TMG's Si Mitchell is currently out in Europe shooting a series of films on the current refugee situation for Vice News.
9 September 2015 Szeged Hungary
The Hungarian police flail truncheons and drop a couple of the most lairy front-liners with a blast of pepper spray. A handful of refugees - overwhelmingly Syrian - some crouched with small wailing children, stay solid in their sit down protest and splash water into their burning faces. We’re on an unlit country road in Roske just across the Serbian border. The 500 people penned in by the 100 or so police broke through a cordon at the border ‘station’ – a muddy maise field full of broken tents and frustrated people - about three hours ago. “Budapest! Budapest!” they shout. It was unfortunate they took a wrong turn at the roundabout. The motorway to Budapest was the third exit. They took the second.
Despite many of the refugees landing, or washing up, on the Greek shores, Hungary is the first defendable frontier to the European Union and the Hungarian authorities have been struggling to cope with the thousands of refugees stumbling up the disused railway tracks that would have once brought trains from Belgrade. They come wrapped in blankets, kids on shoulders, wet from the rain or scorched by the sun. They trail broken tents and clothing. Some come with nothing having lost it all in the sea or having been relieved of their possessions by people smugglers in Turkey. Some are war-torn and making the journey on crutches, but many of the families could pass unnoticed strolling through Highbury.
Jammed in the protest mob I meet Mohammed and his wife from Aleppo. “I am a technology student,” he tells me. “I want to go to Switzerland. My brother is there.” And like many you speak to he adds, “Please help us?”
Among the Syrians are Afghans, Eritreans, people from the Congo, the odd Kosovan and we met one unlikely character from Cuba. But the breakout group chant “Sooria! Sooria!” and urge each other to “stick together” and charge the police lines.
Earlier a group of youths had approached us thumbs aloft asking “What this? What this?” After a conversation of nods and smiles and gestures we realise they are looking for the word ‘fingerprint’. Under Europe’s Dublin Treaty, refugees entering the Union need to be processed in their country of entry. Greece’s collapsing economy and inability to look after it’s own deserving poor has absolved Europe’s most southern member, Greece, of this duty but Hungary is expected to register all migrants entering here. This means photographs, names, dates and fingerprints.
The breakout group don’t want to be registered. They are keen to get to Germany or Sweden. Chinese whispers about Merkel’s open door has painted pictures of a hearty welcome in Munich. “No, no fingerprint! No, no fingerprint!” they chant not really understanding that the Hungarian authorities are as keen for them to move on as they are.
But the Hungarians have also built a ‘camp’ – a giant razor wire topped cage in which to process people. It is reminiscent of another era.
After a lot of shouting and calls for the “Shabab (lads)” to give the police one last push, the pepper spray and the cold and the tired and hungry children drive most on to the buses and off to ‘the camp’.
At night laughing gangs of smugglers gather groups of a hundred or more people on the Serbian side and charge them 150 Euros each to get them around police lines. “Don’t move til I say!” they bark…having convinced them they’ll be stuck in Hungary forever if they don’t pay up. Then they march them past the cops who man the floodlight at the fence. Despite the overwhelming human tragedy here…some people are getting seriously rich.
Back in the hemmed in protest group one lad comes and tells us there is a group of cops offering to let them pass through the police lines for a 200 Euro bribe. Others have snuck into the corn fields – if they can dodge the circling helicopter and get to the petrol station bordering the highway illicit ‘taxis’ will relieve them of 400 Euros apiece for a ride to ‘Vienna’. Vienna turns out to be Kecskemet – a Hungarian city halfway between here and Budapest about 100 miles to the north, but the refugees turfed out into the darkened suburbs have no idea it’s not Austria’s jewel and by then the money has gone.
Meanwhile the flow of people continues. Convicts watched by prison guards work late into the night constructing a razor fence along Hungary’s Serbian border. They drop steel posts into the ground and attach the vicious coils but hats on poles mark where the wire has been bent and forced aside and the tufts of sleeping bag tell us this is a popular entry point. But no one needs to tackle the wire. A hundred meter gap in the fence straddles the rail line leaving Serbia allowing several thousand refugees a day to do the same.
A half mile form the border a makeshift border station has sprung up. Czech anti-fascists have brought a field kitchen and giant pans of chips and veggie stew await the new arrivals. MSF are here with a medical tent. Simon, a well-inked bearded tattooist from Switzerland arrives in a car piled high with clothes and nappies and food. “I just stopped work and had to do something,” he says, before breaking into tears. Volunteers from Hungary, Germany, Holland and the UK are distributing sandwiches and tents. The site, a half ploughed corn field resembles Glastonbury festival on the Monday after. The detritus of the transient crowd – smashed tents and discarded cardies blow despairingly in the wind. Buses trundle in to take people off for processing. A scrum appears, police cajole and thump queue jumpers or anyone else they’ve taken a disliking to and as in all slowly sinking ships women and children go first.
The seen is chaotic and tragic and everyone here could be your neighbour or your mother or yourself and it’s just the passport in your pocket that sets you all aside. Reports are that 16,000 people crossed form Macedonia to Serbia yesterday and are expected here tomorrow. The line of people is said to be seven miles long. On Monday at midnight the Hungarians will close the border. Four thousand soldiers are on the way to hold the line. Chaos is guaranteed. But people keep coming.
Outside the cage I meet Basel, aka Marshall B, a rapping Physical therapy student who left Raqqa when a scud missile dropped into his neighbourhood. “If I’d known what the journey would be this hard I would have stayed in Istanbul. It’s been nine days, sleeping in the forest on the ground, too much hunger, too much thirst.” Many of the refugees will hide their faces and refuse to talk to journalists fearful for the families they have left back home. But Basel breaks into an angry Arabic rap about his smashed life and the desertion of the Syrian people, his buddy keeping a beat-boxed beat by his side.
“Arabic governments don’t care about us,” he says “We’ve been doing this revolution for four years and everyone knows about the Assad regime slaughtering children and raping women and Saudi Arabia are building a temple for Hindus. And the UAE just won the Guiness record for drinking whiskey. I mean come on?
“To be honest,” he says. “I’m not even Arabic anymore. I’m just Syrian.” And exactly what that means today is anyone’s guess.