Friday, September 18, 2015

A Holiday Reality Check: Caught Up In The Migrant Crisis in Budapest

Image result for Keleti station crowds
Part of scene at Keleti Rail Station in Budapest, Hungary - a few days after we left.

Our recently completed trip to Europe (eastern Europe this time), was to be the final European trip - an excursion to former members of the Austro-Hungarian (Hapsburg) Empire, from which my maternal grandfather left nearly 100 years ago. Our plans included stops in Budapest, Hungary (5 days), Vienna, Austria (4 1/2 days), Bratislava, Slovakia (a half day), and Prague, Czech Republic (5 days).

The trip began inauspiciously on Aug. 28, and after arriving at Dallas-Fort Worth Airport at around 11 a.m. we received an alert from American Airlines that our flight connection to London Heathrow would now be delayed some 5 hours because the plane was late arriving from Hong Kong. This meant, of course, we'd miss our Budapest connection and instead of arriving at 12.20 p.m. Budapest time we'd now not get there until 6.30 p.m. Essentially nearly a half day's hotel booking wasted.

But we persevered, got on the London flight and somehow made it through the wretched mess and chaos that is Heathrow Airport - one of the most confusing, disorganized airline hubs in the Western world. We also got re-booked to Budapest and arrived at our hotel ('Parlament' - yeah, that's how it's spelled), the 29th at just after 7.30 p.m.  Too tired to go out for food we just went to the lounge bar and had two ham and cheese sandwiches and coke lites. We then unpacked some of our stuff and sacked out by 9 p.m.  - not waking up until 10 a.m. Sunday, the 30th.

We were glad the hotel, which normally cuts off breakfast at 10 a.m., obliged us by staying open.

Too tired to do much we just chilled out at the hotel, unpacked the rest of our stuff - then finally went out to lunch (in 94F heat) at about 3.30 p.m. We had Hungarian ghoulash at a place called 'The Budapest Bistro' then walked around a bit (not too much before heading back).

In the days that followed, in between our forays into the city - including a half day city tour of Budapest's historic sights, e.g. including the Parliament Buildings:

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Also a Hungarian dinner and folklore evening, and me falling down a flight of 24 stairs at a river side restaurant - where the lavatory was at one end of a darkened corridor with steps (unseen) in between - and surviving (only a sprained big toe if you can believe it, but still painful to walk on) we were following the growing refugee-migrant crisis with tens of thousands flooding into Hungary from Syria and Afghanistan, in an effort to get to Germany. We followed the latest developments on BBC and also via the New York Times International Edition - free to all guests at Parlament.

The evening of Sept. 2nd, the same day as my fall, we learned that thousands of migrants and refugees are flooding into Keleti train station in Budapest. The grim scenes are not encouraging, with thousands occupying the station - as televised on BBC - and mats, people spread all over. The word "bedlam" perhaps best describes what we beheld.

After grabbing an early breakfast on Sept, 3rd, we went to the front desk to checkout, hoping to arrive at Keleti by no later than 9.55 a.m. to avoid any delays or confusion.  But Lili, the amiable hotel staff manager,  informs us that the station has been totally shut down - no trains running at all. Period. The existing chaos with thousands of migrants attempting to board trains to Western Europe on their own, forced the authorities' decision.

We were now left to find alternative transport to get to Vienna, our next destination. Lili suggests a specific Hungarian website to get a bus to Vienna and meanwhile says we can remain in our room until arrangements are finalized. This is just as well, as I need to keep my foot up to reduce the swelling.

Meanwhile, using the hotel's computers in the lobby, Janice attempts to get bus tickets for us. Lili soon interrupts and informs her all the buses are booked by the thousands of visitors already displaced from their train travel plans.  Sensing our desperation, she says she will see about getting us a private shuttle to get to Vienna.

By 11.45 Janice comes to the room and lets me know that Lili has succeeded in the shuttle booking, but it will cost us 280 euro - or nearly $300 U.S.  This has to be perhaps one of the most expensive rides ever (the train ride was 78 eu, for comparison), but there is little choice as there are no other options to get out of Budapest. Further, the Keleti station is likely to be closed for days as authorities try to deal with the migrants pouring through the Serbian border at the rate of 12,000 a day.

Janice asks me if I am prepared to shell out all that money to get to Vienna, and I tell her the transport reality is clear, we have no other choice.

Within an hour, all our luggage has been loaded into the car - really a taxi shuttle- and our Hungarian driver (Zoltan) is ready to transport us the three hours to Vienna.. He understands our frustration in not being able to get the (pre-booked)  train to Vienna, and also has a deeper grasp of the migrant -refugee crisis and why Hungarians are not so welcoming,  say as Germany and Austria (which subsequently opened their borders to the migrants after Hungary eventually provides buses when people leave Keleti en masse.)

Zoltan tells us he is especially bothered by the migrants entering by the thousands from Serbia (to the south of Hungary) and eating all the farmers' crops (vegetables-fruit),  when the farmers have very little margin for profit or sustaining themselves. Indeed, Hungary, originally in the Warsaw Pact, lacks the resources to support thousands of newcomers.  The same is true of the other eastern European countries (Slovakia, Czech Republic, Croatia, Poland) now also objecting strenuously to accepting quotas.

In Vienna, at our new hotel, we continue to watch the unfolding scenes from Keleti and realize there is going to be no easy or rapid end to the migrants flooding into Europe - given that already 4 million are located in camps in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. Worse, donations to support the provisions for those camps are dropping (UNHCR reports by 50 %) forcing people to leave for a better life in Europe - which features nations with large social safety nets (Germany, Norway, Sweden).

Of course, the U.S. bears a lot of the blame because many of the Syrians are fleeing on account of the depredations of ISIS (which they call Daesh).  ISIS would never have entered into the Middle East had the Bushies not originally created the vacuum by removing Saddam in Iraq  - removing a tyrant but thereby opening a "Pandora's box" of Islamic religious factionalism with Sunnis and Shia going at each other. While al Qaeda wasn't there before, they now entered...and in their wake, the ISIS vermin, laying waste to lives and livelihoods and forcing millions to flee.

As many EU leaders are saying, the solution to the migrant crisis may lie in resolving the Syrian civil war, but sadly the demolition there never would have arisen had we not interfered in the first place. We have lots to answer for in Syria, as well as in Iraq and Afghanistan - from which chaos hundreds of thousands of desperate people are also fleeing.

Another last note: while some bloggers (e.g. Ted Rall) insist there is no "flood" of migrants, this is not technically true. In relation to the EU population (500m)  he is correct and even 4 million Syrians might be absorbed ultimately. But the problem is not the numbers per se but the rate of increase into a particular community - i.e. in terms of summoning the manpower and resources including for food, accommodations, transport to meet the rate of people entering and successfully absorbing them. This is why even Munich, one primo German destination, had to cry 'Uncle!'. Rall doesn't appreciate that but perhaps if he saw first hand what infrastructural limits existed, including to trains and buses transporting all these folks, he'd understand.

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