This is part of our Road Trip 2016 summer series, “Life, Disrupted,” about how technology is helping with the global refugee crisis — if at all.
A few months ago, I went to the San Francisco International Film Festival to see the Colin Farrell movie “The Lobster.”
It’s about people at an isolated resort who get turned into animals if they don’t find a mate within 45 days. I was expecting a lighthearted romantic comedy. What I saw instead (spoiler alert!) was a fairly dark story where hunting humans who’ve tried to escape the resort is a key plot element.
When I visited Hungary and Serbia in early August with my CNET colleagues Joan Solsman and Andrew Hoyle, I couldn’t stop thinking about “The Lobster.” That’s because Hungary also hunts humans — refugees trying to cross the border from Serbia to seek asylum in the European Union.
Hungary built a massive fence (10 feet tall and stretching 181 miles along the border with Serbia and Croatia) to keep out migrants and refugees. Any who make it across illegally are tracked down by people in uniform — including police officers and “border hunter action unit” personnel — and are literally pushed back across the border, with their bones broken, their possessions missing and their fragile sense of security shattered.
“These are very brutal physical attacks,” Andras Lederer, information and advocacy officer for the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, told me. His group provides legal counsel to refugees and has started documenting abuse against people at the border. “It’s indiscriminate, so women, children, unaccompanied children, men, the elderly, the handicapped [are all targeted]. It doesn’t matter.”
The refugees from Syria and Afghanistan now camping along the border don’t have electricity, Wi-Fi or even showers. Some were cheated and then abandoned by smugglers. Most have no idea what will happen to them next. The people hunting them, meanwhile, have mobile thermo-vision cameras, night-vision goggles, helicopters and dogs.
Putting it to a vote
Even when I was in Budapest, one of Europe’s most beautiful cities, it was pretty clear that Hungary doesn’t want refugees. It doesn’t want them to camp on the border. It doesn’t want them to feel welcome even when they’ve been granted asylum. Aid workers are doing what they can to help, but they’re a small percentage of the population.
There’s a big vote coming up October 2, in which Hungarians will decide if they want to allow Brussels (aka, the European Union) to mandate the number of refugees their country has to accept. The EU asked Hungary to accept 1,294 people (out of 160,000 overall) and said it would fine the country 250,000 euros for each person Hungary refuses to take. That would amount to a penalty of more than 323.5 million euros ($363.9 million).
Most Hungarians — two-thirds of voters, according to the latest polls — likely will agree with Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and answer no to the question, “Do you want the European Union to be able to order the mandatory settlement of non-Hungarian citizens in Hungary with Parliament’s consent?”
Life on the edge
Thousands of refugees trapped in Serbia are deliberately forced to live in squalor, with no access to even the most basic technologies. CNET Senior Reporters Shara Tibken and Joan E. Solsman saw firsthand how tech is failing people desperate to continue their journey farther into Europe. This video is part of Life, Disrupted: a special CNET report on tech and Europe’s refugee crisis.
by Shara Tibken
With that referendum, Hungary is officially saying, “Stay away, refugees.” Along with the vote, Hungary is also fighting the quota in the EU’s Court of Justice.
The cabinet office of the prime minister, for its part, said in a statement that “the government has been representing the same position on migration from the beginning on. The most important is that Hungarian people should decide who can settle down in Hungary. It is not against but for Europe that the government initiated the referendum on the quotas.”
To get people riled for the vote, the government has put up bright blue anti-refugee billboards and taken out newspaper, TV and other ads to warn the Hungarian people just how dangerous these refugees are. The signs say (in Hungarian), “Did you know?” and then offer bits of information like, “Since the beginning of the immigration crisis, more than 300 Europeans have died in terrorist attacks” or, “Nearly 1 million immigrants want to come to Europe from Libya alone” or, “There have been a lot more rapes against women in Europe since the beginning of the immigration crisis.”
The ads were shown even during an Olympics broadcast at the Szechenyi Baths in central Budapest. In between watching world-champion athletes fencing or swimming on a giant screen set up by staff at the steaming-hot Turkish bath, you could learn how bad refugees are for Hungary.
Those scare tactics are working. All the aid workers we met in Hungary told us sentiment has turned against refugees. People grudgingly hire them because Hungary has a labor shortage, but landlords don’t want to rent apartments to them. A refugee may have a job but no place to live.
“Finding accommodation now is almost impossible,” said Lilla Zentai, coordinator of social work at Hungarian aid organization Menedek.
‘A friendly face’
Germany, which I visited with Hoyle and CNET reporter Katie Collins, couldn’t have been more different. Anti-refugee sentiment is growing in Germany, but there are still many welcoming people, particularly in places we visited like Berlin, Munich and Potsdam. On our second night in Berlin, we went on a refugee-led tour that was mostly attended by Berliners who wanted to meet Syrians and learn more about them.
In Munich, Germans take turns volunteering at the Lighthouse Welcome Center outside the Bayern-Kaserne refugee shelter. Originally a military camp, built by Hitler in the 1930s, the center is typically the first place new arrivals live. The volunteers, people like college student Sophia Ertlhaier and retiree Brigitte Fingerle-Trischler, sit in a bright yellow hut outside a former Nazi building and chat with refugees, serve them tea and make them feel welcome in their new country.
They “want to show a friendly face” to the new arrivals, Fingerle-Trischler told us.
As a contrast to the xenophobic billboards in Hungary, there were signs along the East Side Gallery — a chunk of the Berlin Wall that’s now an open-air museum — from the political Pirate Party in the Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg borough of Berlin. They said (in English), “Racist you are? Off you can fuck! Sincerely, Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg.” On the back side of the Berlin Wall is a temporary exhibit with photos showing the destruction in Syria.
And then there were postcards outside a bathroom in a popular Munich restaurant that explained to locals that they shouldn’t scoff at refugees who have expensive phones. “What would you take with you if you had to flee?” it asks (via our translation from German). “Cellphones are vital for refugees to protect themselves against military attacks, to find relatives or an escape route and to communicate with those at home. Often it is the only technical device that they have.”
We knew from almost our first meeting in Germany what our story was: how tech helps people connect with each other in real life. For refugees to truly integrate and adjust to their new lives, it requires other people. Technology is the bridge. It’s the connector. It’s high tech solving a low-tech issue.
The most memorable part of my trip to Germany wasn’t tech related. There were no virtual-reality goggles, drones or robots. There were just little girls, dancing to music played on an aid worker’s phone in a room in their shelter in the Lichtenberg borough of Berlin. Once a week, child-aid organizations Blu:Boks and World Vision lead dance classes to bring together young refugee girls from different backgrounds and teach them to express themselves.
These are children who’ve seen more in their lives than anyone should have to experience. But they’re really just like any other little girls, twirling ribbons and trying to nab the last seat during musical chairs.
“It doesn’t matter what background you come from,” said Caroline Leony Santos, the Brazilian-born dance instructor from Blu:Boks. “Just come, be yourself.”
Luckily for the hundreds of thousands of refugees settling in Germany, many locals feel that way.