Refugee children living in squalor on Hungary's doorstep

August 15, 2016

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“The infants are not living in the dust because they have no other option. There is enough room in the refugee camps and after a long wait the families are eventually admitted. But the Hungarian state—presumably for the sake of discouraging the refugees—tries to create the most inimical circumstances possible. . . . The no man’s land is the creation of the Hungarian government. The doors only admit 15 people per day. In this way, thousands have no choice but to wait for weeks or even months on the other side of the fence in Hungarian territory. The refugees sleep on the ground and live from aid.  Apart from a single water tap and just enough food to survive on, they receive nothing: there is no shelter, no shop, no toilet. Several weeks ago the Serbian authorities installed a few portable toilets. This is the area where Migszolt and Oltalom workers are not permitted to help the needy.”

Translation of András Földes’ article “Appalling conditions at the Tompa no man’s land” appearing in Index.hu on August 10th, 2016.

The reason I traveled to the transit zone created at the Serbian-Hungarian border was to learn why two charity organizations were banned from the area when many thousands of refugees awaiting admission are in need of help.  Has the situation changed and the Hungarian state is distributing food and clothes and has ordered so many doctors to the area that eager amateurs would just be in the way?

In any case at the Röszke zone there was no sign of an intensive state humanitarian activity.  Before a fence glittering in the sunlight, police and soldiers patrolled in sunglasses.  Behind the fence refugees wander around in tents made from rags.  Only one element seemed out of place:  a young man who was holding onto the fence while arguing with police.  It later turned out that my sense was correct:  the man works for a charity organization and was arguing over being banned from entering the transit zone.  But I also realized that there was nothing unusual about this exchange.

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“I work for aid organizations and am responsible for coordinating their daily operations.  I keep track of what problems exist, what materials are needed, where they have to go” he explained walking away from the police.  “But recently it turns out that nobody is allowed to enter the transit zone, and with that my work became much more difficult.”

I started to understand the system of the regional director when the man said: “Banning (us from entering) is not justified.  There are only theories as to the reasons.  We could not explore the reasons more deeply because it quickly turned that behind the banning was the tyranny of the regional director.”

But before we go into this deeper, let us quickly explain what the anti-refugee system on the southern border looks like.  The zone is made up of three parts:

  • A fence on the Serbian-Hungarian border
  • Two transit zones:  There is a gate in the fence which is suitable for receiving 40-50 people on the Hungarian side in a prison-like cage.
  • A no man’s land on the Serbian side of the fence.

We needn’t explain the fence.

The transit zone is needed because it is not permitted not to admit those people who wish to claim asylum.   Doors were installed in the fence in two places—Röszke and Tompa, where, according to the government, those are admitted who would like to legally enter Hungary.  The doors, however, lead to cages, where the refugees wither for days without reason who then end up in open camps.

The no man’s land is the creation of the Hungarian government.  The doors only admit 15 people per day.  In this way, thousands have no choice but to wait for weeks or even months on the other side of the fence in Hungarian territory.   The refugees sleep on the ground and live from aid.  Apart from a single water tap and just enough food to survive on, they receive nothing:  there is no shelter, no shop, no toilet.  Several weeks ago the Serbian authorities installed a few portable toilets.  This is the area where Migszolt and Oltalom workers are not permitted to help the needy.

Tyranny, chaos

The most important characteristics of the territory organized to receive refugees is chaos and tyranny.

We wanted to cross to the other side of the fence to the no man’s land, but the police man on guard there directed us to the nearest transit zone.  The aid worker was surprised, because so far this person was responsible for admitting people.  At the transit zone, they spoke by telephone for a long time while standing.  Then they said the person accompanying me could cross but I could not.  Why?  That was not explained.  Nor was why they forbid the taking of photographs even though I received a permit from the county police to take photographs standing outside the transit zone.  Later they maintained that I was only forbidden from photographing the police, even though no such law exists.

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More and more I came to suspect that the gendarme world of the 1930s reigns, where the official wearing the rooster feather decides what is and what is not permitted.  This coincided with the story of the aid worker who said that two aid organizations were sent away by a local official without receiving any documents.  “It is possible that if you ask tomorrow you can cross and distribute food and clothing?”  “It’s possible,” he nods, and then volunteers that in recent days an English volunteer arrived to the area who distributed clothes from a truck to the refugees.  The next day they wanted to supply sugar and tea from the same truck to the people, but in vain.  The official in charge sent them away.  Why?  Just because.

It would be a mistake to think that the reason for this might be that the area is far from the capital city, and that in the wild wastes things only take place chaotically.  The system of defense has been put together so precisely that our tax system looked like this, Hungary would be investing in Germany and not the other way round.  A soldier and a policeman are stationed on the border every few hundred meters.  The fence and the razor wire was precisely installed.   The area in front of the fence is covered in sand and raked.  The police had already received my information before I arrived.  I only had to get out of my car so that we could enter the transit zone.

After all that it was difficult to believe that the situation taking place on the other side of the fence was an accident and not a deliberate action on the part of the government.

Disaster area at the behest of the government

What I saw in the no man’s land was astonishing.  The situation was even worse than the infamous camps at the Macedonian-Greek border.  At least the people there were living in tents.  At the edge of Hungary, 200 km from Budapest which is preparing to host the Olympics, the entire village was built from branches, blankets, and plastic bags.  I only saw a few tents.  “Typically the police do no allow us to take in tents,” says the aid worker in a voice that suggests it is the most natural thing in the world for police to occupy themselves insulting defenseless people.

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The person accompanying me ascertained who needed what clothing, he collected the broken mobile phone of the Afghan reporter woman who speaks English well, and finally he looked for a child with a burned foot to find out whether the wound required dressing.

Wandering around the impoverished settlement for 700-1000 people I determined that it would be impossible to prepare a video here in which neither women nor children appeared.  A great many children played among the tents.  Peeking for a moment into a tent I saw a woman cutting up vegetables.  Spaghetti was cooking over a tiny fire pit.  Small children were smiling by the only water tap in the Röszke no man’s land.  The men carried water in plastic bottles back to their tents.

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It was heartbreaking to see people kept in mud and dust trying to live in a civilized manner.  In front of the tents stood removed shoes, so as not to dirty their homes with muddy feet.

Government propaganda about the misery of infants

The brutality of the place nevertheless became completely apparent when a pediatrician with one of the aid organizations joined us.  The woman dressed in white with a stethoscope revealed for me a side of the camp not yet seen.

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They brought a ten day old infant before us.  The doctor disinfected the baby’s navel and treated its swollen eyes with eye drops.  In the Tompa no man’s land she alone cares for four babies one month old or younger.  Their families had been camping out in the shanties built from dusty blankets and leaves, and they had to wait just as long to be admitted.

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Let’s repeat that once again:  The infants are not living in dust because they have no other option.   There is enough room in the refugee camps and after a long wait the families are eventually admitted to a way station.  But the Hungarian state—presumably for the sake of discouraging the refugees—tries to create the most inimical circumstances possible.

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That the Hungarian authorities do not care about the transit zones is tangible.  Neither the police nor the Immigration authority decide which 15 people are admitted each day but rather three refugees, while the Hungarian authorities have no idea who has been waiting for how long, which families have children, and who has health problems, according to people on the ground.   Naturally we also asked the Ministry of the Interior why the administration takes place this way and what will happen later if these volunteers leave, who will compile the lists keeping track of who arrived when, whether they arrived with children, and whether they have any health problems.  We did not receive answers to these questions either as of the publication of this article.

Mosan, who speaks English well, Hanif, and Katira, a journalist working in Afghanistan, compile the list of those who are waiting, ranking them according to family and health, and they decide also who enters and when.  The papers containing many thousands of names are given to the police at the fence.  Of course the processing does not always proceed smoothly.  Within a few days there was a large mix-up with the names, I learned on location.  The Hungarian authorities had accidentally mixed up the documents.

Central command or local tyranny?

We asked the Ministry of the Interior (BM) about the conditions experienced at the Röszke border.  We sent the following questions to the ministry press office, but no answers arrived as of the time of publishing this article:

  • Is the banning taking place on the basis of central directives, or are they being decided by the people on duty there?
  • If the latter, then what decisions fall within the jurisdiction of those serving locally?  Do they have the right to ban certain organizations, the press, even doctors?