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'They're butchering us — only open borders will save us'

When refugee migration was confined to Turkey and Greece, European leaders stood silent. Now, as hundreds of thousands of refugees stream into Western Europe, those same leaders are being compelled to act. Despite media alarm over a ‘humanitarian crisis,’ only a political solution will remedy the situation. ‘We need the borders to remain open.’

By Shahar Shoham (translated by Gila Norich)

BUDAPEST — When visiting Budapest’s central train station two days prior, I noticed only a scant number of journalists; this despite the presence of thousands of refugees, hundreds of children among them, living on the streets — some for longer than a week. Those walking toward the train station would never have know that hidden there, just below street level, were thousands of asylum seekers in need of protection.

Fast-forward two days to last Wednesday. By then, anyone passing the Keleti station would clearly be able to observe what is being repeatedly termed “the biggest refugee crisis since World War II.” Now, at street level one finds a chaotic mix of television crews, news announcers and reporters in suits and ties, broadcasting against a backdrop of refugees and dozens of Hungarian police.

Photo 1: Police form a wall, blocking access to the train station in Budapest. (photo: Shahar Shoham)

Police form a wall, blocking access to the train station in Budapest. (photo: Shahar Shoham)

Between camera tripods, I see a mother and three young children sitting on a blanket; then, a line of police blocking the entrance to the train station. Behind them is the departures board. In front of them are dozens of refugees, many bearing signs, left over from a recent demonstration, that read “Help” and “Germany,” the destination which most are trying to reach. The demonstration, which ended just a few hours earlier, was organized in protest of the decision not to allow refugees board the trains.

A political — not a humanitarian — crisis

The three Syrian brothers I interviewed two days prior were no longer at their spot beneath the main exit sign. Did they board a train for Austria during those few hours when Hungary finally began allowing refugees back into the station? Had they been stopped by Hungarian authorities and sent to the refugee camps, forced to register [for refugee status]?

In “refugee language,” registering is referred to as “giving your finger” — in other words, providing the authorities with your fingerprints so that you can be put into the extensive European databank called EURODAC.

Every refugee I spoke to at the station made sure to tell me whether they had or hadn’t given their fingerprints in Hungary. This is because registering has huge implications on one’s future, as outlined in the Dublin Regulation and subsequent agreements that have followed.

Those who hadn’t registered recounted with pride how they managed to get out of giving their fingerprints, and in this way, bypass the harsh realities of the current system under which asylum seekers are made to stay within the country of their first port of entry in the European Union.

Photo 2: Just below street level, one finds thousands in need of protection. Asylum seekers at the central train station in Budapest. (photo: Shahar Shoham)

Just below street level, one finds thousands in need of protection. Asylum seekers at the central train station in Budapest. (photo: Shahar Shoham)

I ask a volunteer from one of the Christian charities why Hungary is not permitting refugees to leave Hungary and what he expects will happen next. He explains that the Hungarian authorities were trying to uphold the Schengen Agreement. Letting them leave would threaten European agreements, for example, the Dublin II Regulation, which guarantees the notion of open borders.

His words reinforce the concept that what we are dealing with is a political and not humanitarian crisis — despite what the media might lead us to believe — and that what is needed is in fact a solution that has political ramifications. Who, if not Europe, with the highest rates of refugee resettlement in the world, can cope and provide adequate protection? Had European leaders formulated policies differently, the challenging and overwhelming situation in which thousands of refugees found themselves stranded for several days at the Budapest train station might have turned out differently.

When does a situation become a “crisis?” We must remember that the crisis has for years already been striking places like Syria, Afghanistan, and Eritrea. When did the “poor Syrians” become the topic of conversation at everyone’s breakfast table? Was it when 2 million Syrians began arriving in Turkey over the last few years, or when Lebanon extended protection to over a million people? The answer is no.

The crisis cry only rings out when 350,000 Syrian refugees, and refugees from other places as well, begin arriving on European soil asking for protection. Or perhaps it was those terrible pictures of corpses washing up on shore that signaled to European leaders that the time has come to examine their choice of words and start acting.

‘Open borders will save us’

A young Syrian man turns to me and asks, “Excuse me, would you be able to help us find a cheap hotel for the night? None are letting us stay because we cannot produce papers. If we don’t find a place, we’ll be forced to sleep here, outside the station.”

An Afghan man stands next to me eyeing the Hebrew writing I’m scribbling in my notebook. He insists we speak in German. “I studied at the Goethe Institute in Afghanistan,” he tells me, beaming with pride. “I’m trying to get to Germany to study there, to become an engineer or a doctor, a cardiologist or a gastroenterologist.” He explains how he arrived in Hungary two weeks prior and has been sleeping in the park ever since, not far from the station.

“I am 16 but the Hungarian police told me to say I’m 18 so that I’ll be able to continue on. I came to the station so that my friend could see the doctor who is volunteering here, for his tooth. She gave him pills for the pain. I hope they work.”

Dozens of police block the entrance to the central station in Budapest. (photo: Shahar Shoham)

Dozens of police block the entrance to the central station in Budapest. (photo: Shahar Shoham)

Suddenly an Afghan man runs towards me, waving a video on his smartphone of a man beating a woman lying on the ground. “Do you see what’s happening in my country? Do you see what the Taliban is doing? We are trapped between two forces. One, the Taliban; the other, ISIS. Haven’t you heard of them? I left Afghanistan because the Taliban started interrogating me because I was working with an American company. I worked there because I needed the money. It’s taken me 70 days to get here and now I’m not sure where to go from here.”

Underground, thousands of asylum seekers. The central station in Budapest. (photo: Shahar Shoham)

Underground, thousands of asylum seekers. The central station in Budapest. (photo: Shahar Shoham)

He is 23. Back in Afghanistan he taught English. On his way to Budapest he passed through Belgrade, spending nights in a park. “It was dirty and very difficult. There weren’t so many people there to help us. There were mostly journalists, snapping photos all the time and interviewing us, it’s what interested them.”

From there, he walked with 25 people to the Serbian-Hungarian border. They walked for hours and got lost until they found an opening through which they could pass. “Guards were waiting on the other side, asking us where we were hoping to go. We said, Germany. Why did they even ask? They know where we want to go.”

“No one knew anything. No one ever explained anything to us. There are some rumors, some information is spread by word of mouth.”

“What do you think,” he asked me. “What do you know about Germany?” Suddenly I find myself saying that from reading the papers it appears no one is really sure what will happen. Angela Merkel has called on European leaders to share the burden of resettlement equally. There is to be a summit of European prime ministers in the next week and then they will decide.

It becomes evident, once again, that it is the politicians who must decide, and what is needed is firm political will, not another blanket or sandwich from volunteers at the Budapest Central Station.

Cousins from Afghanistan seeking asylum: Write that we need the borders to stay open. There’s war in Asia, the Taliban, ISIS. It’s too dangerous. (photo: Shahar Shoham)

Cousins from Afghanistan seeking asylum: ‘Write that we need the borders to stay open. There’s war in Asia, the Taliban, ISIS. It’s too dangerous.’ (photo: Shahar Shoham)

On the floor in one of the hallways leading to the Metro sits a group of young Afghan boys. One holds a sign that reads, “I love Afghanistan.”

“We are cousins. We were engineering students in Kabul. One day, we found out that the Taliban attacked our village. For a month, we tried to get word from our relatives but we didn’t hear from them. We still haven’t heard from anyone. It’s important that you mention in your report that we need the borders to remain open. There are too many wars in Asia. There is the Taliban and there is ISIS — it is far too dangerous back where we’re from. At a time when they are butchering us, open borders will save us.”

Several days after my visit to the station, Hungarian authorities allow a portion of the refugees to board trains bound for Austria. In one television report, I identify the group of cousins trying to squeeze their way past hundreds of others, each vying for a chance to make it through the narrow train door.

In Israel, a sudden concern for refugees

In the meantime, I return to Israel. Reading the Israeli press exposes me to a discourse I’ve never witnessed in all my years of working on this issue. Pages upon pages of newspaper and television coverage describing the sudden crisis, as if it had come from nowhere.

On one hand, I see Israeli media criticizing Europe for its treatment of refugees. On the other, I see it decrying the threat of a potential loss of identity in Europe — all the while completely oblivious to the way Israel has treated its own asylum seekers in recent years, and to the fact that the same refugees we are so concerned about, are fleeing from someplace not to far from here.

In fact, they’re from just beyond the border.

Dozens of asylum seekers crowd around a bus after being released from Holot detention center. According to Interior Minister Silvan Shalom, the asylum seekers are forbidden from living or working in Eilat and Tel Aviv, where large refugee communities live, August 25, 2015. (photo: Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

Dozens of asylum seekers crowd around a bus after being released from Holot detention center. According to Interior Minister Silvan Shalom, the asylum seekers are forbidden from living or working in Eilat and Tel Aviv, where large refugee communities live, August 25, 2015. (photo: Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

And as if reading a manual written for itself, I observe Netanyahu continuing to apply the typical phrases used by Israelis with regard to asylum seekers, “infiltrators, migrant workers, terrorists.” It is a discourse the Israeli government has stubbornly, persistently and with great effort, succeeded to entrench, causing the Israeli public — almost in its entirety — to internalize.

“No, no,” the Zionist Union responds to Netanyahu. “Don’t worry, the Africans here. We agree with you, they are not refugees. We’re interested in helping those in Europe, those whom the newspapers refer to as ‘refugees,’ those they say we should help because of the crisis in Europe. Don’t worry — we’re not talking about those who’ve been in Israel already for a while. Those, they’re simply infiltrators.”

Shahar Shoham has been active in advancing the rights of migrants, refugees, and other undocumented persons in Israel through her work with Physicians for Human Rights-Israel. She is currently completing an MA in Global Studies through a consortium of various universities around the world. This article was first published in Hebrew on Local Call. Read it here.

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