Refugees sleeping rough on outskirts of EU

Usually, seeing homeless people is no reason for joy. But in Budapest it is – last year, head of state Viktor Orbán and his right-wing national government passed a law criminalising homeless people for sleeping rough. They are given three warnings and then imprisoned.

Thankfully, the law is not enforced everywhere. The criminalisation of homeless people is just one facet of the policies with which Viktor Orbán demonises minorities and erodes democracy.

In particular, refugees are suffering. The Diakonie Hamburg (an organization working to help disadvantaged people) organised a study tour along a route taken by refugees, through Romania, Serbia and Hungary. Most participants work with refugees. The purpose of the trip? To learn about the situation and create a dialogue with colleagues and like-minded group, and above all clarification of the question: “How can we work together more closely?” says Diakonie’s worldwide coordinator Sangeeta Fager. Because working with refugees is very difficult in all three countries.

EU country Hungary has built a 175-kilometre border fence with Serbia and uses harsh methods to prevent refugees from entering the country and seeking asylum. Despite falling numbers, the state of emergency, imposed by the government, continues to prevail. The asylum procedures are considered defective. In 2018, 608 asylum applications were filed; 9.1 per cent were recognized. Again and again Hungary violates EU directives.

Orbán’s right-wing national government also wants to end the work of independent aid organisations (NGOs) that support refugees. Not only that, whoever supports refugees will be intimidated. Advising refugees illegally can be punishable by a one-year prison sentence. Such punishment could await lawyer Grua Matevi from the Helsinki Committee, a renowned human rights organisation. Matevi had already considered leaving the country. “But we are still in the EU,” says the 37-year-old. “They cannot just lock me up!” Earlier, the Helsinki Committee still had access to transit camps, one of which is in the border town of Röszke. Today, the helpers are not allowed to come within 8 kilometres of the camp.

Hunger in the camp

But the work of the NGOs is urgently needed. Because again and again cases like this happen: people who have their asylum application rejected often go without food for days. Since the refugees are housed in a closed transit camp, they also cannot buy food. Once, the camp administration only gave food to the mothers and children, but they were not allowed to give anything to fathers. The Helsinki Committee lodged a complaint last year before the Human Rights Court in Strasbourg and had it approved. Hungary had promised to respect the verdict. But it does not. Again and again, the Helsinki Committee has to turn to Strasbourg, reports Matevi.

An absurd reason

The reason given by Hungary for withholding food from these failed asylum seekers was, that the refugees could leave. It’s important to know: This transit camp is located near Röszke, in no man’s land on the border with Serbia. Those who actually leave the camp voluntarily, are immediately on Serbian soil – and thus out of Hungary. Hungary has classified Serbia as a “safe third country”. In other words, anyone who goes to Serbia no longer has the possibility of appealing the rejection of their asylum application. And almost everyone is rejected. But Hungary belongs to the EU. Are they allowed to do that? “Not really,” says Matevi. Because Hungary violates several EU directives, the EU has filed a lawsuit, but it has not yet been decided.

Akileo gets a chance

In the afternoon, at a church counseling service, we meet Akileo M., a refugee from Uganda. He is a football talent, playing in midfield for a refugee team. He’s a success story. He has a scholarship for the renowned university CEU in Budapest. He will also be able to live there. But he is one of the last to have this opportunity. The university is mainly funded by George Soros, a Holocaust survivor and billionaire with Hungarian roots. With his foundation Open Society, he advocates, particularly in Eastern Europe, for the promotion and preservation of democracy. For years, Soros has been an enemy of the right – especially of Orbán. All the harassment against NGOs is therefore also called the “Stop Soros law”. The government withdrew the private CE’s legal status, despite international protests. It has had to close and has now moved to Vienna.

A farm for refugees

Dora Kanizsai-Nagy has big plans. The co-founder of the aid organization Kalunba wants to start a farm in a village near Budapest – with refugees who grow, harvest and sell vegetables. Courageous, in the face of xenophobia, which is also fueled by Orbán’s propaganda. On posters, refugees were defamed for months as intruders and potential perpetrators of violence. That has not missed its effect on the population. Dora does not want to capitulate. However, she and her colleagues don’t have all the funding for the farm yet. Money is an issue. Because even Kalunba, which, for example, offers refugees Hungarian language courses or accommodation, is financially dried up by the government. There is a European integration fund especially for refugee work, but this money must be obtained from the respective national government; Orbán’s government refuses and thus turns off funding for these organisations. “We do not want to fight,” says Dora, sighing. “We just want to do our job.”  


Serbia wants only to be a transit country, but still become a member of the EU, a reason to temporarily accept refugees. The EU gives money for camps and employees. Asylum procedures and access to legal advice are considered inadequate. In 2018, 327 refugees applied for asylum, only 11 were recognised with full protection needs.

A list of hope

The trip across the border to Serbia initially seems quite harmless. Although, here in Röszke, behind barbed wire, lies the notorious Hungarian transit camp. Only a few kilometres further, on Serbian territory, lies the Subotica refugee camp. We meet Nataa Markovska Momilovi from the ecumenical relief organisation EHO, which supports the refugees. 52 people, including 30 children, live in residential containers. “Everyone who’s here has almost made it,” says Nataa. They are on the list everyone is talking about. Only ten refugees are allowed to apply for asylum per week at the Hungarian border. A concession: Hungary wants to prove that it has not totally isolated itself. This would violate existing EU law. But which ten are allowed over? In order to be reasonably fair, refugees used to keep a list themselves. This was accepted by the camp leaders and authorities, and now it is continued by the Serbian State Refugee Commission.

Amna explains

4 Afghan women sit on a bench and talk. The communication in English is difficult and the encounter only brief. They seem a bit apathetic. Amna S. [whose name has been changed] says that she has been on the run since 2015, in the end “walking, walking a lot”, and has already been in several camps. The camp Vranje on the Macedonian border was the biggest horror: it was totally overcrowded, and there was nothing to eat, she says. How is it going to continue for her now? Amna shrugs her shoulders. The fact that she may soon be able to apply for asylum in Hungary does not mean that her application will be granted. The recognition rate in 2018 was still nine per cent; this year it has dropped to five per cent. “There is no other way,” she says. She points to her little son. “I do it all for him – and turning around is not possible anymore.” The 15-year-old interferes. “We cannot stay here either. The Serbs themselves have nothing.” That’s true: the unemployment rate is 40 per cent, and even 60 per cent amongst the youth. 

“Playing the game”

Out of desperation many, mostly men, try to cross the border into Hungary in small groups or with the help of smugglers, and from there on to the West. This process is called ‘playing the game’ – a downplaying term. The pressure of suffering must be extremely high in order to expose oneself to such an experience. Because usually the ‘game’ does not end well. Hungary has built a meter-high fence along the 175-kilometre border with Serbia. Border patrol with dogs and helicopters fly over the terrain. Whoever is picked up, is ‘pushed back’ into Serbian territory. The pushback is pretty brutal. An example that has been researched by two human rights organisations: In August, 16 Afghan men and young people from Subotica managed to cross the border into Hungary. Smugglers had promised to pick them up in a forest area. Instead, the police came. Those who did not immediately cooperate felt the baton. For hours, the refugees had to sit in the blazing sun, without water or food. Their cell phones were destroyed. The opportunity to apply for asylum did not exist. Late in the evening they were released on the border with Serbia. Hours later, they arrived in Subotica. The good news: “The beds at the camp are kept free for three days,” says Nataa. And thus the place on the list.

The fatigue of donors 

We continue to Novi Sad. Around 20,000 refugees come to Serbia every year, says Danijela Korác-Mandic from the Humanitarian Centre. 3000 to 4000 of them are housed in camps. “Where are the others? Maybe you can tell me that?” Of course she knows the answer herself: probably in unofficial camps, in demolition houses or in the forest. Danijela also tells us about refugees who were beaten by Hungarian border guards and bitten by dogs. But their organisation can do less and less for refugees. Because she gets no money from the Serbian state. And because Serbia is not an EU country, “we also have no access to the European integration funds,” says Danijela. Amongst the international donors, “donor fatigue” is present. Therefore, she has no choice but to drastically reduce or even discontinue programs.

Integration? There’s virtually none!

Danijela wishes that the refugees could come to rest – and stay – just as she did: During the war in Yugoslavia she fled to Novi Sad from Tuzla, which is only a three-hour drive away. “I thought I would just stay until it’s all over,” she says. But without realising it, she integrated. When she returned to Tuzla after the war – then to Bosnia-Herzegovina – “nothing was as it was before,” says the 48-year-old. “Long ago, I started to belong to somewhere else.” Of course, her situation is not comparable to the refugees’ experiences today. Apart from the cultural differences and the language: Serbia does not want the refugees to become settled. It wants to continue being just a transit country. Integration and support is therefore not desired.


Admission, placement and access to social legislation are considered problematic. In 2018, of the 2,069 asylum applications that were submitted, 1,077 decisions were made amongst the initial applications. Recognition rate: 26 per cent. 74 per cent of them only in the second instance.

News from a monk

In Timisoara, we are housed in a monastery. In the evening, we sit on the terrace and discuss how cooperation with our colleagues in Hungary, Serbia and Romania could be deepened. After all, under the most difficult conditions, they try to help refugees to access their rights and to find some dignity and enjoyment. A young man in shorts joins in: Father Marton, one of the four monks who live here. He tells us that he is holding services in small villages on the Serbian border and that often refugees would come across the green border from Romania. “The villagers are neither enthusiastic nor against them,” says the 31-year-old monk. “Some even help them.” At harvest time, they are also welcomed workers. Refugees come across the green border to Romania? Father Marton explains why: “They cannot get through to Hungary, and there is no fence between Romania and Serbia. And from here they start a new attempt, with the help of traffickers.” Again, a new version of “playing the game”. 

Armament in Romania

How much longer will “playing the game” work? Visiting the transit centre in Timisoara, the camps are run by the state, hence by the police. Gabriel Vasilescu is the head of the transit camp and a police officer. The 42-year-old explains, with some pride, that the border police intercepts about 300 refugees a month at the border and pushes them back to Serbia. “We can monitor a strip of 20 to 30 kilometres in width, with helicopters, day and night.” Vasilescu expects the refugee numbers in Romania to rise again. Eventually, more and more routes are closed and, in general, “people will not be stopped.” That’s why the country is upgrading. New centres are being built. “We do not want to be taken by surprise again by the number of refugees,” says Vasilescu. “This time we are prepared.”

Evacuation to a new life

Outside, we see five refugees who seem to have just arrived, each with a black garbage bag in hand. In it there is bedding and something to eat. We hope that they are amongst the lucky ones for whom the journey continues. Because this camp is something special, the Emergency Transit Centre (ETC) accommodation – the only one of its kind in Europe. The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) evacuates people who are considered special cases of hardship and brings them here. Many of them were rescued from official and unofficial Libyan camps. They are all termed “particularly vulnerable”, because they may be auctioned off as slaves and because beatings and rape are a common daily threat to them. The EU has commissioned Libya to take in refugees, finances the camps and assists in the training of coast guards, who are regarded as brutal.

A delicate mission

According to the UNHCR, 1.4 million refugees are considered most vulnerable. The refugee agency is selecting from this group some who will be transferred to countries ready to accept this “very, very vulnerable group”. It’s a delicate task, because the UNHCR can only make suggestions; the host countries decide. UNHCR representative Camelia Niu-Fril is grateful for every family that is transferred to a safe environment. Only recently did she receive a phone call from a family admitted to Nuremberg. The daughter sounded excited and happy. “She invited me to the wedding,” says Camelia Niu-Fril. “Then I knew: now the family has finally arrived in their new life.”

A party to say goodbye

Our journey comes to an end. As a conclusion, we experience something beautiful – we are invited by the church organisation AidRom to celebrate their monthly intercultural festival with lots of food and music. We meet an Afghan couple with two cute children. They look so satisfied, and for good reason: the two were just recognised as refugees. He studies economics, she studies computer science. And if all goes well, they can soon get residency status. And then we celebrate. Social worker Flavius ​​plays the entertainer. He shouts: “Who comes from Syria, please stand up!” It continues: from Somalia, from Afghanistan, Romania and Germany. And everyone stands up, the adults reserved and smiling, embarrassed; the children mostly radiant and proud. Every single person is enthusiastically applauded. That creates a positive ambience. And for a tiny moment everyone feels welcome, no matter where they come from or where they will eventually go.

Translated from German by Lisa Luginbuhl
Courtesy of Hinz&Kunzt /



, ,




Leave a Reply