Sunday 18 February 2018

Death, no food or water, just pain and suffering

The 'death trip' refugees take to freedom is only the start of their struggle, says Shona Murray on the Hungary/Serbian border

Fleeing for their lives: A young girl runs with food through a temporary holding centre for migrants near the border between Serbia and Hungary in Roszke, southern Hungary. At least four countries firmly rejected a European Union plan to impose refugee quotas to ease a worsening migrant crisis that Germany’s foreign minister said was “probably the biggest challenge” in the history of the 28-nation bloc
Fleeing for their lives: A young girl runs with food through a temporary holding centre for migrants near the border between Serbia and Hungary in Roszke, southern Hungary. At least four countries firmly rejected a European Union plan to impose refugee quotas to ease a worsening migrant crisis that Germany’s foreign minister said was “probably the biggest challenge” in the history of the 28-nation bloc

Shona Murray

Death; with no food, no water, no life; just pain and suffering" recalls 33-year-old Mohammad of the life he left behind in Aleppo, Syria just 30 days ago.

"We had to escape bombs from Assad, we had to escape Daesh, (the Arab acronym for Isis), we had so many problems to get to Turkey (sic); and the journey on the boat - I will never forget it in all my life. We got to Greece, and the Greek people were nice but they have their problems, too."

On board a free train for refugees from Vienna to Salzberg, Mohammad and two friends, Walid and Zahi, breathe a sigh of relief, and dare to believe the end is in sight for the most traumatic journey imaginable.

"After 30 days suffering, with no sleep and fleeing death, maybe the worst is over, but we can't think that; it's step by step says 28-year-old Walid.

"This is Europe - thank you very much Austria - we will have our rights as human beings", chimes Zahi (30).

Escaping almost certain death in their homelands in Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere, over 350,000 Syrians and Iraqi's as well as Afghans have taken the 'death trip' on overcrowded rubber dinghies on the Mediterranean to the shores of Europe in search of sanctuary, in 2015 alone.

An untold number have died along the way; their lives and death forever unmarked amid the ever-rising death toll in Syria and Iraq; many don't inform their families or neighbours of their intention to leave for fear of being caught and stopped.

"There are more in the sea than we could ever record; there are many more dead," says fisherman and local volunteer Giorgos Tyrikos Ergas on the Greek island of Lesbos - one of the main ports of safety for fleeing families smuggled from Turkey.

"The dead will keep coming from the bottom of the sea and there are boats that we will never see, because there's no other way for them to escape war and misery", he says.

Four thousand refugees are now arriving in Lesbos daily - an island inhabited by just 85,000 people. The police and infrastructure are completely overwhelmed, and authorities are now fast-tracking the movement of people to Athens where they continue their journey to more prosperous European countries.

The plan for the vast majority is to reach Germany, which, for many years has been seen as the best country in the world in which to enable war ravaged people start a new life. In the last few weeks, the German government says it will take 800,000 refugees; Germany is hailed as a saviour for those who had no hope.

Getting there is no easy task however, as the 170,000 who have crossed into Hungary through Serbia since January have found to their horror. The Hungarian authorities have made it clear that their borders are open reluctantly, and anyone who had notions of staying would be given a rude awakening. A 10-foot-long razor-wire fence now acts as the official demarcation line between Serbia and Hungary. Refugees face this and a heavy police and military presence upon arrival.

In the border town of Rozske, registration camps - where refugees are fingerprinted before being permitted to travel to Budapest on onwards to Austria and Germany - are disturbingly grim and substandard.

"I would die in Aleppo if I had the chance to do it again. At least if I died there, I'd die with my pride. Having no country and taking this journey, is so humiliating," said 26-year-old Alaa, who has spent three days without sleep on the Hungarian border. She is one of very few single young women who take the journey. She has a sister in Sweden and hopes to reach her one day.

The hastily created 'camps' are just areas in a field with metal fencing with almost no toilet facilities or anywhere clear to place a sleeping bag or tent. Food, blankets, clothes and hygiene products for the long, cold nights are provided by local volunteers. The scene is chaotic and tense. "Look at the baby; this baby will sleep in the freezing cold", says 30-year-old Wael from Syria, pointing to a crying infant in her father's helpless arms.

It is 6pm, and the cold is starting to set in. Wael and his 55-year-old mother have been waiting two days to get to Budapest along with around 500 refugees who have been waiting in a field in Rozske for registration.

Frustrations reach a new height, all of a sudden and the large group charge towards the highway. Completely outnumbered, security personnel respond by taking out their batons. In no time, scores of police vans and cars arrive as backup and the stand-off is eventually quelled for now; but for how long?

Hungary is criticised for the unwelcoming stance it is taking towards the refugees arriving at its border, and new laws to be activated this Tuesday, which, among other things will criminalise some refugees seeking asylum, will likely deepen this criticism. Trespassing on non-designated border crossings and tampering with the razor-wire fence on the Serbian border will be punishable by up to three years in prison.

The UNHCR - the UN refugee agency, has reminded the Hungarian government of its obligations under international law, ahead of implementation on Tuesday.

"There needs to be a mechanism whereby they can enter - under EU and international law, seeking asylum is not a crime", said Babar Baloch, spokesperson for the UNHCR in Hungary. "It's still very chaotic; there needs to be a better mechanism to register people", he told the Sunday Independent.

Over 150,000 refugees have come through the Hungarian border since January, with 6,000 since last Friday alone, according to the UNHCR. Hungarian authorities said the laws will separate genuine asylum cases from illegitimate migrants; it also said it has a responsibility to protect Europe from potential terror threats.

"Many European governments criticise this fence, but we don't have another solution, said Hungarian MP Bence Tuzson from the ruling Fidesz party. It is very important for Europe to control the people coming in - "if somebody (a terrorist) is coming through Hungary, he is here in Hungary, Germany, Austria and then Ireland" even.

The effort of citizens in helping refugees is the single most positive consequence of the crisis.

Amid the lack of compassion evident from the smugglers in Turkey who take around $1,200 from each person and send them to their deaths on rubber boats unfit for the stormy seas, and the unhelpful language of Hungarian prime minister Victor Orben who said his country doesn't want "a large number of Muslim people" in his country, the volunteers across Europe, providing food, clothes, money, translations and moral support to the thousands is remarkable.

Every hour, vans arrive at the Hungarian border packed with supplies; the same at the Keleti train station in Budapest, where refugees finally leave Hungary for Austria. On arrival in Vienna, scores of Europeans await the trains with signs in Arabic taped to their clothes, offering Arab translations and information about how best to move on.

Not everyone is convinced the situation is sustainable.

"Hungary is not getting a fair trial - look at the US, as if you can go there without any papers, without a visa or any money and then start attacking the police?" says Adam Lazar, a local journalist from Budapest. "Try." "Who are people to attack the Hungarians?" 'They should close the border'.

Shona Murray is a journalist with Newstalk

Sunday Independent

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