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How a Hungarian train station became a hub for refugees

Thousands of refugees have transited through the station, but an atmosphere of officially tolerated xenophobia in Hungary is increasing
Sixty asylum seekers arrived at the Debrecen train station in the rain at two in the morning (MEE/Mary Atkinson)

DEBRECEN, Hungary - It’s 2am at the Debrecen train station, and around 60 asylum seekers with bleary-eyed children in tow arrive amid a light rain. The last train to Budapest won't leave for another 30 minutes, but Mohammed - one of the 60 that arrived - sprints across the station's concourse looking for a taxi. 

He says the train isn’t fast enough - he needs to get his sick child to Budapest as soon as possible. Volunteers helping the refugees at the station have warned their colleagues in Budapest that a sick child is en route, sending messages through a private Facebook group.

Hundreds of similar messages are sent back and forth between various Hungarian towns every day. If a young boy needs shoes, a picture of him is sent to volunteers in the next town along the way, so they can be ready with a pair that’s the right size, or near enough.  

This time though, it’s more serious. His little boy, whom Mohammed didn’t want to name, has been coughing for days, and isn’t eating nearly enough.

“Two hundred fifty Euros?,” says Mohammed to a friend, who has been negotiating with a local taxi driver for the 240km trip. It's a fairly reasonable price – a less scrupulous driver last week charged eight times the going rate to ferry an elderly Syrian man with kidney problems from the hospital to a local migrant camp. Still, Mohammed and his wife, who has been standing to one side nervously jiggling the child on her hip, opted to join the others on the train.

Scenes like this one have played on a nightly loop at the train station in Debrecen, a town of 200,000 near the Romanian border that retains a sleepy feel despite being the second largest in Hungary.

The approach to Debrecen pictured from beside the local migrant camp, which is sited 10 kilometres outside town in a Soviet-era army barracks (MEE/Mary Atkinson)

On Friday, some 1,200 people transited through the small station, hoping to take advantage of the Austrian government’s decision to open its border with Hungary. On Saturday afternoon, Austria said it would close its borders at midnight - but half an hour before midnight, the government reversed their decision, saying that people would still be permitted to transit across the frontier from Hungary.

The decision, though welcomed by many of those travelling through Debrecen on Saturday, will do little to alleviate the situation there. Some 4,000 people remain stuck on Hungary’s southern border with Serbia, and are expected to follow the only available train route westwards through Debrecen in the coming days.

The four vanloads of donations driven across the border by a group of Austrian activists on Saturday have come just in time, as local volunteers prepare for the high-octane work of helping thousands of often bewildered migrants that transit safely to the capital.

A team of Austrian volunteers unload one of 4 vans of donated goods. They say they collected €2,000 in cash donations within a few days at a Vienna train station (MEE/Mary Atkinson)

Not everyone here seems affected by the frantic mood, though. Parveez, a man in his 20s from Afghanistan, is smiling. "I've been on the road for two months," says Parveez. "But I'm not tired - these people have given me such great help," he says, gesturing towards the knots of volunteers clustered just outside. The three friends check their picture, laugh to each other and bed down for the few hours before the train arrives.

Parveez (centre) says he is happy to be in Europe despite weeks of dangerous travels (MEE/Mary Atkinson)

They are still asleep a little later when two locals, 15-year-olds in Balaclavas, come past shouting "Get out of our country! We will kill you!" Six police vehicles arrive and surround the two boys. They are made to zip up their hoodies and don their Balaclavas, demonstrating how they dressed up for the attack.

Police surround two local boys who targeted a group of migrants. Volunteers say the same boys last week ran into the station, kicking and spitting on the people camped out at the station (MEE/Mary Atkinson)

Nationalist rhetoric

Anti-migrant sentiment is nothing new here, according to Aida el-Seaghi, a volunteer from a nearby town who has been working 12-hour days welcoming the thousands of newcomers to Debrecen.

Half Yemeni and half Hungarian, Aida completed her medical training in Hungary before leaving in 1992 to work abroad. Returning a decade later, she says, the atmosphere was completely different. “Everything had changed.”

Now, though, with Hungary ruled by a nationalist government that recently lost two key seats to a far-right party, the latest wave of new arrivals has presented authorities with an opportunity to flex their muscles.

Christina, another volunteer and a trained psychotherapist, says this attempt to score political points is visible in almost all of the country’s media outlets. “I don’t read the press any more,” she said, taking a break from handing out bananas to smoke a cigarette. “They only report what the government says.”

The picture of Aylan Kurdi, the Syrian toddler whose death by drowning during an attempt to reach Europe so shocked millions around the world, was hard to find in the Hungarian press, she said. Instead, newspapers were dominated by stories about how a breakout march by desperate migrants hoping to walk 110km across the border into Austria left the roadside strewn with rubbish in places. “People don’t know why the refugees are here – we don’t know what’s going on in Syria, and we don’t know about the culture. We only know about the problems migrants can cause.”

“Last week when I was helping migrants down from the train another passenger shouted at me, saying that I am not Hungarian,” remembered Christina. “I think he must have a different understanding of what it means to be Hungarian than I do.”

Far right on the march

Heightened tension around the issue has also had a negative impact on more established migrant communities in Hungary, according to Mohammed, an Egyptian who has lived in Hungary for over 20 years.

Sitting beneath a huge Egyptian flag at the Internet café he runs in central Budapest, he remembers how easy it was to get a visa two decades ago. “Things have changed now – just yesterday far-right supporters walked right past my café carrying their flags. And the police protected them. Some of the asylum seekers use the internet here, and several Hungarians have said they won’t come to the café any more – they say they don’t like the smell.”

Just metres from Mohammed's Internet cafe, a Syrian refugeee family on the steps of Hungary's Keleti International train station holds up signs reading 'Help us' and 'SOS' (MEE/Mary Atkinson)

Back at Debrecen, fear of attack won’t deter the thousands of desperate people who will transit through the town. And nor will it deter the handful of locals who give up their time to make sure healthcare, food and water are available at the station. In the absence of enough support from the government, Aida says, the volunteers, who work with the charity Migration Aid and organise mainly through Facebook, have started to invent new ways to fulfil a state-like role.

A trained medical doctor, she has lanced and disinfected blisters on the station forecourt. One of the other volunteers took a car battery and fashioned it into a portable charger, complete with 8 USB ports, so that those travelling through can contact family and friends.

A car battery can provide power for 8 smartphones, used to connect families and research onward journeys (MEE/Mary Atkinson)

George, another of the volunteers, carries the heavy charger into the station, out of the rain. A tall, lean man in his 40s, George is still full of energy as the clock edges towards 2.15am. "I ever get 2 or 3 hours' sleep anyway," he explains, gesturing to the park over the road where he usually sleeps. 

At 2:30am sharp, the train finally chugs out of the station to the applause of the volunteers crowded onto the platform. Its passengers, mostly families and young men, still have a long journey ahead of them.