Desperate refugees' long march to tea and safety
Europe appears to be increasingly divided over how to deal with biggest migration crisis in 70 years
Published 06/09/2015 | 02:30
It was a far cry from what they had left behind - after a week stranded in squalid limbo outside Budapest's main railway station, thousands of refugees crossed from Hungary into Austria yesterday and received something they had been missing: a warm welcome.
Along with much-needed dry blankets and cups of hot tea, Austrian aid workers dispensed smiles to the refugees as they trudged through the border crossing in the town of Nickelsdorf in the pouring rain, many carrying their children and their entire worldly possessions in their arms.
For those too exhausted to go on, there were clean cots to sleep on at a hastily set up reception centre in the town's Nova Rock concert hall. For those who wanted to keep moving, there were trains to Salzburg, Munich and beyond.
For the first arrivals, just after 5am, it was the victorious end of a long march that had begun on Friday morning in Budapest, where more than 1,000 of the migrants outside the Keleti railway station took matters into their own hands and decided to walk to Vienna.
The tactic worked, disrupting the traffic on Hungary's main M1 motorway to the Austrian capital and forcing the Hungarian government to capitulate in a night of political drama that - temporarily at least - relieved one of the ugliest pinch-points of Europe's migrant crisis.
After a late evening phonecall between Austria's chancellor, Werner Faymann, and Viktor Orban, Hungary's hardline, anti-immigrant prime minister, buses were sent to pick up the marchers.
For them, and men like Ahma Ahmadi, a 28-year-old from Jalalabad, Afghanistan, the Austro-Hungarian border represented not just the physical barrier between two countries, but the moral divide over how to deal with the migrants now pouring in.
"I don't know why Hungary has treated us so badly," he complained, "they have been very cruel. But here in Austria the welcome has been very nice." Mr Ahmadi, who says his goal is to reach Italy, was among 2,000 refugees who last week refused to get off a train in the Hungarian town of Bicske until they were guaranteed passage to Austria, spending 28 hours on the train with only water and no food.
He rejected the Hungarian government's contention that the majority of those at Bicske and Keleti are economic migrants who could still live safely in cities like Kabul, or the refugee camps in Turkey, but choose Europe principally for the economic opportunities.
Mr Ahmadi, a Pashtun man travelling with a cousin and nephew, said his late father was a local military commander who made enemies who put his life at risk. "We have no choice. If I could live safely in Afghanistan I would stay."
It is men like Mr Ahmadi and their families, existing in the grey area between war refugees and economic migrants, who last week became pawns in a stalemated game of European political chess over how best to handle the migrant crisis.
While Austria, Germany and the European Commission appealed to all European member states to do more and embrace national quotas of up to 160,000 - the poorer Eastern European states such as Hungary, Poland and the Czech and Slovak Republics rejected the proposal.
"Europe for me is and always has been a community of values," wrote Jean-Claude Juncker in an article calling for greater compassion, and proposing countries accept larger quotas. "We have the highest asylum standards in the world, which are inscribed in our laws and our treaties."
Those standards were not in evidence in Budapest last week, however, where the authorities did the bare minimum to provide for the migrants stuck in holding camps.
By midweek the smell of unwashed bodies wafting up from the subways under the main square was forcing elegantly dressed Hungarian women to clamp hankerchiefs over their mouths.
With only seven portable lavatories for more than 2,000 people and no washing facilities, the migrants quickly began to fit the fearful image created for them by Hungary's government.
A compassionate minority volunteered to help, handing out bedding rolls and playing games with the children, while activists on the left posted on Facebook about how uncomfortable it was, given Hungary's wartime history, to see unwanted people demonised and herded onto trains.
"This whole thing caused flashbacks to me," wrote Andras Jambor, a Left-wing blogger, on his Facebook page, "After all, I am still a Hungarian Jew, and yes, my extended family is short of a lot of members."
But in Brussels this week Mr Orban was unrepentant, visibly embarrassing Europe's top officials as he spoke about a "Christian obligation" to signal to migrants they would not be welcome in Europe, warning later that soon "tens of millions" could make Europeans a minority in their own countries.
Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, warned at the start of the week that it would be "unforgivable" if a new east-west split developed in Europe over migration between "advocates of containment" and "advocates of full openness". By Friday, however, the cracks were proving increasingly difficult to conceal As for the influx of Muslims into Europe from the Middle East's war zones, Mr Orban said bluntly that Hungary's 150-year experience as a province of the Ottoman Empire means that the country cannot cope with such stresses: "We do not like the consequences of having large numbers of Muslim communities that we see in other countries."
That was a rare piece of understatement from Mr Orban, who ignored criticism in Brussels and pressed on with his agenda, passing laws strengthening the razor-wire blockade on Hungary's border.
Mr Orban said yesterday he was preparing to deploy the army to bring the border under control "step by step".
Mr Orban's demands to fortify Europe's external border and his rejection of Muslims on religious and cultural grounds is popular at home. A survey this week from the Republikon Institute in Budapest found that two thirds of Hungarians believe refugees "pose a danger to Hungary".
Such sentiments are reflected in the success of extreme right parties such as Jobbik, which in April won their first seat in the Hungarian parliament.
Marton Gyongyosi, deputy leader of Jobbik's parliamentary grouping, was unapologetic about his party's calls to "defend Christian Europe" from African and Muslim migrants whom he described as "a threat" to Europe's Christian civilisation.
Mr Gyongyosi said he was incredulous that countries such as Germany and Austria did not appreciate the scale of the threat from uncontrolled migration.
"These countries do not sense the danger of what is happening. You British have experience with these Africans and Asians, you once ruled half the world, but our country has no such history."
The language of such coded racial discrimination might be deeply unpalatable, but it is fueled by the visible failure of the EU to develop a workable EU asylum policy and co-ordinate a response to the crisis.
Long-term solutions, such as beefing up security in the Mediterranean, reducing conflict in the Middle East and investing more in handling refugees before they reach the EU, offer no immediate comfort to poorer members such as Hungary, which was hit hard by the 2008 financial crisis.
With the average Hungarian's net monthly salary at just over £400 a month - less than a quarter of those in Germany or France - there is open irritation at German largesse which, Hungary warns, it cannot afford.
"We have to secure the border - isn't that why you have a fence at Calais?" the government spokesman challenged. "This is just a double standard. It is Hungary that is following the Schengen Agreement by closing the border, not Germany by creating these misunderstandings."
The UN refugee agency praised France and Germany for showing "political leadership based on humanitarian values", but in Hungary the decision to ignore the Schengen agreement and allow migrants to settle guaranteed only one thing - more migrants.
As Mr Juncker observed in an article last week, Europe fails "when fear prevails" and succeeds "when we work together, pragmatically and efficiently" to meet the challenges posed by the biggest migration since the Second World War.
By that benchmark, this week in Budapest was a catalogue of failures.
The confusion was building again last night as more Syrian and Afghan migrants came to Keleti station hoping for buses to take them to Austria, only for a Hungarian government spokesman to rule out any further transports.
And so it was by lunchtime that another 600 migrants set off on foot towards the M1 to Vienna, unsure if they would picked up by buses this time - and if not, then why not.
"Why are there are no buses?" asked Wasim Al Jubail, a 29-year-old Syrian who left a holding camp for Keleti square after hearing of last night's crossings into Austria. "We are very confused," he said, "We do not understand."
He is not alone.