In Hungary, independent citizens show how helping refugees looks like

In Hungary, independent citizens show how helping refugees looks like

Transition in societies won’t occur if we can not respond to a humanitarian crisis happening on our doorsteps. The ongoing refugee crisis is difficult to solve, and the biggest question is are we strong enough to stay humans in hard times. The humanism that we are so proud of should lead our way when people are in need and we are the ones who can help them. Or is it hatred, xenophobia and racism that wins the race? We’ll see.

While Hungary have had a very bad press in the recent months on how its authorities are treating migrants, there’s an other story that should be told. A story of humanism. This story is about volunteers who built up a system to help those who had to flee their own countries and who seek for a better life. A grassroots movement that have been struggling to provide water, food, shelter and medical aid for the refugees stranded between borders.


Refugees living around Keleti Railway Station in early September, 2015

The European refugee influx hit Hungary hard this summer, with the country’s inadequate facilities — and the government’s inadequate response — creating a crisis that could have been avoided.

While many Hungarian citizens did their best to help the migrants with food, water, and medical aid, the official reaction around railway stations was limited to some extra mobile toilets and temporary water taps. Indeed, the Hungarian government has spent more money on a new border fence and a media smear campaign demonizing migrants than it spends annually on the immigration authorities that run refugee camps and process asylum-seekers.

Before Hungary had closed its border with Serbia, the situation became so unbearable on public spaces, that on September 4th, 2015 approximately 2000 refugees decided to set out on foot from Budapest to Austria. For days prior, they had been stuck in the Hungarian capital, many of them stranded in train stations with little information. Late that night, after walking about 30 kilometers, they were finally picked up by buses, which drove them to the Austrian border.

Citizen power

While authorities let the situation escalate to almost catastrophic circumstances, the only more-or-less effective help asylum-seekers got was coming from the citizens. First in Szeged, a border town near Serbia, after that in Budapest groups were formed to give food, water, information, and to provide basic sanitary aid to migrants. Even the biggest aid groups and churches appeared weeks later on the ground and with limited efforts.

These spontaneusly organised groups worked on volunteer-based and grassroots. Groups called Migration Aid, Migrant Solidarity or Help the Refugees Together were easy to join. Anyone could sign up for different works and any person could bring whatever they were capable of. The groups had well-organised presence in the social and mainstream media that informed citizens what kind of supplies were needed.

Many young people organised playground activities for children in the transit zones and musicians came to play and sing together with refugees. These activities were the only ones that made it easier for refugees to spend their time while they had to wait even for days at train stations to leave for Germany.

The following video shows how one of the aid groups worked (English subtitles available by clicking on CC):

A summary made by Migration Aid shows enourmous numbers of their work in the previous months. According to authorities tens of thousands of refugees entered Hungary each week. Meanwhile only Migration Aid had 500 volunteers on the ground, they helped more than 111000 people in July and August. And this is Budapest only, but groups in Szeged, Debrecen, Győr and Cegléd did the same work.

They gave away more than 100000 bottles of mineral water, tens of thousands of sandwiches, fruits and other food. They spent thousands of Euros on phone calls, public transport tickets and printing. The group had 16 volunteers who were working only on their facebook activities and had 5 warehouses that supplied the aid points around transit zones.

This kind of grassroots activity was sursprising for us citizens as well and it did not stop after the clouser of the Serbian border in the middle of September. There are still many people  helping refugees who are trying to enter the Schengen-zone on different routes which do not crosses Budapest anymore. They are now working on the Croatian and Austrian border or anywhere it’s needed.

But what will happen with all of these grassroots activities if the refugee situation eases? Will this enourmous generosity and social awareness remain within the Hungarian citizens? Are we going to turn to our own poor who are in need for help? Some of the aid groups’ organisers say they plan to channel their activities and networks to social problems that have been around us, but we just didn’t care in such levels. Let’s hope that humanism will stay among us!


Photo credit: Aron Halasz

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This article was written by

I live in Budapest and I can be enthusiastic about anything.

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