My days in Röszke – confusion, uncertainty and a lack of information

My observations illustrate the overall feeling – and not only mine – of an absolute lack of information, confusion over its source, and uncertainty whether the information available was to be believed.

Photo: MIchal Jašek

We arrived at Röszke after dark. A noisy crowd of people carrying bags marched along an otherwise inconspicuous small road between two fields. I felt as though I were at a football match. And I felt as though I were a part of something bigger, which for myself and with a dose of pathos typical for me, I called history.

New people kept on coming – for a while we stayed on the spot, and perhaps more than two hundred people came. They did not know where to go or what they could expect from the others.

Most of the refugees, however, did not want to stay in an improvised something which both was and was not a camp, consisting of a few tents brought to place by volunteers, totally lacked basic facilities, and was located just outside the border (or fence) between Hungary and Serbia.

But the Hungarian police prevented them from leaving the camp. The only chance to get out was to outnumber the police and simply run away from them in a big crowd.

Yet some stayed in the camp. They, too, did not want to be deported into an  official detention center 300 meters away where they were to be registered. It would mean for them that under the current Dublin system they would be associated with Hungary and its territory not only at least during the asylum application procedure, but also after they had been granted asylum, even if their final destination was welcoming Germany.

I was confused by it. I could not imagine how I could possibly help those people, whether by providing them with something tangible or with something ostensibly basic – information. All the news I received in the peace of my own home I found out out of touch with reality, compared with the wild happenings on the spot. And mostly – the information was outdated every twenty-four hours or so.

After we had spent the night in Szeged with my friends at the home of a lady we did not know and who voluntarily freed her appartment so we could have a rest, we were back on our spot in the camp at 6 a.m. And it was as though we were in a market – some of us were at the stand for food; others, like me, sorted, distributed and offered clothes and shoes, arguing about their size.

During the first couple of hours of my presence on the spot, I had some time to compare the expectations I got from the media with what was happening and how it looked in Röszke. First of all, I was surprised at my own feelings that the children of the refugees found themselves as though they were somewhere in a summer encampment experiencing one great adventure. They often played loudly together outside. It was not difficult to take a picture of them, in fact, on the contrary, they posed quite often and willingly and really wanted to be pictured.

And I also logically expected there would be more men than there actually were among the refugees. But actually families with kids prevailed. Mostly with small ones.

During moments with fewer people at the stands, I had a chance to walk through the camp and collect blankets lying around for future use. And I was angry. I said to myself, damn it, why did not they clear up after themselves? And it was not just quilts, but also half-eaten meals, opened bottles of bottled water, a lot of things had to be thrown away in vain. Those emotions were inside me.

I realized I did not get the context of the whole situation. Those people had been in a tense situation for several days already, they never knew what could happen in the next hour, when the police would clamp down on them, when they would run out of the food and water brought to them by the volunteers and how long the provisions would last, when it would be raining, how cold it would be at night, when they would have to march for a longer time. So it made sense that they took a little more than they needed just to cover the basic needs in these tense moments.

That’s why they left such a mess. And because they set out from the camp unexpectedly , it might soon have become evident to them that they were simply not able to carry on with a number of things.

There was no water nor electricity in the camp. An organization sheltering humanitarian assistance and paying for it, took care to bring a few containers, first cleaned and then arranged garbage disposal.

The Hungarian authorities did not care about garbage disposal. They did not care about anything.

During the day, it gradually became clear that the situation from the previous night kept on repeating itself at intervals of several hours. Perhaps it was always like this – the group of refugees who wanted to leave the camp grew in number and strength, and after several hours took courage to break through a considerably thinner cordon of the Hungarian police. The residents of the camp site wanted to leave it and continue on their way to where they wanted to go, and were wanted, and the Hungarian police stood in their way.

I am not sure if the crowd, when it disappeared into the open landscape along the highway, helped itself much by this. It was not possible to use normal train or bus transportation without processed registration papers. And Budapest and the West was far too away to be reached only on foot.

However, nor was the police position easy. Actually, I cannot say that they engaged in any unfair conduct except for the situations when their insistence to comply with what was for me an unreasonable order only increased tension and animosity within the crowd.

Some people, and not a few of them, with their number gradually increasing, also voluntarily got in the waiting buses sent by the Hungarian authorities.

Apparently, the Hungarian police changed its strategy by the end of Tuesday, the first full day we spent on the spot. Because the closest detention camp was crowded, the refugees in buses were apparently transported to other places in the country, but allegedly without being fingerprinted and with the prospect of embarking on other connections to the West. As far as I knew, this information was not disseminated among the camp residents. Were these conditions going to change again in a few hours?

If I remember correctly, the buses headed to other camps in the country where the refugees were to be registered. But it was possible that it was mostly the Syrians who were getting on the buses, because the German government had issued a statement some time ago that it would accept the Syrians on its territory, regardless of the place they were registered and where their asylum application was being processed. They might have thought – and apparently with the substantial assistance of the volunteers, because no one else provided them with information – that the Hungarian registration would not impair their heading westwards.

Generally, as perhaps can be read from my description, these vague observations of mine illustrate the overall feeling – and not only mine – of an absolute lack of information, confusion over its source, and uncertainty whether the information available was to be believed.

One other thing I consider to be important to mention and which could not be seen at first sight, was the social dimension of the whole problem. Most of the refugees came from rather higher social classes. Those from the lower strata could not afford to pay the traffickers for the journey. One Syrian, whom I met at Budapest railway station, paid something like 1200 euros for a voyage on a small boat between Turkey and Greece. And also, a number of people close to the refugees who were on the run or their family members, often still remained or waited at home.

Retrospectively, I regret that we did not have the capacity to help to change the atmosphere a bit in the camp at least during the evenings; by accepting the camp as a camp, by making an open fire and playing the guitar. I think it would have helped, even a little, to soften the mood and bring  moments of peace and relaxation. But there was not enough manpower to take care even of everyday services in the camp.

A couple of hours after our departure, valid from September 15, the tolerant attitude to people crossing the state border, as perceived by the Hungarian government officials, was about to end. The military moved to the spot and the construction of a large fence along the borders with Serbia was to be completed. Anyone wanting to enter the country would have to apply for asylum. It should then be processed in a very short time, within several days. Crossing the border without authorization would lead to imprisonment or deportation.

If I am not mistaken, helping refugees, including accommodating them at home, was forbidden and considered a crime.

September 2015

This article was published in Czech and Slovak on the website

Michal Jašek

Michal Jašek

is interested in urban sociology and the living conditions of homeless people in the urban environment.