War in Ukraine: Budapest, a transit station for Ukrainian refugees fleeing the war | International
Jaled, 55, brings a cup of hot tea to his son Basel, 18, who is seated at one of the tables in BOK Hall, an Olympic facility near Budapest’s Keleti station that currently serves as a transit area for Ukrainian refugees. “We don’t know where to gosays Jaled, originally from Syria but whose son was born in Odessa, southern Ukraine. What this sad-looking man knows is that they won’t be here very long.
At least 530,000 people have entered Hungary from the Ukrainian border or from Romania since the invasion began on February 24, according to official figures released on Monday. Most, like Jaled and Basel, are just passing through, but it’s impossible to know exactly how many, as no one follows them.
Jaled and Basel’s involuntary journey began on February 27. It started in Odessa, took them to Moldova, to Bucharest in Romania and now to Budapest. The pair wonder where to go next – Germany, Belgium, Canada are mentioned, but nothing seems very clear. Jaled starts crying when asked how he feels. It is difficult for him to accept that his refugee status currently defines him more than his career as a researcher in nuclear engineering. Or that he now relies on help from strangers to find food and shelter. That they will likely have to stay in overcrowded emergency centers for an indefinite period.
The Hungarian government highlights its own efforts to help incoming refugees. About 1,500 people pass through BOK Hall every day after arriving in Budapest by train. They are allowed to stay for 12 hours to rest, eat, buy train tickets, exchange money and, if necessary, ask for information on how to stay in Hungary. The country is holding elections next Sunday, and it turns out to be the tightest race since ultranationalist Viktor Orbán, considered an ally of Russia. President Vladimir Putincame to power 12 years ago.
Humanitarian groups such as Cáritas, the Red Cross and Migration Aid are also there to help Ukrainians on the run. Marta Pardavi, co-chair of the Hungarian branch of the Helsinki Committee, a human rights organization, praised the government’s “very positive and quick” response, which opened spaces to offer emergency aid from February 24, the day of the invasion. “This kind of reception is an exception in a very closed system,” she warned. The Orbán administration has made it very clear on several occasions: the doors are open to refugees fleeing the war in Ukraine. All others will be considered migrants and turned back at the border.
Despite the open-door policy for Ukrainians, Human Rights Watch noted that the Hungarian government did not provide them with adequate information about their right to one year of temporary international protection, which would give them access to health and education.
The revival of civil society
So far, only 8,000 people have applied for international protection, but Hungary is home to tens of thousands of people and Pardavi fears that the welcoming attitude will not be maintained in the long term, especially in a country where “there is no optimal cooperation between the state and civil society.
But the head of the Helsinki Committee also saw “a renaissance of civil society and volunteerism”. Over the past month, organizations that were heavily criticized for helping Syrian war refugees in 2015, such as Migration Aid, have been welcomed into places like BOK Hall, where the government admits all help is needed.
Migration Aid has also built a shelter for refugees in transit in an industrial area north of Budapest. In a single day, with the help of 30 volunteers and equipment donated by individuals, they assembled 64 rooms and 260 beds in an empty building.
Márton Elodi, a 26-year-old software developer, discovered on Facebook that volunteers were needed, and he’s been the shelter’s coordinator since March 11. The facility provides food daily through donations from individuals and corporations. “This place is more humane than others, and we can see the refugees, especially the women and children, picking up their spirits after a few days,” says Elodi.
This is not yet the case for Daria Naimitenko, a 22-year-old journalism student who left Ukraine with her mother-in-law on March 25. They went to Moldavia, then to Romania and arrived in Hungary. Their plan is to travel to Bratislava, Slovakia, and apply for a visa to travel to the United States, where one of their relatives lives. Naimitenko’s husband remained in Mykolaiv and his family lives in Luhansk, in Ukraine’s eastern Donbass region – two place names that make daily headlines and evoke the anguish felt by the thousands of people driven from their homes them on a journey with an uncertain destination.