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Through Hell and Hungary: Riding the Rails With Refugees in Budapest

VICE News met the migrants and refugees who have been stuck at a train station in Hungary’s capital desperately waiting for the chance to continue on their journey to Western Europe.
September 5, 2015, 9:20pm
Photos de Matthew Cassel

Thousands of migrants and refugees have been stranded this week at a train station in Budapest, desperately seeking a way out of Hungary and on to Austria, Germany, and other destinations in Western Europe. The Hungarian government ended the standoff by sending dozens of buses early Saturday morning to ferry some of the people across the border, but at least a thousand others remained — with more still coming.

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After arriving at the Keleti train station early on Saturday morning, VICE News met a group of young Syrian men rushing to catch the free ride out of the country. They had been sleeping in a nearby hotel, and hadn't known until the last minute that the buses would be coming. "Now we're scared that we've missed our chance, we didn't want to get arrested in Hungary we just want to leave," said one of the men, who asked to remain anonymous.

By Saturday afternoon, Austrian officials said more than 4,000 refugees from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere and crossed over the border. Back at the train station, however, a large crowd of refugees still sat anxiously awaiting their chance to continue their journeys. The mood was calm at around 11am, but it didn't last long. When word began to spread that there was a train heading in the direction of Austria, nearly every refugee present rushed to get on board.

Related: One Man Dies As Hundreds Attempt to Flee Detained Train in Hungary

The cries of babies echoed in the station as husbands hung from open train doors trying to reach for their families in a sea of people, all of them eager to leave a country where none of them wanted to be. Around 20 Hungarian police stood guard by the train and futilely tried to keep order, but most just stood back and observed the chaotic scene.

A few feet away from the crowd, Mohamed Hamadawy stood waiting patiently. He didn't want to subject his pregnant wife and their infant son to the flying elbows of those trying to board the train. "Share this message with the world," he told VICE News. "We left our country in search of freedom and so we came to the European Union for its human rights, but where are they?"

'We came to the European Union for its human rights, but where are they?'

Hamadawy described how his family and their relatives had been kept in a filthy detention center for four days after they were detained while crossing into Hungary from Serbia.

"We told the police we didn't want to give our fingerprints and they said each person who refused would spend one month in jail and then be sent back to Serbia, so we had no other choice," he said.

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By law, the first EU country other than Greece that a refugee enters is responsible for processing that individual's asylum claim. Very few refugees want to stay in Hungary, however, and they fear being registered and fingerprinted, which could affect their case for asylum in Germany, Sweden, the Netherlands, and other more popular destinations.

Refugees soon began deboarding the train that had just arrived, and a Hungarian activist explained to a group of Syrians that it was destined for Pecs, an ancient city in southern Hungary and a popular destination for tourists, but not so much for refugees trying to go west to Austria.

It's easy to forget that refugees don't have the luxury of checking the news every day, and so they remain largely ignorant of recent events, relying only on reports from other travelers or Facebook posts they managed to check during rare moments of connectivity on the road. Rumors are rampant.

By Saturday, most people had heard what happened on the previous day, when 2,000 people set off by foot from the train station in the direction of Austria. But the details were still sketchy.

Related: Shocking Images of Drowned Boy Spark Anger as Europe Disagrees Over Migrant Crisis

Soon after realizing the train wasn't going in the direction of Austria, a few hundred mostly Syrian refugees decided to let their feet take them there. "We just have to walk away from the city and buses will pick us up," one young man explained to an older traveler. Police officers on motorcycles drove along the crowd, and in front a police vehicle with a camera attached to its roof filmed the marchers behind it.

The procession included Mohamed Abdel Khader, a 25-year-old Syrian who was flanked by his three sisters, two brothers, and their mother. They all fled Aleppo together only a few months ago.

'If you want to stay in Syria you have to carry a weapon, either for the regime or the opposition. I don't want to carry a weapon.'

Mohamed went into detail about the mistreatment they faced during their six days in detention. Like many others, he described rough treatment from the police who forcibly made everyone give their fingerprints. But that wasn't what upset him most.

"They made us drink water from the toilet and gave us only ham sandwiches," he told VICE News. "We are Muslims, and you know that we cannot eat ham." He said they protested but the police didn't respond, and so he and his family threw the ham away and ate plain white bread and nothing else.

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Related: Refugee Crisis Pits Neighbors Against Each Other in Serbia

Back at Keleti train station, Hungarian activists guided the refugees on to a new train that was going west. Thanks to those who left earlier by foot, the rush was far less intense than it was previously.

On board, a group of four friends — two Syrians and two Syrian Palestinians — said they met along the journey, and all had planned to seek asylum in Holland. But after having their fingerprints taken in Hungary, they were resigned to settling in Germany.

For Ahmad Abbas, one of the Syrian men, it didn't make much a difference. The unmarried 26-year-old told VICE News he just wants to work and get away from the war. "If you want to stay in Syria you have to carry a weapon, either for the regime or the opposition," he said. "I don't want to carry a weapon."

Related: Hungary Forces Migrants Off Train Near Detention Center

But for the two Palestinians, who are both married and want to take advantage of the EU's family reunification program, the change in destination had consequences. Because Germany has taken on more refugees, the asylum and family unification processes can take months longer than in the Netherlands and other countries. Refugees all know this.

"It means that it might take one year to see my wife and children again," said one of the Palestinians, who asked not to be named. "I'm worried that anything could happen to them in that time."

All photos by Matthew Cassel. Follow him on Twitter: @matthewcassel