“When did a fence help anyone?” retorts Laszlo, a volunteer at Szeged train station, as a fifty-strong crowd of refugees herd around a new box of donations. The Hungarian government’s public disdain for immigrants intensified in mid-July with construction work commencing on a 175 km long a border wall with Serbia. At this transport hub in Hungary’s Southern Great Plain, civilians like Laszlo are banding together in support for those who have already made the arduous journey into central Europe. They are not just humanitarians - but symbols for coexistence, amid Europe’s growing xenophobic rhetoric.
READ HERE: Rising Above the Rhetoric in Szeged, Hungary
Pooling the technical and monetary support of non-government organizations (NGO), Szeged’s locals have built an information booth with key facilities for refugees arriving in Hungary. “They come from all over; Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq” says Agnes, a staff member at Hungary’s Helsinki Committee, a human rights NGO. According to government figures, so far this year 60,000 migrants had arrived in Hungary – the second highest influx per capita in the European Union (EU).
With Hungary’s presence in the Schengen Zone – entering the country is the Holy Grail to progressing, unhindered by border controls, toward the coveted countries of Northern Europe. “Many travel overland up through the Balkans, and then cross from Serbia,” Laszlo explains. “They will end up in Germany, Scandinavia and England.”
The ‘illiberal’ Hungarian government, led by populist president Viktor Orban and his Fidesz party, has recently ramped up nationalist strategies amid the inflow of refugees. Anti-immigration billboards written in Hungarian have sprung up around the country proclaiming, ‘if you come to Hungary, you cannot take the jobs of Hungarians’. The right-wing party also launched a national consultation entitled ‘immigration and terrorism’ – and flouted an EU asylum rule, which requires asylum seekers to be taken back to their first EU country of entry for asylum processing.
The political maneuvering has catalyzed both anti-immigration and humanitarian movements. On July 10, the extremist Sixty-Four Counties Youth Movement attacked asylum seekers at Keleti train station in the country’s capital, Budapest – and just five days later a protest against the treatment of refugees began in front of the capital’s towering Saint Stephen’s Basilica. Protesters have faced an uphill battle in a country shifting further right, with activists even being arrested for defacing government propaganda.
Yet, in Szeged, a community has risen above the rhetoric and embraced compassionate values toward the arriving refugees. When asked whether the government offered any support to their voluntary work, Laszlo responded simply, “f**k no.” The plight of refugees arriving via Serbia circulated on Facebook, before volunteer doctors, organizational staff and students coordinated to set up the help station.
‘You are now in Hungary’ reads the first line of the refugee’s information sheet – complete with travel, legal and health advice. Following capture by border police they are brought to Szeged train station – where they rehabilitate and receive free tickets to travel on to refugee camps around Hungary. Many simply use it to refresh and continue deeper into Europe.
“Shavers and shaving cream” yelps a young volunteer, waving the grooming instrument about in her hand. Facilitators come even in the form of 8th grade students. “The community have come together to provide free Wi-Fi, sanitation facilities and also security guards to protect the refugees from skinheads,” she added. Every time a new clothes donation arrives from nearby a charity or individual the crowd swarms in excitement.
In spite of the Szeged group’s activism, “Hungarian people are generally fearful and impacted by government views,” adds Laszlo. With Europe’s economic fallout right-wing politics has seen a resurgence from the United Kingdom to Germany. Weak growth combined with heightened concerns over extremism has stoked the rise of anti-immigration, anti-EU and even anti-Islam movements.
While issues of sovereign debt and immigration may unravel the EU, the ascendency of xenophobia alongside it attacks the very foundation of the European project – peace. Developments in Hungary including the scapegoating of foreigners, threats against refugees and the rise of a border wall, echo a Europe of yesteryear. The signs from history, where fervent nationalism has subordinated ‘the other’ through discrimination, segregation and violence, appear to be nascent in Europe today.
Those at the Szeged help center have not folded to the prevailing narrative of their government. “These people are fleeing war and conflict; not coming to steal our jobs” says another volunteer. A global vision has enabled them to see beyond the nationalist pictures painted by Hungarian authorities – and to focus on universal human values. Harnessing these mindsets and energies in civil society will be critical in stemming xenophobic movements in Britain, France, and Germany and beyond.
As young Afghan men walk about jovially, Syrian mothers tend to their children. There is a sense of relief and calm about their faces. Within 48 hours most would have left – to be replaced by a new group of exhausted and disoriented refugees.
While fences spring to preserve nationality – the small group of volunteers outside Szeged station are illustrating that there are no barriers to our common sense of humanity.