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Authors Dominique Bauer, Daniela Paredes, Kristine Kroyer

In Hungary a fence has been built. Located close to the Hungarian-Serbian Border, this fence was completed and the border de facto closed one day before the opening of the second meeting of the Regional Academy on the United Nations[1] (RAUN) in Szeged. Since then, two additional fences have been announced and state leaders are opening and closing borders within hours. Röszke, a small town between Szeged and the border, became the main stage upon which Europe focused. Thousands of refugees of all ages, mostly fleeing the Syrian crisis, were steadily heading to Europe’s gates where emergency passages were established only to be cancelled later. On September 14 an emergency meeting of European Interior Ministers resulted in no consensus–not even a joint public statement.[2]

Construction of barrier in Serbian-Hungarian border Photo: Délmagyarország/Schmidt Andrea

Construction of barrier in Serbian-Hungarian border
Photo Credit: Délmagyarország/Schmidt Andrea

In the meantime, however, society in many European countries has offered the message: “refugees are welcome”. International press coverage has brought to our attention initiatives, mostly in Austria and Germany—key passage and destination countries in this improvised, ever-changing emergency response—where regular people greet refugees at train stations, providing blankets to those in need and welcoming children with toys. People high-five refugees upon arrival, sing to welcome them, and offer assistance; support ranges from the satisfaction of basic needs to an initiative that knits hats and scarves with and for refugees at train stations. Engaged individuals and groups relocate with the same swiftness as orders to effectively impede the people from border crossings. The Vienna-based organisation SOS Röszke (temporarily renamed SOSkonvoi) has been assisting in basic needs provision and support on the Hungarian side of the border for the past two weeks; one of our team members, Nicholas Lieb, has been actively volunteering with the organisation since then.

Upon arrival in Szeged, we immediately found a wooden kiosk from MigSzol as we passed out of the door of the railway station. MigSzol is a Hungarian organisation based in Budapest which, since 2012, has worked towards solidarity with migrants. As of June this year, a number of Szeged-based grassroots organisations united with MigSzol to effectively respond to the urgency of the situation. Improvised informative panels covered the inside and outside walls; the information included refugee rights, a sign saying “Halal” (also written in Arabic), departure times of trains to Germany and Austria, and the location of medical services, among others. The committed volunteers of Szeged and elsewhere have been working 24 hours a day for three months to keep this booth up and running. This civil society organisation took the initiative and offered their work to the mayor’s office, which granted permission and a water supply. Not long after establishing its presence, supplies began arriving and volunteers joined the organisation. They prepared sandwiches every day and provided as much as they could. In Budapest, the local government was not quite as cooperative. Nevertheless, Migszol organised language classes and events to raise awareness and recorded refugees’ testimonies to integrate their experiences into the public debates.

The MigSzol kiosk at the Szeged train station. Photo: Daniela Paredes

The MigSzol kiosk at the Szeged train station.
Photo: Daniela Paredes

Then the Hungarian-Serbian border was closed and within 24 hours the situation changed. Supplies stored in Szeged and elsewhere were needed on the other side of the fence, in Serbia. Unfortunately, attempts by ordinary people to access supplies would be unsuccessful. Now, those seeking to cross the border, even workers from the United Nations’ Agency for Refugees (UNHCR) and individuals with supplies for humanitarian work were impeded; goods were subjected to customs and items such as water, food, and clothes were not allowed. Nevertheless, the efforts of individuals continued. Supplies, donated primarily by individuals and not state institutions, continued to arrive in Szeged and Röszke where storage space needed to be organised. The efforts of individuals continue. Several hundred volunteers have worked over these past few weeks with MigSzol and SOS Röszke. Additionally, many more people have made their own contribution without organisational affiliation and continue to do so. Engaged individuals are relocating to the Croatian-Serbian border where refugees are being redirected.

Camp cleared after closing of the Hungarian-Serbian border Photo: Nicholas Lieb

Camp cleared after closing of the Hungarian-Serbian border
Photo: Nicholas Lieb

In the midst of these events we held the second session of the Regional Academy on the United Nations at the University of Szeged. The director of this public university, which ranks third in Hungary, made an official call to all university academics and staff to donate goods, money, and—more importantly—their skills. Language skills for interpretation, coordination, health experts, and logistics were all requested and provided.

Our responsibility as young scholars

At the University of Szeged, as part of RAUN, we discussed topics such as child soldiers, Europe’s asylum policy, return programs, anti-radicalization, human trafficking and border securitization, to name a few. We know our task as young scholars is to be critical, to analyze, to engage with and to question theory. It is also our task, however, to connect our academic experience with developments on the ground, especially in situations such as this one; we need to engage our minds, hearts and hands with individuals. Analyzing policies and social developments, understanding strengths and weaknesses, challenges and opportunities on a theoretical level is crucial for us at this early stage of becoming practitioners in international fields, but let us not forget to recognize, act, and engage against injustice when it is happening right in front of our eyes. The presence of a fence and of thousands of people seeking safety only 20 minutes away forces us to face the injustice.[3]

[1] The Regional Academy on the United Nations (RAUN) is a multicultural educational initiative established by the Academic Council on the United Nations (ACUNS) to train an emerging generation of young scholars in issues of importance to the United Nations.

[2] At the time of writing the second interior ministers meeting resulted in the adoption of a quota system to relocate 120,000 refugees.

[3] Since the meeting in Szeged several RAUN participants have engaged in contributing to civil society organizations with financial or material support, as well as volunteering.