Volunteers step in as Hungary tries to shut out illegal migrants

‘Strange and random’ happenings await the recent arrivals in an ill-prepared Europe

Zsuzsanna Zsohar has gained much from helping migrants who are moving through Hungary in unprecedented numbers.

She now has friends from distant lands, has heard travellers' tales she could never have dreamed of, and has seen at first hand how people in the rich world of Europe respond to the desperation of strangers.

The experience has also, more unexpectedly, sharpened her sense of the absurd.

"Lots of young guys are travelling alone, especially from Afghanistan and Pakistan, and many get a new birthday when they are registered in Hungary. A minor can't be sent back alone to another country, so they miraculously turn 18 when they are given temporary papers here," Zsohar says.


“A Nigerian boy came through recently. He was due to turn 18 in October, but he had been given a new, earlier birthday. And he spoke good English, but for some reason he had been registered as a Turkish-speaker, so he got a new language, too.”

Zsohar’s phone constantly rings and chirps with messages, as she co-ordinates volunteers from her group, Migration Aid, talks to people offering donations, and monitors news and social media.

"Yesterday we got a call that a pregnant Afghan woman had started having contractions on the train from near the Serbian border to Budapest, " she says. "Luckily, the hospital doctor on duty was from Iran, so they could talk to each other in Farsi. And our volunteer who helped her is Jewish, so it was really great co-operation."

As Zsohar talks, families and small groups of men from the Middle East and Central Asia wander around the plaza behind Budapest’s Nyugati station, an elegant 19th-century building designed by Gustav Eiffel’s company.

At “transit zones” here and at other Budapest stations, migrants can take a shower and use toilets, and Migration Aid volunteers offer food, water, clothes and information on the asylum process translated into languages they understand. Everything, including the translation, comes free from volunteers and donors.


The migrants are then directed towards trains that take them to one of several camps around the country, where they are expected to live until a decision is made on their asylum applications.

The camps are now massively overcrowded, however, and migrants complain of squalid conditions and occasional fights.

Most people quickly leave the camps and make for western Europe, and some try to avoid them completely and sleep rough in Budapest before trying to leave the country, leading to friction with some locals and police.

“A lot of migrants gather in a square named after Pope John Paul II, near Keleti train station, so now it’s been nicknamed ‘Afghan Square’,” says Zsohar.

“Some people complain about it, including how migrants there apparently ‘pray in groups’, which would be an odd thing to ban on Pope John Paul II Square.”

Near the state-run camps, and the squares and train stations where migrants gather, people offer lifts to Austria, Germany or other wealthier, and reputedly more welcoming countries, in return for hundreds of euro per person.

Onward travel

The traffickers want to maintain a low profile, so Zsohar says they sometimes send other denizens of Budapest’s less salubrious public spaces – local prostitutes – to present the mostly Muslim migrants with various options for onward travel.

“So many strange and random things are happening here,” says Zsohar (36) as she grabs a bite to eat in a cafe near the station and recounts delighting migrants with a delivery of 120 gyro sandwiches bought by a supporter of her group.

“We don’t accept money, only things: food, clothes, water, toys, basic medical supplies,” she says of Migration Aid, which in less than two months has attracted some 300 active volunteers and more than 11,000 Facebook followers. “Our purpose is to help people get to the camps. We refuse to take on the state’s role of feeding and caring for them.”

That night, however, after a day working at the station, she and fellow volunteers would spend hours finding somewhere for 224 migrants to sleep in Budapest, after the state’s computer system for allocating camp places broke down.

Balkan route

The story is similar all along the migrants’ Balkan route to western Europe.

From Turkey to Hungary, volunteers fill gaping holes left by states that are unwilling or unable to spend more on the rapidly rising number of migrants who usually endure great hardship to reach an EU that does not know what to do with them.

Despite official talk of tightening security and fulfilling international obligations, Balkan states have done little in recent months to halt the migrants, though Macedonia this week sent security forces to reinforce its border with Greece.

With 130,000 asylum seekers having arrived in Hungary so far this year, the prime minister, Viktor Orban, has also resolved to stop the migrants.

By August 31st, coils of razor wire should be in place along Hungary's entire 175km frontier with Serbia, and a four-metre-high security fence will follow. Thousands of police are already patrolling the frontier and rapid-reaction "hunting" squads are being formed to handle incidents involving migrants in the border area.

"The Hungarian state is doing its job," says government spokesman Zoltan Kovacs, pointing to €200 million of state funds over the past two years spent on migration issues – often security-related – with little help from the EU. "Yes, Hungary's asylum system is overwhelmed and running at three times capacity. That is why we are going to open two new temporary shelters."

“There is a way to apply for asylum legally, and we have accepted and integrated people who do that . . . We are receptive to refugees proper, but we have a problem with those who come as economic migrants.”


Hungary says it cannot cope with the influx of migrants, but the vast majority of them quickly move west. Last year, Hungary granted asylum to just 240 people, despite receiving some 43,000 requests, and no border fence, however forbidding, will remove Hungary’s legal obligation to protect people who are fleeing war zones such as



With Balkan states keen to shuffle migrants west, and the EU unable to agree on how to cope with them, Zsohar has no idea what lies ahead.

Surrounded by strange and disturbing tales that could have come from the imagination of Franz Kafka or Milan Kundera, she likens the migrant situation to a fantastical national folk story about a pig's stomach stuffed with meat – a kind of Hungarian haggis – that hangs in the attic and gobbles up anyone who comes near.

“It gets fuller and fuller, and bigger and bigger, until finally, one day, it explodes,” Zsohar says, “and all the people it has swallowed up come running out.”