The New Iron Curtain of Europe
The One Year Anniversary of the Fence that Divides Europe in Two
HUNGARY split Europe in two by building a barbed wire fence along its southern border to prevent refugees from entering illegally on September 16, 2015. A year ago the whole world was talking about Röszke and the fence there. Since then xenophobic legislations, governmental hate campaigns, and attitudes in Hungary have seem to become more normal and silently accepted. People have been waiting at the border and face with either waiting weeks at the transit zones to eventually be part of the daily 15 people that can enter the European Union. Those people who attempt to enter with other means they meet more and more brutally performed violence and push backs to Serbia.
By ORSOLYA LEHOTAI
ROSZKE, Hungary -- In 2015 August, by the Hungarian border with Serbia and Croatia, a hardly penetrable razor wire fence was erected to proclaim that it would protect Europe from the flow of asylum seekers. It was built there with the support of the Hungarian government. Hatred poured with millions of public money: the amount of money the Hungarian government has spent on the fence is remarkable: more than 12,6 billion forints (40,8 million Euro) were spent so far to build and perpetuate this symbolical iron curtain representing Hungary`s position on migrants.
Now the 110-mile long border is still under permanent police surveillance and additionally protected with other barbed objects on the ground, surrounded by weed and sand. It is bilaterally secured by vigilant guards in hidden military shelters and every 10-15 minutes couple of border control cars pass by with police officers asking us every single time: “Who are you? What are you doing here?” Although the fence had not been completely finished yet, according to the recent announcement of Viktor Orbán, the Prime Minister of Hungary in the end of August 2016. Hungary will build a “more massive” fence to impede hundreds thousands of people trying the enter the southern border in the future.
The current razor fence already seems impenetrable sustained by the technical facilities and constant security check. One of the non-official camps for asylum seekers alongside the Hungarian and Serbian border is enclosed by a long barbed wire fence and is permanently watched by officers. The main reason people stay in this camp is because they wait for the Hungarian officials to let them in the official camp and be able to start the long struggle of the asylum seeking procedure.
The “waiting” camp is crowded (usually with between 250-700 people) and the line is very long. One of the women from Afghanistan who lives there with her children has been waiting here for 41 days. The Hungarian authorities allow only 15 people to enter the territory of the official camp on a daily base. There are priority lists for women, children and men with families, whereas single men are on the bottom of this list. Furthermore single men are kept in double cages after entering the Hungarian territory.
The informal community of the non-official camp chooses a trusted person of the group who will be in charge with making priorities of the waitlists as a so called “list coordinator”. It is a highly important role because the life and near future of families are dependent on the list coordinator`s evaluation.
Afia, (she asked me to change her name because of her and her family`s safety) the Afghan woman speaks perfect English. She used to be a teacher in an elementary school back in her hometown in Afghanistan. She said that everyone was very nice to her in the camp and the volunteers helped a lot to them. All of her dreams is to finally settle down somewhere in Switzerland and be able to teach school kids again. “But at this point my biggest dream is to enter the territory of the camp. I have been waiting here for more than a month,” she said and added that she is also excited about finally meeting some Hungarians.
Meanwhile, in August, Viktor Orbán promised to be far less friendly. “If we can’t do it nicely, we have to hold them back by force. And we will do it, too,” he said. He also previously called migrants ‘poison” during an interview on the Hungarian state radio to explain why a higher level of security will be needed in the future.
Hungary built fences protected with razor wire on its southern borders with Serbia and Croatia last year, when nearly 400 thousand people passed through the country on their way to Western-European countries. Compare to last year this summer the fence massively slowed down the flow of people coming this way to enter the EU. Also there are now more than 3000 additional police officers who march along the border to protect Hungary, the “gatekeeper of Christian Europe” as Mr. Orbán likes referring to his country`s role. The government introduced a very disputed act that allows officials to return migrants to Serbia if they are caught within five miles (8km) of the border.
According to the report of Humans Rights Watch, Hungarian officers use unnecessary physical violence to make the refugees go back to Serbia based on the push-back act. Balázs Szalai a coordinator of Migszol (Migrant Solidarity Group) confirmed the existing violence and brutality of the border control as well. He said the governmental approach and the institutionalised xenophobia through the new legislation make them more violent than before. “Violence will probably be more performed as well in the future,” he said.
Everything happened so fast
Márk Kékesi a coordinator of Migszol was showing me around an old elementary school in Szentmihálytelek close to both Szeged and the southern border where MigSzol Szeged organises donations that they originally collected to help refugees passing through the city on their way to Budapest and then from Hungary to the rest of the European Union.
The national government’s reply to the tremendous amount of detentions (140,000 between July and August during the peak of the crisis) failed intentionally and that created confusion for both migrants and locals. That is the reason why volunteers of MigSzol Szeged, a grassroots organisation started working in response to the situtation.
At the abandoned school, provided by the local socialist-led municipality, donations are being organised. Donations began coming as a protest as well, especially after the government refused to provide any help and started a massive public money fueled billboard campaign spreading xenophobic attitudes in the country. Thus local volunteers took over the state`s tasks in an emergency situation.
After a year since it started, I participated in the next round where a few volunteers picked up the necessary and missed items (after discussing it with the local Serbian UNHCR officer) from the building of the elementary school that was given to Migszol by the local government for this specific use. After a quick lunch from the field, they prepared the next shipment full of soaps and children shoes.
Szalai and Kékesi still has a routine to check on the Hungarian southern border and cross into Serbia (they are not allowed every time highlighted Szalai) twice a week on Wednesday and Friday when they get some information about certain camps are getting crowded with newly incoming refugee seekers and migrants.
Speaking about the possible effects of the fence under this political climate, there is a consensus between Balazs Szalai and Mark Kékesi that hate is not the solution to solve the current situation. According to Kékesi, to the government it does not matter what will happen to the refugees, they only care about how Hungarians feel about them even after they have already left.
Balazs Szalai highlighted that there have been several disputes with the Hungarian authorities in the beginning of the refugee crisis in early summer last year that led to the end of any cooperation with the government. Therefore their activity is based on donations and cooperation with other non-governmental organisations.
The outburst of governmental xenophobia: a referendum on migrant quotas
The forthcoming political events show that most of the refugees and migrants already left the country but all the hate remained here:
“Do you want the European Union to be able to mandate the obligatory resettlement of non-Hungarian citizens into Hungary even without the approval of the National Assembly?”
says the question that voters have to answer on October 2, 2016.
Since last year, the Hungarian prime minister`s statements on the refugee crisis and immigrants became more and more harsh. Before a press event with the Polish prime minister in the beginning of 2016 he said: “If it were up only to us Central Europeans, that region would have been closed off long ago,” In July 25 Orbán posted on his official Facebook profile that “People in America view migration positively, but in this story, we are the Indians.”
Besides Orbán`s official statements, since the referendum was announced by the president in this February, another round of massively organised hate-campaign has been carried out in public spaces and the media. The government put a lot of posters on huge and frequented billboards to forward its messages, such as:
“Did you know that since the start of the immigration crisis, harassment of women has increased in Europe?”
“Did you know that the Paris terror attacks were carried out by immigrants?”
“Did you know the since the start of the immigration crisis, more than 300 people died in terror attacks in Europe?”
“Did you know that nearly one million immigrants want to come to Europe only from Libya?”
The result of the government`s campaign seem to be measurably successful. A sharp decrease occurred in the public sympathy towards the refugees: more than two-third of the asked Hungarians supported the government and would vote “No” according to the opinion research of several institutions from both sides. Also more than half of those people who were asked and replied that they are certain voters, would vote “No” based on numerous survey results.
Show trials reloaded
Within the framework of Röszke trials, refugees are accused of violating the border fence during a riot. Tamas Fazekas, a criminal defendant lawyer of Hungarian Helsinki Committee defended 3 of the accused 11 people, a 63 year-old blind woman, a man with severe health problems, and a young man in a wheelchair. 14 miles away, in Horgoš, Serbia in September 2015, the frustration coming from the closed borders and unhelpful border control as another additional barrier, turned into violence as refugees got into a fight with the Hungarian riot police. According to the defendant lawyers, these 11 people were randomly arrested and being accused of participating in the turmoil.
“This shameful object makes people being in miserable situations even more miserable and wretched.”
according to the defendant lawyer, Mr. Fazekas. He added to the current and foreseeable situation of the southern borders that “the push back act of the government (it came into effect in July, 2016) adds fuel to the fire: it sends the indirect message to the authorities to keep everyone out of the country by any means”. The xenophobic s discourse together with the forthcoming referendum “will only have serious political consequences, not legal ones.”
Szalai also added based on his personal experience at the transit zone, it is not enough that refugees were taken advantage by human traffickers, but were even severely injured by the fence.Their situation were made more inhumane by countries that they turned to for help.
It is deeply hard to point to specifically one factor that is responsible for the national outcome and hysterical outburst of the refugee crisis. It is already been a year since the refugee crisis reached Hungary and has been several months that majority of the refugees and asylum seekers left Hungary. Migrants mainly left Hungary’s fence of shame but stricter and stricter laws remained alongside the southern border.