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Refugee numbers hysteria continued…

Recently I asked about why Viktor Orban had said no to having 54,000 refugees taken away from Hungary.  I saw an excellent interview with Kim Scheppele on Hungarian Spectrum explaining how this would call Orban’s bluff.

Eva Balogh’s HUNGARIAN SPECTRUM: video interview with Kim Scheppele and others

While right wing politicians keep stoking fear by hysterically citing ever greater numbers of refugees entering the country, they keep fairly quiet about the fact that they leave straight away.  This is like panicking about the number of people entering Heathrow airport over the course of the day.  There are moments when it gets crowded but by evening the only persons you will see are the cleaners.

The interview with Scheppele also addressed the point of refugees who have initially landed in Greece not being returned there. Last year the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg deemed that Greece was not a safe country which explains why migrants entering the EU first by Greece and then proceeding along the Balkan route through Hungary should be registered first in Hungary.  Scheppele does not mention the ruling but there have been cases brought before the court where the shortcomings of Greece’s asylum procedure are referred to and that in returning asylum seekers to Greece, such applicants were being exposed to risks.

So the fearmongering in Central and Eastern European countries continues unabated with the authorities liberally using the tactic of confusing people with numbers.  The Hungarian government’s latest billboard campaign chillingly says “The People Have Decided:  Hungary Must Protect Its Borders” (subtext: against the Muslim hordes).  Obviously this kind “Christian” (really?) attitude prevails over any Buddhist notion of karma.  The welcome received by those Hungarians fleeing in 1956 leaves the Magyars of today stone cold.

With Russia having entered the arena in Syria, bungled air strikes tantamount to war crimes in Afghanistan and tragic suicide bombings in Turkey, the flow of refugees is only going to increase and now that border crossing options are disappearing the next probable route will be a dangerous sea crossing into Ukraine and then Poland where the Law and Justice Party are the favourites to win the autumn parliamentary elections.  Already President Duda is showing himself to be not the president of all Poles but only of the ones subscribing to the “Christian values” of his own party.  Watch while Poland even outdoes Hungary in racist rhetoric.  It’s already happening.

 

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Europe is acting in a concerted fashion at last – almost…

 

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There have been two important meetings this week in Brussels.  On Tuesday 22nd, the Justice and Home Affairs Ministers of the EU plus Switzerland, Norway and Iceland adopted a decision to relocate 120,000 people from Greece and Italy over a period of about two years. The states joining in this scheme will receive 6,000 euro for each relocated person.  The ministers invoked the principle of solidarity and fair sharing of responsibility between Member States and despite squawking from the usual suspects, the decision was agreed on by a very large majority.  Poland opted in with the majority abandoning her Visegrad fellows. Hungary has opted out of the scheme, the whole purpose of which is to lighten the load of the countries which have been overwhelmed by asylum seekers. There are about 50,000 asylum seekers on Hungarian soil at this moment and the Hungarian government are building walls and bringing in the army to stop any more from entering. Before the meeting ministers were each in turn greeted by the press of their countries and it was the moment for a short slogan filled audiovisual opportunity. Swiss President Simonetta Somarruga hit the nail on the head by saying that only a coordinated approach would do – a patchwork of national solutions was no longer on the table.

The 120,000 registered asylum seekers will be allocated to various countries on the basis of the agreed proportional quota system.  Not discussed was a standard procedure and time period necessary for processing asylum applications. This varies very widely from state to state and is an opportunity for corruption.  There is also the issue of choice. German Foreign Minister Thomas de Maiziere has said that refugees may not choose where in Europe they will settle but in practice it is difficult to imagine asylum seekers being forcibly transported to countries where they don’t want to go. Only after a period of five years will they have the right to settle in countries outside the one which has granted asylum. Priority will be given to Syrians, Iraqis and Eritreans, especially to more vulnerable people.

The second important meeting was the informal summit of European leaders and Heads of State held on the 24th which went on until after one o’clock in the morning. At the press conference Donald Tusk, President of the European Council announced a list of measures which had been adopted and Commission President Junkers added that the atmosphere had been better than expected.  “Hotspots” – that is to say centres for registering and fingerprinting  will be established at the borders of the Union to ensure efficient classification of the status of those entering and their subsequent relocation or return – at the latest by November.  The utter inefficiency of the Hungarian government to provide decent facilities where people entering could wait was one of the reasons for tensions flaring and for Angela Merkel unilaterally citing emergency provisions to enable Germany to register and process the people who had entered the EU in Hungary.  According to the Dublin III regulation it is the state of entry that should do this. Rather than decent receptions centres Viktor Orban’s government has preferred to spend EU resources on fences and avoid allocating funds to any measures which might have made the asylum seekers feel welcome. We have all seen the pictures.  I was dismayed to hear more racist ranting on a radio station this morning as Slovak citizens expressed disgust at all these horrible migrants coming through their country “because they want better life”.  Is it extraordinary to dare for a better life, especially when your last year has been spend in an unsanitary camp in Jordan with few prospects?  The fact that some refugees have not come directly from Syria but from these camps has some people up in arms with indignation as they are saying that they are just economic refugees and shouldn’t be allowed in.  I have talked to members of the extreme right in Hungary and asked them if they don’t think this is a hypocritical stance as there are so many Hungarians who have moved to the richer parts of the EU because they just want more stuff but the answer is invariably that they have to go because the government is not capable of assuring them a livelihood. Another assertion popular on right wing blogs and in the press is that asylum seekers from war zones are cowards who should stay behind and fight to get their country back from ISIS.  At the same time disgruntled Hungarians seem to thing it’s OK to abandon their country and leave it up to the governmnent to sort out its economic problems – surely a much less daunting prospect than being caught between ISIS and Assad’s forces no matter how much of a mess the economy is in. So sad that now that the former Soviet Block countries have been safely welcomed into the European fold – a place of aspiration for decades during the cold war, they don’t want anyone else coming in. And certainly not if they are the wrong colour or creed.

I’ve never been a great fan of Vladimir Putin but he got it right yesterday when speaking at the inauguration of the renewed Grand Mosque in the Russian capital.  In a country where extremist haters are not shy, his speech sent a strong signal about the country’s Muslims being an integral part of society in Russia.  I had had the impression that the farther east you travel in Europe, the more islamophobic, but Putin appears to have seized this opportunity to set a very welcoming tone.  However cynical a move, it’s an intelligent one.  Rejecting whole groups in your community will turn them against you and provide a fertile ground for recruitment for extremist groups.  Compare this with Orban publicly qualifying Roma Hungarian citizens as aliens which he generously was not bothering the rest of Europe with.  A Roma mayor resigned in protest at the slur. It’s a good illustration of how to create enemies.

A further important point is that Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey will be assisted by the EU in dealing with the refugee crisis.  Turkey has over two million refugees so far and between 30 and 40% of the Lebanese population are refugees.  A particularly difficult point is that Lebanon was occupied by Syria between 1976 and 2005 so understandably there are tensions, not to mention the situation of Syrian Kurds in Turkey.  The EU will give one billion euro additional funding for the UN High Commisioner for Refugees and for the World Food Programme.  More money will also be allocated to address the root causes of irregular migration and displaced persons in Africa.  A plea was also made for renewed diplomatic efforts to solve the crisis in Syria and to ensure the formation of a government of national unity in Libya where refugees tend to be IDPs (Internally Displaced People).

The next European Summit will be held on the 15th – 16th October where the European leaders and heads of state will once again focus on migration.

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What did the EU Home and Justice Ministers actually decide?

DSC_6254At the EU Home and Justice Ministers emergency summit yesterday the only firm decision taken was to meet again in October to then take a firm decision on the allocation of the estimated 160,000 asylum seekers and to drop the word “mandatory” from the Junkers plan.  This is perhaps not as hopeless as first sounds. For a start, the countries against mandatory quotas may well have gone home to announce triumphantly that they have not been bullied into taking quotas of refugees but they should still not be allowed to get away with pandering to racist sentiment. By the time they meet again several things will have changed. Under the terms of Dublin III Schengen countries can reintroduce border controls to cope with an emergency (tick box) and this will have a big impact on traffic conditions. The Polish government may find itself assailed by protests to do something because hours lost at the border will be harming the economic interests of those Poles who travel to Germany to work and do business. Countries in Central and Eastern Europe who refuse to do their fair share may also find themselves losing out when in comes to EU funds being doled out.  The EU money spent on this emergency in the countries stepping up to the plate may mean less for those which turned their backs.

Some people have said that even if people are granted asylum in one country, if it is not their refuge of choice they will just hop off to do some benefit shopping.  It’s not that simple.  Once an asylum seeker has been granted the status of refugee, s/he will  only be eligible for benefits in the country of asylum.  If that refugee finds work, s/he will begin to build up pension and benefit rights by way of wage deductions.  The European Court of Justice has ruled that after five years such a refugee will have the same rights of free circulation as European Union citizens. Illegal workers are a different matter.

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Hungary has now “hermetically sealed” its border with Serbia and army units are patrolling the area.  According to a new emergency law rushed through parliament last week, it is now a crime to enter Hungary illegally, no matter that this contravenes the Geneva Convention on Refugees according to which people fleeing persecution have a right to seek asylum.  What seems to matter most to the Hungarian Prime Minister is winning in the race to the bottom against the increasingly popular extreme right in his country. Many Hungarians have felt ashamed and terribly frustrated by the actions of their government.  I was shocked to receive a Facebook posting from a charity in England describing the situation of the refugees in Hungary which said:

” It is generally frowned upon in this part of the world to help the refugees.  Unthinkable.”

Many Hungarians have felt ashamed and terribly frustrated by the incompetent actions of their government. It is true that the UNHCR and the Red Cross offered help with registering refugees but were rebuffed and the UNHCR said only a few days ago that they received permission from the authorities to erect tents. (Bit late now, there won’t be any refugees in Hungary by the time you read this). The NGOs in the meantime have been working around the clock and overwhelmed by donations from the public. So just to be clear:  it is certainly NOT frowned upon in this part of the world to help the refugees.   What I find bothersome is the way the Hungarians are being singled out as the bad boys in Europe when a) there are other countries guilty of at least the same attitude and b) this is a problem that has deep and multiple roots. Number one, the instability in the Middle East and North Africa with the spawning of the heinous ISIS organisation is a direct corollary to the so called Coalition of the Willing descending on Iraq on the basis of the totally fabricated WMD bogeyman.  This has led to the inevitable mass dislodging of populations who need to go somewhere and to the continued destabilisation of the region which means that the superpower  (there is only one now) can take on contenders in proxy battles in countries where it considers the inhabitants to be unpeople.DSC_6272

Back to Hungary – the big new expensive fence is now up – at last tweet there have already been 45 arrests.  The unwelcoming-to-the-max makeshift reception centres are emptying out rapidly, coinciding with the first news editorials which revel in the fact the the Austrians and Germans have now got so overwhelmed that they’ve had to invoke Schengen emergency provisions and temporarily reinstate border controls.   This has caused the Chancellor to be attacked by her political opponents in her own country as physical resources to deal with the huge influx are strained.  For a start border guards are having to be requisitioned out of retirement to police the crossings. This entails having to set up office buildings and infrastructure fast.  On the bright side this has meant the creation of an extra 20,000 jobs as well as the promise of legions of refugee children growing up to be productive members of German society.  It is they who will pay the retirement pensions of an ageing population which stubbornly refuses to make enough babies.  The Austrians have also had to reinstate border controls to cope with trying to register people.  This is not in any way the kind of fence the Hungarians or Bulgarians have and gloating about the Germans and Austrians now being in their shoes is wholly inappropriate.  The main thing for Viktor Orban is that he has scored political points by making the problem go away and leaving others in Europe to clear up the mess while claiming to have respected Dublin III to the letter.  He was aided in this by the Germans and their mixed messages.  When Chancellor Merkel decided to suspend Dublin III rules in order to spare refugees the hell of waiting for days in unsanitary conditions to be registered in Hungary,  Interior Minister Thomas De Maiziere backed her but insisted that the Dublin rules were still valid.  This is clearly posted in bright red letters on the web page of the German Embassy in Budapest in Hungarian and English.  Viki must be rubbing his hands …

Terri Potoczna Fussen

 

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Police reinforcements deployed at Keleti to prevent refugees entering the station

DSC_5878DSC_5877 copySyrian refugee child at Keleti last night. His family were happy to have their tickets and that they would soon be boarding the train. They did well to get away. This morning the government sent in police reinforcements to prevent refugees from even entering the station even though they had previously been allowed to purchase tickets. A loudspeaker announcement informed people that according to EU law, only those with valid Schengen visas would be allowed to travel. A complete U-turn.

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Refugees allowed to leave for Germany

DSC_5894At Keleti Station in Budapest this evening there was a crush as people tried to board the trains taking them to Germany.  The news that they would actually be allowed to get on trains had spread fast amongst refugees and there was a huge throng.  The mood was anxiously optimistic.  Many people tugged at my sleeve and asked me to photograph them in family groups.  Some people posed with their tickets, clearly relieved to be getting away from Hungary at last. A young Syrian spoke to me about the appalling and unsanitary conditions in the camp where he had not even been able to take a shower for seven days.  He was angry and said that he didn’t want any money from anyone, he just wanted to be treated like a human being and not an animal and to remember that he and others were fleeing a war.

 

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The Scandalous Hypocrisy of Central and East European Governments

DSC_5809The EU countries of Central and Eastern Europe must show solidarity with the EU countries of Western Europe in solving the refugee crisis. It would be shameful and hypocritical not to, especially as many citizens of the “new” EU member states have contributed to changing the demographic mix in many parts of Western Europe in record time. The issue is not that these legal economic migrants are net contributors to their host economies via taxes and hard work and so have just blended in seamlessly, it is also true that by their presence they have radically altered the demographic mix to a point where the extreme right are able to harness the grumbling and discomfort of locals, magnify it and make political hay.  All the members of the EU signed up to freedom of movement when they joined and move the new member states certainly have.   But now when I hear one Central European government after the other bleating about wanting to protect their demographic integrity it makes me want to throw up.

It would of course be wonderful if ISIS and Assad could be made to behave so that the problem coulDSC_5818d be solved at the source, and we could get on with our own problems, but the horrific acts of violence committed on civilians by both sides show no signs of abating and people are flocking out of the country in search of refuge.  The countries of the European Union cannot expect only a handful of the 27 members to do all the work.  On June 19th, the leaders of Poland, Hungary, The Czech Republic and Slovakia met as the Visegrad  Group and all rejected outright the EU proposal of migrant/refugee quotas.  Polish Premier Ewa Kopacz made a big deal of the fact that Poland had granted asylum to a whole 150 Syrian Christians (non Christians were not welcome because of cultural differences).  In the meantime Germany is expecting to receive around 900,000 migrants and refugees and decided to overlook the provisions of the Dublin Regulation as this is an emergency.  Many will be sent back.  It is estimated that around 30% are economic migrants from Balkan countries which are now classified “saDSC_5804fe” by the UNHCR.  The work of processing applications and allowing people to rest in humane conditions while they are waiting is mammoth and it is obvious that it must be shared.

There is money:  in April 2014, the European Union adopted the Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund, representing a commitment of over EUR 3 billion for the next seven years (2014-2020). A major portion of this fund will be allocated to Member States’ national programmes to complement their own domestic budgets, which should help improve asylum systems, reception modalities, and integration policies.  (see: http://www.unhcr.org/pages/49e48dc56.html)

If this money is available, and surely it has been applied for, why are the conditions in which the refugees must wait so inadequate?  Is it another case of grant funding being received on the basis of well written proposals but then the money being diverted?   In the Czech Republic, refugees are hauled off trains and as they have the wrong paperwork, they are arrested and detained.  They are placed in camps surrounded by barbed wire but must first hand over their valuables, telephones and cash.  And get this:  the state deducts the cost of their forced stay from the cash that has been taken from them.  Isn’t that what the Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund is for?  The Czech treatment of refugees has been called a violation of international law.  Milos Zeman, the Czech President said last week:

”I think that we should not have to accept any refugees from countries distant from us in terms of culture. It is quite different with accepting, let’s say, Ukrainians,..”

We hear a lot about Viktor Orban’s rather pathetic (but expensive) little fence but the Bulgarians have erected a much more impressive structure which has pushed even more people into the nets of traffickers who are so heartless they will literally rob desperate refugees of all their money before knowingly crushing them to death in a sealed lorry.   Pictures of Bulgarian border guards smugly standing by the fence have earned applause in the right wing press, along with suggestions to bring in the army.   And how much was spent on this fence and where did the money come from?

The blDSC_5772atant racism and heartlessness on display in countries which have joined the EU recently means that they are not doing their share in the refugee crisis and expecting the old members to take care of the problem.

Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Gauck of Germany met Poland’DSC_5768s new president last week and the message was that it’s solidarity time and Germany can no longer be expected to take all the load.

My vote this week goes to the ticket inspectors at Keleti station in Budapest.  The metro station opens into the transit zone where tired refugees are huddled.  I suddenly saw a group of very small children lining up to run into the arms of the burly guards who lifted them into the air until they laughed with delight then they happily gathered around them for a group photograph.  The guard I spoke to was indignant that so little was being done to help innocent children.  He had heart.

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Terri Potoczna Fussen

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A Family of Syrian Refugees at Keleti Station Budapest

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They didn’t want their faces photographed because it was too risky.  The father told us his story in Arabic with a kind volunteer interpreter helping out.  There were three children who were clearly very tired.  The lovely twelve year old daughter spoke some English, enough to say that her mother was still in Syria.  The father looked haggard and shellshocked and I wondered if he was protecting the children from some terrible knowledge.  They were cold and fearful.  They were making their way to “Allemania” but realised that they would not be welcome but there was no choice but to press on.  I returned to the station later with some warm cast-offs and the family was still sitting on the same stone step.  The girl seemed to be trying to sleep but she was crying in quiet despair.  There are thousands of people like this.  What are we going to do?

 

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Refugee Crisis in Hungary

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This evening I went down to Keleti Railway Station in Budapest to see for myself the refugees who have been camping out there on their way to reception centers in Hungary before moving on to other countries where they will get asylum. Most are from Afghanistan, Syria and Pakistan fleeing for their lives and the sight of women changing babies nappies on the floor of the station made me want to cry.

Since the beginning of the crisis, over 100,000 people have flowed over the border, to Hungary, first port of call in the European Union. Hungary has been allocated EU funds to cope with the extra administrative burden of processing the paperwork for all the desperate people who are trying to transit through the central European state. Rumors abound that this money is partially being used to fund the fence which is being built along the Hungarian border with Serbia in order to keep out “illegal migrants” , dirty words guaranteed to extinguish compassion and make good premier Viktor Orban’s promise that he will keep Hungary safe from assaults on its culture. There is the feeling amongst liberals that the choice to label refugees seeking asylum “migrants” is a calculated one. The official line is that of course the country welcomes genuine refugees but not illegal economic migrants. While there may be a handful of these among the sea of miserable travelers coming across the border, most are clearly fleeing for their lives. What has escalated in the past year has been the turmoil in the Middle East, not the economic crisis.  (An interesting article about why it may be in Hungary’s interests to accept more migrants here: http://hungarianfreepress.com/2015/07/29/its-in-hungarys-interest-to-accept-more-refugees-and-immigrants/

How things have changed since the Balkan war when Hungary opened its doors to those running from the war in imploding Yugoslavia two decades ago. The government also seem to have forgotten how the Hungarians seeking refuge from their victorious oppressors after the 1956 Revolution were welcomed in various western european countries as heroes although comments on the blogosphere are full of indignant Hungarians expressing shame for the actions of their government.

There have been “anti-migrant” hate groups appearing on Facebook which has resulted in attacks on refugees and sometimes on people perceived to be “migrants”. Last week in Szeged a couple of Hungarians, one of whom had been born in Cuba, were harassed and then when the girl tried to explain that her boyfriend had Hungarian citizenship and had lived in the country since he was three years old, she was viciously beaten and had to be hospitalized.

On the other hand, when the government announced plans to build their fence and then ran a billboard campaign with slogans like “When you come to Hungary, respect our laws and culture and don’t steal our jobs”, (in Hungarian, a language which the “migrants” are unlikely to be familiar with), civil society stepped up to to plate with a counter campaign in English and raised the necessary funds in record time. Food Not Bombs in Hungary have been offering meals to the refugees since the beginning of the crisis and other NGOs like Menedek (Shelter) have been very active, not to mention many individuals who have tried to help by offering food and supplies.

Ironically, the appearance of large groups of people from the middle east, very few of whom speak any English, has improved the attitude of locals towards the indigenous homeless who were considered to be breaking the law until the Constitutional Court deemed this unconstitutional but more about the treatment of the homeless in another post…

Terri Potoczna Fussen

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