World·Analysis

Refugee crisis brings out best and worst in Europe: Nahlah Ayed

The current refugee crisis in Europe has seen extraordinary acts of kindness on the part of ordinary citizens and generous commitments on the part of some governments but has also brought out the continent’s uglier side, CBC's Nahlah Ayed reports from Hungary and Austria.

Refugees have encountered both generosity and abuse during their arduous trek across the continent

Hawkar Ali Fattah, a Kurdish refugee who fled northern Iraq, looks out the window of a train headed from Nickelsdorf, Austria, to Munich. Fattah says he and other asylum seekers have been mistreated along their arduous route through southern and eastern Europe. (Richard Devey/CBC)

Hawkar Ali Fattah and his friends carefully weighed the dangers and costs and still chose to walk away from the uncertainty of life in northern Iraq to the safety of law-abiding Europe. 

What they wouldn't have expected, or accepted, when they made that decision was the physical and verbal abuse — or the time in detention — they say they ultimately endured along the way. 

Theirs is the kind of story we've heard recounted repeatedly this past weekend as many thousands of asylum seekers sought to express their gratitude to Austria and Germany for allowing them to cross their borders — no questions asked.

This Syrian girl has travelled for a month since fleeing Aleppo with her family. (Richard Devey/CBC)

Countless people in both countries and beyond have been lending a hand at welcome centres, offering shelter, clothing, medical services or just applause as the refugees began arriving at their destinations.

For the asylum seekers, that experience stood in painful contrast to the surprise of discovering that in some parts of Europe, people like them could expect to be mistreated — even at the hands of the authorities.

For many refugees, watching ordinary citizens this weekend generously give rides to some of the thousands of people walking west simply didn't square with the taxi drivers who refused to pick them up or with the vendors who wouldn't sell them food — even when they showed they had the money.

The lineup of politicians offering to shelter refugees in their own homes — from Scotland's Nicola Sturgeon to Hungary's former prime minister, Ferenc Gyurcsany — clashed with the refusal of police in some places to provide the most basic supplies while detaining them. 

'Thank God we arrived here'

Fattah says he was detained in Sofia, Bulgaria, locked up and even hit by police officers.

"It was 15 days in the prison. No water and no bread," he said, moments after arriving at a welcome centre at the Austrian border with Hungary. 

An asylum seeker waits for the next train to Germany at the Austrian border. (Richard Devey/CBC)

"I am unwell and very hungry. Thank God we arrived here. Thank God."

There was no immediate way to confirm Fattah's story, but several asylum seekers interviewed by CBC News spoke of similar experiences in a number of countries. 

One young man, Ismael Adel, from the Syrian town of Kobani, said he, too, was denied food and water during the nearly three days he spent in Hungarian detention.

"A policeman told us, 'You are not human. Animals,'" he said.

Parts of Serbia were also particularly unwelcoming, and some refugees endured beatings while traversing the country.

Rowa'a Meirej, a lawyer and mother from Aleppo seen here with her sons, says she made the trek to Europe with her family for the sake of her children 'because the future is over in Syria.' (Nahlah Ayed/CBC)

Several countries have been criticized for their treatment of the refugees crossing their territory — called out for everything from forcing them into holding centres to using tear gas to subdue them to not doing enough to combat far-right groups that have been vocal in opposing their presence. 

One Syrian mother from Aleppo, who is a lawyer by training, told CBC News her family was travelling from Turkey to Greece when their dinghy was picked up by what she described as a Greek military ship. Rowa'a Meirej said the personnel on board searched her and her family, destroyed their mobile phones, threw out their belongings and then left them in their dinghy drifting in the waters of the Mediterranean Sea. 

They were rescued by Turkish coastal authorities and returned to the Turkish coast. They tried to make the crossing again and this time succeeded. She said she made the perilous journey for the sake of her children "because the future is over in Syria."

Small acts of kindness

In some respects, the crisis has brought out the worst in Europe: the repeated acts of arson at refugee shelters in Germany, the Czech Republic's disturbing (and now abandoned) practice of writing identification numbers onto the arms of detained refugees — a move that for many recalled the Nazi system of branding Jews in concentration camps.

Tired smiles in Nickelsdorf, Austria, as the long-awaited train to Germany arrives. (Tracy Seeley/CBC)

It has also sown serious division between European nations on how to approach what the EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini says is a crisis that is not going away.

But it has also brought out some of the best in Europe.

On the border between Austria and Hungary, a nervous middle-aged man drove up to a small Syrian family walking on the highway and offered some water to the parents and their kids. 

A little girl tries on a donated jacket in Nickelsdorf, Austria. The border town has a long history of reaching out to refugees. ( Tracy Seeley/CBC)

They asked him how to get across the border, which was just down the road.

He tried to explain. Then he did what so many others are doing — despite the possibility of getting in trouble with the law: he offered them a ride.

He didn't have to. But he bundled them into the car and drove off. 

For many of the refugees making their way across the continent on foot, that is the Europe they had imagined.

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