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Hungary’s border fence traps migrants in limbo

by Kristina Jovanovski

Aftab Habib is one of dozens of people sitting on the floor at Budapest’s Keleti train station, his home for the last two nights. Five months ago he left his home in Afghanistan in search of better life.

<p>Migrants seek shelter at Keleti train station in Budapest.</p>

Migrants seek shelter at Keleti train station in Budapest.

(Kristina Jovanovski)

Today, after travelling through Iran, Greece, Macedonia and Serbia, the life he dreams of is both within touching distance and almost out of reach. Aftab has a one-way ticket to Germany but has been stopped by police from boarding the train because he does not have a passport.

Aftab says he left Afghanistan because of chronic unemployment and fear of the Taliban, but many of the 100,000 migrants that have entered Hungary this year are seeking asylum from war and repression in countries like Syria, Iraq and Eritrea.

“It has been very, very hard,” Aftab tells Equal Times.

“I’m very nervous now, I don’t have [a] plan because I lost my money,” he says while clutching at his ticket.

But as of the end of August, migrants following in his footsteps could face even more obstacles.

Hungary is currently building a four-metre-high, 175km-long (109 miles) steel fence on its border with Serbia to stop undocumented migrants from entering the country illegally.

Government spokesman Zoltan Kovacs tells Equal Times that the barrier is being put up to force migrants to use official channels.

“We don’t like building fences, security parameters, but… the nature of the problem is such that there’s no other means at hand to stop the flood of illegal migrants,” he says.

Along with the fence, which is being built by prison inmates and Hungarian soldiers, the government has also introduced new, stricter regulations to detain asylum seekers for longer periods of time.

There has also been increasing anti-immigrant rhetoric from the Hungarian government. In July, Prime Minister Viktor Orban said illegal immigration was clearly linked to an increased risk of terrorism.

The government put up billboards, in Hungarian, with controversial statements such as: “If you come to Hungary, you cannot take away Hungarian jobs”.


Creeping towards authoritarianism

Critics argue that the government’s nationalist rhetoric is partly a reaction to the popularity of the far-right Jobbik party, the third biggest party in Hungary’s National Assembly, as well as an indication of the increasing anti-democratic climate in the country.

“It is not within the boundaries of a well-functioning democracy to have hate campaigns,” says Andras Pap, a visiting professor in nationalism studies at the Central European University in Budapest.

Since winning power in 2010, Prime Minister Orban has made a number of moves to centralise power in Hungary, leading to fears that the country is moving closer to authoritarianism.

His government swiftly introduced wide-ranging constitutional reforms, as well as new laws on the media and the judiciary which critics argue have undermined democratic checks and balances.

Pap says the way the government has dealt with migrants, such as closing down public toilets and refusing to provide them with water, is against international law. However, building a wall, Pap adds, and sending migrants back to a county like Serbia where they are unlikely to face persecution is legal.

Hungary is not alone in struggling with an increase in the number of migrants and asylum seekers in recent times.

Over 2,000 people have died in the Mediterranean Sea en route to Europe in this year alone.

According to government statistics, last year Germany was home to a record number of immigrants while the amount of refugees is expected to double this year.

In the first half of 2015, there were also 150 attacks which caused damage to refugee shelters in the country, according to Reuters.

Last week, the European Commission set aside €2.4 billion (US$2.69 billion) for countries, such as Greece and Italy, who are struggling with an influx of immigrants. But a concrete plan on how to relocate asylum seekers has proven more difficult.

Towards the end of July, the European Union delayed a decision on the resettlement of 40,000 asylum seekers amongst member states until December.

Hungary is said to have been one of countries most reluctant to accept migrants; for Kovacs the burden is already too great.

“Why should Europe accept the fact that hundreds of thousands of people are coming to Europe in an undisciplined, illegal manner? That’s the fundamental problem. Europe cannot take the weight of all the suffering in the world.”

Back at Keleti, Aftab is desperately trying to navigate the confusing channels for migrants to Europe. Along with some friends, he went to the authorities to fill out the necessary forms but they were only given documents in Hungarian – a language they do not understand.

In the meantime, he has nowhere to go and will remain living at the station.

“It’s very difficult. This is not life,” he says.

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