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'We Want Go!': Desperation and Anxiety Plague Refugees Moving Through Hungary

As refugees stream through the Balkans and into Hungary, most of them seeking asylum elsewhere in Europe, Hungarian officials say that facilities to hold them are full to bursting.
September 8, 2015, 5:15pm
Photo by Matthew Cassel

Walking through an impromptu refugee camp in southern Hungary located less than a mile from the Serbian border, the sound of children coughing can be heard from every direction. Tents and blankets donated by Hungarians and other generous Europeans aren't enough to protect everyone from the frigid September nights.

"We have been for three days sleeping on the ground," a young Syrian man said, asking that his name not be published. "It's freezing at night, and look at all the women and children."

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Facing a constant flow of refugees passing through the Balkans, Hungarian officials say that facilities to hold them are full to bursting. They have lately confined new arrivals to an open area next to the train tracks they used to guide them from Serbia into Hungary.

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

Zabihollah, a 19-year-old Afghan man from Mazar-i-Sharif who is intent on reaching Germany, expressed surprise at how Hungary was managing the situation.

"We heard Hungary let migrants pass through the country, and now we're here and they wont let us go," he said in fluent English. "I heard European countries want immigrants and they support them, that's why I came. We heard Hungary is a European country, but they're not acting like it."

(Photo by Matthew Cassel)

A group of Syrians standing a few feet away had grown restless and started demanding that they be taken to holding camps or allowed to continue to Budapest.

"Move up, guys!" a man shouted, waving his arms at exhausted refugees, most whom have spent weeks traveling just to reach this point. "We have to keep pressure on them to let us go."

A Scottish-Pakistani man who came to volunteer and assist refugees used a police loudspeaker to instruct the crowd in English to be calm and follow the authorities' orders to wait until buses came to pick them up, but few understood him. When he switched to Urdu so that a small number of Pakistanis could understand, some among the predominantly Syrian crowd began shouting him for him to speak in Arabic.

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"No, no, no!" they cried. "We are Syrians, not Pakistanis!"

(Photo by Matthew Cassel)

Dozens of police officers were blocking people from advancing further into Hungarian territory. "All of us we need to go," a woman clutching her two children entreated the police in English. "Let us go." The officers looked on with indifference and motioned for her to go back.

Before long the crowd started chanting in English: "We want go! We want go!"

Until recently, most refugees feared encountering Hungarian police and attempted to avoid them at all costs. After crossing into Hungary, they would hide in patches of trees as they made their way to points where smugglers would charge exorbitant rates to take them to Budapest. They wanted to avoid being fingerprinted and entered in the European Union's registration system for migrants. EU law stipulates that a migrant's asylum claim must be processed by the EU nation in which the person arrived.

Refugees moving through Hungary feared that the asylum they seek in another EU country would be imperiled and that they would be forced to remain in the country, which has far fewer programs to assist refugees than countries like Germany, Holland, and Sweden. Last month, however, Germany announced it would no longer deport Syrian refugees to the first EU member that they reached, and instead process asylum claims within the country. In doing so, it brought many refugees out of hiding and further solidified its place as the top destination in the EU for those escaping conflict.

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But not everyone wants to go to Germany.

Related: An Egyptian Billionaire Says He's Shopping for a Private Island for Refugees

Next to a partially constructed fence lined with barbed wire on the Serbian-Hungary borderline, less than a mile from where the police were trying to manage the crowd, a number of refugees discussed how they would enter Hungary without being spotted by the authorities. Holland was their intended destination, and being registered in Hungary could potentially affect their case.

"My brothers and sisters are all in Holland," a 22-year-old refugee who wished to remain anonymous said. "I want to go there to be with them. I don't want to go Germany."

An older Syrian man added that although he was headed for Germany, he didn't want to be fingerprinted in Hungary out of concern that it would delay his request for family reunification.

"I want to bring my wife and three children," he said. "If I'm caught, my asylum will take longer and so will bringing over my wife and kids from Syria."

Back at the train tracks where hundreds of refugees were being penned in to wait, police finally allowed them to walk in the direction of the holding center that was located roughly a mile and a half down the road. But as the crowd arrived to a turnoff and realized that one direction led to the camp while the other led toward the Hungarian capital, many began chanting, "Budapest! Budapest!"

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(Photo by Matthew Cassel)

After a tense standoff with officers, about half of the crowd managed to evade police lines and head to the highway that led to Budapest. At first, in the chaos of the moment, the stream of people confused the onramps and moved south toward Serbia rather than toward the capital, but the flow soon corrected itself. As refugees marched north along the southbound lane, police chased after to ensure that they remained on the side of the road.

The walk to Budapest takes well over a day on foot, and though many in the crowd would continue walking as the hour approached midnight, various families later boarded buses provided by police to take them to camps.

At the turnoff, officers had used pepper spray to discourage others from following the crowd on the highway.

A voice came on the police loudspeaker speaking in a Syrian dialect: "Everyone, listen. I am just translating for the police, who say that if you go back to the camp, you can register. You will be safe. A little while ago there was a problem and they used gas and scared the children, so just go to the center."

"These are their words, not mine," the speaker reminded the tired crowd, which moved hesitantly toward the camp.

"Why are they doing this to us?" a Palestinian-Syrian mother asked while walking with her three children to the center. "We don't want to wait in this dirty camp for four or five days, we just want to go to Germany."

Follow Matthew Cassel on Twitter: @matthewcassel