THE AUSTRIA–HUNGARY BORDER—Stranded asylum seekers taking to the highways in Hungary and marching to the Austrian border are turning the biggest refugee crisis since the Second World War into a mass demonstration of stunning non-violent resistance.
“It’s the first time I have felt like we can do something about our situation,” says 23-year-old Mohammad, from the embattled Syrian city of Homs. The recently graduated nursing student fled military conscription by the Assad dictatorship and declined to give his last name because he fears for the safety of his family back home.
I met Mohammad walking west down a leafy, suburban road on the outskirts of Budapest with hundreds of others who left the downtown Keleti train station Saturday morning. Local residents lined sidewalks and either handed out food and water to the marching people of all ages or looked on in disbelief and frustration.
Mohammad had fled from Syria into Turkey, then made the perilous sea crossing to Greece in an overcrowded rubber dinghy, much like the boat that capsized last week, killing the little Syrian boy Aylan Kurdi, his brother and mother, a tragedy that seized the world’s attention.
In Greece, Mohammad slept rough, and at every step along the way—Macedonia, Serbia and Hungary—he faced police violence.
Thousands of asylum seekers spent days stranded outside Keleti station, barred by police from boarding trains or buses leaving the country. The Hungarian government’s directives for enforcing a European Union immigration policy that requires people to wait for processing in transit camps and claim refugee status in the first EU country where they arrive has left people living in squalor and facing abuse. (In fact, the first EU country into which most of them arrive is Greece, but most move on from there quickly into the Balkans.)
After several nights in front of Keleti station, many were tricked by police and rail staff into boarding trains they thought were bound for Germany, but instead took them to a transit camp in Bicske, just outside the Hungarian capital.
“Police in Bicske beat us, they didn’t give us water and there were not enough toilets and nowhere to bathe,” says 24-year-old Bader Adin, who fled Aleppo with his family three weeks ago. For him, Germany is the only option. Adin believes it will be more welcoming than elsewhere in Europe. In any case, he says, staying in Syria is a choice between having ISIS slit his throat or one of Assad’s barrel bombs blow him to bits.
Soaked and shivering under a blanket just after crossing into Austria on Saturday morning, Adin said his family decided to join hundreds of others storming out of the camp a day after being deceived into going there. For them it was the last straw in a country that had made it clear to them that they are not wanted.
“We had enough and so we walked,” Adin says.
As word spread about the marches, and more sprang up, the Hungarian government lost control. First it sent police to try to contain those marching on the shoulders of highways, then it buckled completely and sent busses to take between 4,000 and 4,500 people to the Austrian border.
“There is no change in policy, there was a change in circumstance as hundreds and then thousands began walking on the motorway,” said government spokesperson Zoltan Kovacs. He argued that this response would not be repeated and Hungary would be focusing on enforcing its borders in the coming weeks and ensuring those in the country went to transit camps.
Kovacs accused Serbia and Macedonia of facilitating mass illegal immigration and denounced Germany and Austria for being “too inviting to migrants.” He lamented that Austria had not formally responded to his government’s requests to bring people to the border.
Hungary’s perspective, Kovacs says, is that “the marches are organized by human traffickers.” In fact, these spontaneous actions are the result of people who had gone to Budapest to avoid paying huge fees to people who would have crammed them into smugglers’ vans and trucks, like the one in which 71 people died last month.
Even as the exhausted spokesperson from the prime minister’s office said on Saturday that the government wouldn’t repeat Friday’s bussing, thousands more refugees already marching from Budapest as police cordoned off the roads for them.
Along quiet streets lined with traditional Hungarian barn-style houses, Syrian parent are pushing kids in strollers towards the border. An Afghan man on crutches, because of a nasty leg injury incurred while traveling to Greece, hobbles just behind two Iraqis who fled the bombings and bloody sectarian tensions in Baghdad.
The previous evening, at the Serbian frontier 200 kilometers away, hundreds more displaced people wandered through the woods and along the train tracks as they prepared to enter Hungary. Some said they would pay traffickers to get them to Vienna, others, who had just started hearing the news about the marches, said they would walk all the way if they had to.
What is being made abundantly clear to Europe and the world is that people will go to countries where they feel they can find a future—to find hope—for themselves and their families, no matter what the cost.
Since fleeing the horrors of war and persecution, these people have been voting with their feet. Now they are voting together. And while most of them probably have never heard of Rosa Parks, whose action riding segregated buses in Alabama 60 years ago did so much to inspire the American civil rights movement, they can certainly appreciate what she meant when she said, “I had no idea that history was being made. I was just tired of giving in.”