Following a week of changing approaches to the swelling crowds of refugees outside Budapest train stations, police seemed to be pushing them to go to refugee camps as the Budapest Business Journal went to press.
Hungarian police began taking refugees away from Budapest’s Keleti Railway Station in transport vehicles on September 2, following a week of confusing shifts in policy to address the rapid growth in the number of refugees here.
According to reports, the refugees outside Keleti were being taken to Hungary’s largest refugee camp in Debrecen. Police were reportedly advising all refugees outside of Keleti station to report to refugee camps.
Large crowds of refugees had been gathering at Budapest’s railway stations, and since the September 1 decision to deploy police to prevent them from leaving Hungary, the refugees had been demonstrating and demanding a right to board trains for Germany. By some estimates, several thousand refugees had gathered outside Keleti, with a few hundred more at the other stations before police showed up and started to take some of the refugees away from Keleti and the surrounding area on September 2.
“Hungarian authorities have conducted operations in full compliance with European and national laws in the situations which have emerged in Hungary over the last few days – especially at Budapest’s railway stations,” said a statement sent to the Budapest Business Journal by the International Communications Office of the Prime Minister’s Office earlier on September 2 before the removals started. “European legislation clearly stipulates that Schengen borders must be protected and that citizens of non-EU countries may only leave the territory of a Member State if they have valid travel documents.”
In truth, nothing was very clear about how the rapidly evolving situation was being handled, and it appeared to be heavily impacted by changing sentiment in Germany. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán was due in Brussels on September 3, and there was expectation that the process of clarifying EU refugee policy would begin then. “All measures will remain in place as long as they are necessary,” the International Communications Office said.
The late August spike in Hungary’s refugee population appears to have been accelerated by Hungary’s construction of a fence on the border with Serbia. In a year that has seen a world record in global migration, refugees fleeing the Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia had been heading over that border as it was the safest land route into the European Union. The first phase of the fence, a coil of razor wire, was reportedly laid down by the end of August, but it has proven to have little effect in slowing the entry of refugees.
Sentiment toward the refugees seemed to be shifting following the grizzly August 27 discovery of the decomposing bodies of 71 refugees who had apparently been abandoned in the back of an airtight truck by human traffickers who had driven them from Hungary into Austria. European leaders reacted with shock and German Chancellor Angela Merkel called for a more humane response to the situation.
On August 31, police, who had been preventing refugees from leaving on trains abroad, suddenly stopped protecting Keleti train station and large groups of refugees left for Vienna. Shortly after, German officials made public statements to the effect that their policy had not changed, and by the next day, police were again preventing refugees from traveling, sparking demonstrations outside the station.
The situation seems to have evolved faster than officials can react.
“Obviously the European system of migration and the refugee system is collapsing in front of our eyes,” Hungary’s government spokesperson Zoltán Kovács told the BBC on September 1. “There are no protocols in place and discipline should be restored at the borders.”
Orbán’s September 3 meeting with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker could provide a forum for the leaders to discuss how the EU can help Hungary handle the current influx of refugees, EC Spokesperson Natasha Bertaud said.
In the meantime, no one was clear as to what would happen to the refugees now in Hungary.