Growing controversy surrounding migrant clashes at Hungary’s southern border – new details emerge
The ongoing migrant crisis in Hungary peaked in September when the government sealed off the Serbian section of the border with a razor-fence, resulting in violent clashes between those trapped outside the country and the police. A closer look at the events, which the government described as an attack against the country, reveals that the police were by no means without blame. In fact, there are good grounds for the suspicion that the police provoked the escalation of hostilities.
Hungary’s efforts to block the flow of migrants from the south into the country led to the construction of a physical barrier, a fence along the Serbian section of the country’s border. When the new emergency immigration laws came into effect in mid-September, the border crossing at Roszke was heavily reinforced with riot police. The tension between the crowds wanting to get in and law enforcement deployed to hold the line, led to physical clashes, during which 20 police officers, as well as 300 migrants and a number of journalists caught in the middle, were injured.
The accounts of the events differed greatly, depending on political loyalties. The government claimed that heroic police officers stood their ground defending the country from an attack from hostile migrants. Those on the other side of the issue came down on politicians, as well as law enforcement, for their inhumane treatment of refugees fleeing from war. There are also reports indicating that the police were actually to blame for how the events unfolded, either through deliberate provocation or wholly inadequate management of the situation.
The video footage of the events shows that before hostilities actually started, because of the lockdown, the riot police and the migrants were face to face, but separated by the fence. As tensions rose, some of the migrants started throwing smaller items at the police, who eventually responded with water cannons and tear gas. As the situation worsened, the migrants were also throwing bricks and rocks they had dislodged from nearby structures and were setting tires on fire. Eventually the riot police retreated from the direct line of the fence, only to give way to TEK, the specialist anti-terrorist unit normally only deployed in very high risk operations. Seeing the open ground directly behind the barrier the migrants broke through the fence, at which point the TEK unit charged them. It was then that most of the injuries occurred among the migrants, as well as the journalists, who wanted to get a good look at the moment when people entered into Hungary, and were consequently in the front of the crowd.
A law enforcement expert, speaking anonymously with Atlatszo.hu, claims that the police made a number of errors in how they managed the situation. Most importantly, there was no liaison officer to coordinate with the Serbians. The Hungarians were limited in their options, since even though the riot police had rocks flying at them, the rocks were coming from the Serbian side, and the police had no jurisdiction to take action, because it was the territory of another country. The lack of organization is clearly shown by the fact that it was Hungarian foreign minister Peter Szijjarto who ended up calling the Serbian government, showing there was no operational contact on the ground which could have quickly resolved the situation. Also, it seems clear that the police did not communicate the events directly to the migrants and, according to the expert, when tensions were already high, this lack of information from the police contributed to the escalation of the situation.
He noted that the action taken by TEK seemed excessive, though perhaps not surprising since such elite forces are used to tackling serious disturbances and are trained to respond in kind. Other accounts are far more condemning of the special force’s actions.
According to freelance photographer Warren Richardson who was on the scene, TEK actually launched an attack against a peaceful group of people, who had given no indication that they had hostile intentions. In his report published on the Budapest Beacon (released to Atlatszo.hu for translation and reprint) the crowd descended on the fence when the riot police retreated around 20 meters into Hungarian territory. Interestingly, he noted the example of a man who sat on the shoulder of one of his peers and tried to calm the crowds using a loudspeaker, urging them not to make any attempt to break through the fence. The same man was later arrested and accused of terrorism, since according to the authorities he was actually inciting further aggression. The crowd advanced nonetheless, and the barrier was soon down. At this stage, many migrants thought that the Hungarians had opened the gates and were chanting thank you to Serbia as well as to Hungary.
Richardson says that first one woman who became ill was eventually allowed through the wall of riot police shields for treatment. Shortly afterwards, when one of her relatives started pleading with the police to at least allow one family member to accompany her, shouting started and TEK charged the crowd. Richardson claims that he too was beaten, along with several migrants, women and elderly people. His impression was that the attack against the migrants was well organized and was meant as an exercise in intimidation.
Richardson’s claims were corroborated by a number of other foreign journalists, who described a similar course of events. They also gave accounts of being subjected to police beatings when they were caught up in the front lines of the migrant crowd, which mistakenly thought that officials had opened the border gate.
In summary, Atlatszo.hu concludes that Hungary’s police responded to the aggression with some force, but in light of the large number of injuries, that they did so to excess. It is also clear that the government comments regarding the incident and the claims that an attack, or even an invasion, occurred against the country are false. The migrants only intended to continue their journey further west. Other factors which remain unclear at the present time, are what exactly were the intentions of the police when they opened up a gap by the fence, which was so wrongly interpreted by the migrants, and whether the representatives of law enforcement gave adequate information to the migrants about the situation.