Thu Sep 3rd, 2015 at 08:12:27 AM EST
Back in 1989, around the time school started for me at the start of September, Budapest was full of East Germans hoping to leave for West Germany (for a mix of political and economic reasons), hopeful because Hungary started to dismantle the Iron Curtain a few months earlier. A large group camped out at the West German embassy, but there were makeshift camps around the city. The government finally opened the borders for them on 11 September, launching a mostly car-riding emigration wave (at least 70,000 people in three months). A few weeks later, East Germans camping out in Warshaw and Prague were taken to West Germany in sealed trains.
Yesterday, something similar happened, only this time the refugees are dark-skinned and faced much worse treatment. In line with both the government's xenophobic campaign and the EU's Dublin Agreement (whose main aim was to keep refugees from moving to the richer EU members), Hungarian authorities prevented the mostly Syrian refugees without EU visa from boarding trains bound for the west. Most of the stranded refugees who refused to be taken to Hungarian camps stayed in the underpass at main station Budapest Keleti (up to two thousand), in a makeshift "transit zone" lacking basic hygiene and only cared for by an NGO.
I don't know whether it was concern about image (to have such misery as the first sight of arriving Western tourists), or anger at the German foreign minister's denouncement of the anti-refugee wall built at the Serbian border, or anger at general Western hypocrisy; but yesterday, the government decided to withdraw police and let refugees board the trains. Without any plans about how to manage the thousands of extra passengers (all transit countries refused to send extra trains), entirely predictably, the result was utter chaos, from Budapest to Munich: ticket counters were (actually, still are) clogged, some trains left with an hour delay due to over-loading, the first train was stopped in the last city before Munich but local police didn't have the capacity to process more than half of the refugees on-board; other trains were stopped at the Hungarian–Austrian border station, but after the filtering-out of refugees who already filed for asylum in Hungary the trains still travelled on over capacity; on the parallel highway, Austrian police started checks of all trucks, causing a 50 km traffic jam.
For the hectic events since, especially today, check the comments.
Some extra notes for context.
When I wrote about the truly vicious anti-immigrant campaign launched by Hungary's right-populist government three months ago, I ended with:
I'm unsure what the medium-term result of the xenophobic campaign will be, but I am rather certain that it won't be major voter gains for Fidesz from Jobbik.
Now three months wiser, I can say: gaining from Jobbik indeed didn't work, but if nothing else, the "localisation" of Western-European-style xenophobia was quite successful. It's the number one theme for public discussions (in place of the government's ever bigger corruption scandals), and quite negatively so. Although there are no arson attacks and xenophobic mass riots, there were plenty of stories of police violence, shops refusing to serve refugees, verbal insults and spitting even from rural old women. One defamation that is particularly popular (in spite of directly contradicting that other one about "economic migrants" being distinct from "true refugees") holds that the refugees aren't really poor because they can afford smartphones (whereas those smartphones are their only valuables and are used as maps and news source).
There were also some counter-actions. The most visible of them was a large crowd-funded poster campaign satirizing or shaming the government's campaign. One of those said: "Come to work in Hungary! We have jobs in London", referring to the exodus of skilled young people during Fidesz's reign. Also, speaking to right-wing colleagues, I sense some realism, they can see that the refugee wave won't stop no matter what we do and they can even be made to admit that the border fence won't stop refugees (though they won't admit that it boosted the 'market' that included that truck with 71 dead refugees). But overall, I fear serious immunity to the anti-refugee hate-mongering is limited to the capital.