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Crossing Borders with the Austrian Activists Helping Refugees in Hungary

This weekend, Austrian activists organised a convoy to deliver aid to refugees in desperate need in Hungary.

by Christopher Glanzl, Words: Michael Bonvalot
07 September 2015, 7:00am

Activists loading the cars in Vienna

This article originally appeared on VICE Alps

This weekend, a group of Austrian activists travelled to the eastern Hungarian city of Debrecen to deliver relief and aid goods to the thousands of refugees stranded there. Initially, the activists had planned to help refugees stuck in Hungary cross the border into Austria; however, the plan got flipped on its head towards the end of the week.

On Thursday, Hungarian authorities lured many refugees onto trains with false promises – instead of transporting them across the border into Austria, they were simply shuttled to nearby camps. On Friday, right-wing hooligans ganged up outside Budapest station to throw rocks at refugees gathered there. Fed up, some 1,200 asylum seekers later decided to take matters into their own hands, and simply started walking towards Vienna. At this point, the Hungarian government realised exactly how close they were to a humanitarian catastrophe. After about 23 hours, Austrian officials announced that they would be opening the borders and letting refugees pass through on their way to Germany.

The unfolding events forced the activists to shift their goals, instead aiming to deliver humanitarian aid to the thousands of refugees stuck in eastern Hungary – a part of the country that's not exactly known for it solidarity or self-organised help initiatives, let alone any official support for the refugees.

I decided to tag along on the convoy to see how it worked. The group I would accompany was a colourful bunch of people from all over Austria. One of the young men involved, Dominik Paireder, said he had received massive support after telling his friends about the initiative. Another convoy participant, Ako Pire – a member of the activist alliance Offensive Against the Right Wing – told me how angry he was with the way officials had been handling things. "The Austrian federal government could've done way more, way sooner," he said. "They didn't actively tackle the situation until things really began to escalate. It was only then they reluctantly opened the borders."

At the station, we began loading water, food and sleeping bags onto the trucks. People brought everything from infant food to clothing to sanitary goods. The support was so massive that those arriving had to queue to have their donations taken. As we left Vienna at 10AM, I asked two women, Maria Fraißler and Marla Berger, why they were taking part in all of this. Their answer was blunt: "The time for candles, silent vigils and online petitions is over. For us, it's all about concrete help."

Our first stop was Budapest, where we delivered some of the donations to Age of Hope – an NGO whose main goal is to support refugee families. Ákos Tóth, a member of the group, told me: "The nights are getting pretty cold already. Thousands of refugees are here without any help or support. We have a lot of work ahead of us."

Tóth said there had also been numerous physical confrontations with right-wing hooligans. However, he wasn't too concerned about the neo-Nazis. "Those guys are nothing more than online heroes," he said. "They're only strong when they have an audience." In actual fact, he was far more worried about everyday discrimination: "I don't have any confidence in either the Hungarian government or the EU. My only confidence is in the people and their solidarity."

The convoy on the way to Hungary

Before long, we started our drive farther east. It was quite late in the evening when we finally arrived at Debrecen train station. The city, close to both Romania and Ukraine, is also a border town. It was dark and freezing when we got there, but, just like in Budapest, people were waiting to welcome us and offer their assistance. Everyone began hurriedly unloading the trucks and distributing the goods among the countless refugees sleeping scattered throughout the train station. Most of them, I was told, were from Afghanistan.

One little boy – who must have been about five years old – was handed a teddy bear from some Hungarian helpers. He smiled and laid it down next to his two sisters, who were sleeping on the ground in front of the station.

The refugees we spoke to told us it was pretty common to get robbed by Bulgarian police. At first, I wasn't sure I understood what they were saying – perhaps something had been lost in translation. But they said I'd understood them just right: that police were allegedly robbing refugees, beating them up and asking for bribes, all before they'd even arrived in Hungary. Those at the station were desperate to leave, but – even though the borders had been opened – couldn't catch a train without tickets, a luxury they couldn't afford after having their money taken from them, they said.

The author (left) speaking to Ákos Tóth

One man from Afghanistan told me that he'd been kicked off of four different trains. He said that he had tickets, but they kept expiring because of officials questioning him and delaying his departure. He also said that a lot of transport companies refused to even let refugees onboard city buses. According to him, people were reluctant to resort to the refugee camps because they were scared of getting stuck there and being given a hard time from police.

Aida Elsaghi – a doctor who's been at the station every day since the refugees started to pour in – told us: "There's no official help, but we have around 20 people who've been coming here all week to give a hand. Some of the refugees haven't eaten for days. We have women and children here, too. Even if these people get picked up by officials, they'll only get transported to camps. They aren't given any water or food or medical attention."

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Local activists had plenty of stories about threats from right-wing groups, but they also had anecdotes about the community's solidarity and kindness. A local baker – originally a refugee from Kosovo himself – had been providing bread for people, and some medical students had been by to help where they could. While driving to the camp to offload the last of the goods, Ako Pire from the Offensive Against the Right Wing emphasised how important all of this was: "It's calls-to-action like this that we need to fight fortress Europe," he said.

On our way back to Vienna, we overheard some activists discussing which of the border crossings were open, and which would be the easiest to use when taking refugees across. The car we were travelling in was already packed, so we couldn't take anyone, but others offered places to some of those who were trying to reach Germany. One of the girls from the convoy, Maria Fraißler, told us that she didn't think judicial boundaries should stop people from helping. "If laws are unjust, it should be more than OK, from a moral standpoint, to circumvent them," she said.

Arriving at Vienna's Western Railway Station at about 2AM, aid supplies were still piling up in front of the building, with volunteers still sorting them out. Only a week ago, the Austrian media had been flooded with reports of racist attacks and the unbearable situation at the Traiskirchen refugee camp, which was branded "shameful" by Amnesty International. A handful of outlets claimed that Amnesty didn't know what they were talking about and that the refugees should be more grateful – but they aren't any more.

Since Monday evening last week, the prevailing attitude has been one of compassion. Over 25,000 came out in support of the refugees and the opening of Austria's borders, and people are now lining up to help at Austria's train stations. Even in Hungary, which has made its rigid position on migration and refugees very clear, citizens are showing solidarity and actively helping Syrian and Afghan survivors get across the borders.

There seems to be something in the air. And thankfully, it's not just the rocks hurled by right-wing hooligans.

Scroll down for more photos.

Afghan refugees in Debrecen

Refugees line the streets of Debrecen

A van full of aid materials

The convoy on the way home