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I Crossed The Hungarian Border As A Refugee: Their New Refugee Detention Bill Doesn't Surprise Me

16/03/2017 15:34 GMT | Updated 16/03/2017 15:34 GMT
BalkansCat via Getty Images

On 13th October 2015, I crossed the border from Croatia to Hungary, along with hundreds of refugees travelling northwards through Europe towards Germany and Scandinavia. I myself am not a refugee - I was born to an English family in the Home Counties, into a very comfortable life, was privately educated and had graduated from Trinity College, Cambridge, three months earlier. On that day, though, you couldn't have told me apart from the hundreds of tired, scared, dirty figures squelching and sliding through the ankle-deep mud surrounded by hundreds of armed Hungarian officers. And neither could these officers.

The way the officers treated us was aggressively authoritarian, intentionally cruel, calculatedly degrading - designed to make us feel vulnerable, and sorry for existing. At the time, someone warned me: "Be careful, the Hungarian authorities hate refugees and are always looking to get someone into trouble." Now, 18 months later, Hungarian parliament has approved a bill permitting, if not encouraging, the arrest and detention of any asylum seeker to enter the country (the cynic might here point out a parallel to the UK's immigration detention policy) by a majority of 138 to 6, with 22 abstentions. Whilst simultaneously extending their barbed wire border fence to a 13ft electrified barrier, using prisoners (I wonder how many of them refugees...) as slave labour, and inaugurating a legion of "Border Hunters" to search out and round up refugees crossing the border and forcibly push them back to Serbia. It looks like that person was right.

After volunteering on Lesvos, Greece, for three weeks in September 2015, I left the island with a refugee family to make the journey with them to Germany. In doing so, and documenting my experience on a blog, I wanted to see how Europeans would react to a westerner suffering the same dangers and indignities refugees are routinely - and quite openly - subjected to. I wanted to present one human's experience of that journey (and I recognise that I lacked almost all the psycho-social and physical context that my companions carried with them), highlighting the individuality and humanity of each person to counter the anonymising media rhetoric of "swarms", "waves" and "masses" turning names to numbers and faces to figures.

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The train at Botovo station, recently arrived from Opatovac camp

From Lesvos, I travelled with this family as far as Opatovac, on Croatia's eastern border with Serbia. Here, on the discovery of my UK passport, I was escorted from the camp by police with a formal warning and lost contact with the family. Hitchhiking to the nearest town, 30km from the muddy field in which I was deposited at midnight in the pouring rain, I researched where this group of refugees might be taken from this camp, and spent the next 36 hours zigzagging my way across Croatia to reach what I hoped was their destination.

I wended my way by hitchhiking, buses, trains, and on foot to Botovo, more a solitary station than a village, 1.5km short of the border with Hungary - which is where all this Hungary business begins. On the last of the trains I took through Croatia, I met a journalist, who was also heading for Botovo. I told him that I intended to slip into the crowd crossing to Hungary and board the next train. He, in turn, told me that the Hungarian authorities' response to his request for photographic permission had surmised: "Please, come to our country and take photographs of refugees. But if you do, we will shoot you." And thus was I introduced to the profoundly compassionate and obliging nature of Hungary's leadership.

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Refugees leaving the train at Botovo and heading towards Hungary

As I joined the crowd of people descending from the train, the Hungarian border met us with oceans of sticky, ankle-deep mud, and an almost equal quantity of armed, scowling police officers. Keeping your balance in that cesspit was hard enough without compulsively looking from side to side to check on the barrels of two hundred guns. While at other borders, the police supervising our crossing hadn't exactly greeted us with a kiss on both cheeks, they had led us quietly, distantly and professionally, two or three officers heading a group and a couple bringing up the rear. Now, we were surrounded by hundreds of black-clad, weapon-wielding figures, shouting threateningly at us and tenderly fingering their batons and rifles.

Skating ungraciously through this field, the words of an NGO worker at Botovo station rang through my head, practically begging me not to go through with my plan: "The Hungarian police are aggressive; they have weapons, and they're not afraid to use them. They're looking for trouble. Please, don't do this." It dawned on me that I was undocumented as a refugee (I didn't have the registration paper issued on arrival in Greece which served as identification along the rest of the route), alone at this point - not part of any group who could vouch for me, as they had done previously, and had the distinct impression that producing my UK passport, far from helping me, would have got me carted off in the back of a police van for possessing a false document. I had heard stories of female refugees being beaten and raped by officers in Hungarian prisons, and began to search desperately for any of the friendly faces I had spoken to through the train window at the station.

Finally spotting Cobra, a young Afghan woman I had chatted to, travelling with her young daughter and two brothers after her husband was killed in Afghanistan, she waved me over and I raced to catch her up. We hugged, she invited me to join her group, and I felt happy and relieved. Two steps later, however, a sharp smack across my ribs winded me, and my brain tried to catch up as I felt myself being shoved backwards, pressed into the people behind me. At the same moment I realised the smack had come from an officer's baton, I saw Cobra and her daughter being shoved forwards by another officer, looking back at her brothers, beside me, desperately struggling to free themselves and catch her up. A few more unsolicited punches later, the thirty-or-so of us so gratuitously corralled were released, and the brothers raced off to find Cobra and her daughter. Of course, by this point, they were nowhere to be seen, lost in the throng. I saw Cobra fleetingly on the other side of this 8-hour journey. She had still not found her brothers.

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My own photo of the muddy field in Hungary. Police officer top centre. It was difficult and potentially dangerous to take photos at this point, so I couldn't get a better shot.

The foundational rule of working in humanitarian situations or with vulnerable people - essentially a fairly basic meeting point between common sense and compassion - is never split up families. The Hungarian police's flagrant and intentional flouting of this principle puts people in danger, makes the vulnerable more vulnerable, and displays a brazen disrespect for people. Their aim was to flex the bicep of their power, incite fear, and cause inconvenience - but I doubt they realised, or ever properly considered, the full extent of their actions. There must have been two thousand people on that train, it was dark when we disembarked, and I have no way of knowing whether Cobra ever found her brothers. Certainly, this intimidation tactic worked on me and, as I approached the train - where I was certain they would ask for documentation - I felt myself lose my balance in the mud for the umpteenth time. A flash thought process shot through my mind along the lines of "If I'm pathetic and covered in mud, they might take pity on me and I can say I dropped my paperwork in the mud," and let myself fall, flat on my back, into the soupy bog.

I'm not a person who gets scared easily, or is overly cautious, or worries too much. But I can say without hesitation that this was the most fear I have felt in my life. The environment created by the sullen police, poised like vultures around us; the abrupt physical violence; the avoidance of eye contact - it was all designed to intimidate, to threaten, to let us know we weren't welcome there. So while I deplore last Tuesday's decision to reinstate the old Hungarian practice - suspended in 2013 under pressure from the UNHCR, EU and ECHR - of detaining all asylum seekers, in contravention of EU, human rights and refugee law, and to house them in freezing shipping containers, I am in no way surprised by it.

From a government known for its authoritarian treatment of NGOs and media outlets it sees as "disrespectful", that trains its police force to inflict unprovoked violence and intimidation on vulnerable refugees, whose leader, Viktor Orban, echoed Enoch Powell's infamous "rivers of blood" speech back in 2015, this is not a shocking move. What I fear it may be is a test of the EU's ability - and willingness - to stand in the way of it implementing increasingly harsh measures against people seeking asylum, and consequently a leg-up to other EU countries, which Orban has said must "make an effort [...] to preserve Europe for Europeans." If we leave this government unchecked, not only they, but other far-right leaders, too, will see it as a green flag for increasingly extreme, inhumane, and quite frankly illegal measures. We must put pressure on the EU to hold Hungary to the laws it signed up to as a Member State.

You can read the full story of Maudie's journey here.