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The refugee trail through Hungary

The Budapest Business Journal joins refugees as they head for the camps that they hope will be their homes for a while.

A refugee boy in Hungary. (Photos: Jessica Fejos)

Ramin, a refugee from Kabul, was at the Debrecen train station with his wife and two small children, waiting to find out what bus would take them to a nearby refugee camp called Sámson. Their journey from the Afghan capital to the crowded quarters awaiting them in Debrecen was more than 3,000 miles, and they had covered much of that on foot, but Ramin was glad they had taken it. In Afghanistan, he said, bombings, explosions, rape and kidnapping happen regularly. His three-year-old daughter could not attend nursery school because Ramin had a decent-paying job with a Norwegian NGO, so there was a constant threat of someone kidnapping the girl for ransom. “To brighten the future for my child, I would accept being a refugee in any country,” he said.

Raminʼs daughter.

Like tens of thousands of others, Ramin made the difficult journey to Hungary with the hope of being taken into an official refugee camp, where he could apply for asylum and, eventually, the right to live and work in the European Union. The Budapest Business Journal followed the refugees in late July as they traveled from the Hungarian border to the camps where they would live while applying for official status as asylum seekers.

“In the day we slept and at night we continued” said a 16-year-old Afghani boy waiting alone at Budapest’s Nyugati (Western) station for the train that would take him to the camp in Debrecen. He said he had walked for one month and 22 days, and he didn’t even know which countries he traversed on the journey.

“The Iranian Army says ‘Stop! Stop! Stop!’ We don’t stop the car and they start shooting,” a Pakistani man outside the camp in Debrecen said, as a group of Pakistanis pantomimed firing guns.

Ramin, center, with his daughter and a relative.

Record refugee numbers

These people are part of a worldwide crisis that has seen the number of refugees soar to a record 52 million, including four million from around Syria. They describe the EU as a peaceful place to make a new life. Until recently, many seeking to enter the EU from Central Asia, Middle East and North Africa ended up on boats heading from Libya to Italy, but mass drowning and Italian coastal enforcement have made that route less popular.

The camp in Debrecen.

Now the most common way for refugees to reach the EU is overland, through Turkey, Greece and various Balkan routes to the Serb-Hungarian border, the last stop before the promise of a better life in the European Union.

Most of the travelers are young men who hope to find work in Europe. All of them seem determined to stay.

“If we do not find one solution, we will find another,” said a woman holding a six-month-old and waiting at Nyugati for a train to Debrecen. She said it is “very difficult to travel with child” and added that she was not going back.

Waiting for a train to Debrecen at Nyugati.

Officials of the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) register refugees who successfully cross the Hungarian border as asylum seekers. They are allowed to stay in a refugee camp while they apply for the right to live and work in the EU, a process that can take several years. When they are registered as entering Hungary, they are given a train pass and are informed that they have 48 hours to make it to the refugee camp.

Two refugee boys eating food given to them by volunteers.

To Budapest and back

The journey generally involves walking from the Serb border to the southern Hungarian city of Szeged, taking a train from there to Budapest and then getting on a train to Debrecen, to find the Sámson camp. During their stopover in Budapest’s Nyugati station, volunteers give the travelers food, water, soap and clothes, as well as directions to the train for Debrecen.

Getting taxis at the Debrecen train station.

At the Debrecen train station, refugees often go without guides, and they end up in Petőfi tér Park, across the street from the station, learning how to reach the Sámson camp by word of mouth. Taxi drivers at the station charge desperate refugees HUF 3,000 for the 4.6 km drive to the camp, but most walk, or spend the day looking for a bus. On their arrival at Sámson, the travelers are sheltered in simple structures in an overcrowded camp. Still the accommodation is appreciated. A group of Nigerians seated at a small outdoor bar near the camp’s entrance spoke of fleeing the terrorist organization Boko Haram and of having difficulties en route. “We were attacked by hoodlums on the road,” one member of the group, Joseph, said. But as for Sámson, Joseph and his companions were mostly positive, their one complaint being a lack of potable water inside the campgrounds.

Waiting for a train outside Nyugati.

The group was seated on Sámson út, a thoroughfare lined with internet cafes, from which camp residents can call home. By 3 PM, the internet cafes are full, and customers waiting to use the phone form a queue that will run all night long.

While most of the incoming refugees are now being sent to Debrecen, some end up at the camp at Bicske, which has a capacity of 439 but a current population reported at 1,400. One Bicske resident, Ali Mohamed, said he was eager to finish integration and continue to a Scandinavian country to start his new life. “This is a camp, not a country,” he said of the facilities in Bicske.

Outside the camp in Bicske.

Khalid, a young Afghani living in Bicske, said conditions there were “really bad – a lot of people sleep in the road”. But he said he cannot live at home, even though no one from his village wants conflict. “We are normal, simple people, farmers. We don’t impact the war,” Khalid said. “Muslim or Christian is no problem.” Unfortunately, both Taliban and American soldiers claim his village, so peace is impossible. For now he sits in Hungary, awaiting a “normal, simple” life.

A refugee from Kabul, above. A Nigerian who fled Boko Haram, below.

A boy who walked from Afghanistan. Below: Waiting for a train at Nyugati station.

All photos: Jessica Fejos