bad, just like among Hungarians”.
In its press release UNHCR calls attention to the fact that the European Union supports the development of infrastructure serving migrants in Hungary with a lot of money. In 2014 alone this sum was EUR 1.5 million. From this the expansion of Debrecen camp was also possible, with a huge billboard advertising the development program right at the entrance.
The press office of the Hungarian Bureau of Immigration and Citizenship told Abcúg that the European Fund for Refugees, Migration and Integration sent HUF 373 million (USD 1.4 million) for Hungary as an urgent contribution, with Debrecen receiving HUF 143 million (USD 525,000) of the sum. This by itself is enough to make the closing of the camp impossible, as EU funding comes with an obligation to sustain the facility, with the Hungarian state unable to close it for five years after receiving the funds without violating the funding contract.
It is a fact that the everyday operation of Debrecen camp was often criticized by civil rights groups and activists. The Hungarian Helsinki Committee recently issued a shocking report about “asylum detention” measures in effect since summer 2013, where refugees are kept in a prison-like environment until their identities are cleared, or until their asylum requests are processed.