Marion Post Wolcott Works Progress Administration worker’s children, South Charleston, WV 1938
In the end, what should have been avoided all along, was. The refugees who were treated like subhumans for days in Hungary, and who in the end refused to be subjected to that treatment any longer and started walking to the Austrian border, are being taken as we speak to that border, on buses provided by the government in Budapest.
Meanwhile, we have all been subjected to the words and ideas of Victor Orban, the loose cannon who rules Hungary. The media largely portray the sudden change from refugees stuck on trains in Budapest train station and locations just outside of the city, to the buses that will take them to Austria and presumably Germany, as something that sprouted from Orban’s brain.
But that is not true. One can call Orban on his crazy notions, but not on decisions about the movements of the refugees. Both the decision to in effect ‘detain’ the thousands of refugees inside Hungary for days, and the decision late last night to let them leave, came from one person only: Angela Merkel. She’s the only one with sufficient power to make such things happen.
She told Orban earlier this week to stop the trains from coming west. And she told him later all refugees would have to be registered. In fact, that was a EU wide order, which is why the Czechs started putting numbers on refugees’ arms. Another image Merkel couldn’t possibly tolerate, even if she initially managed to deflect the blame for that too.
Once again, Merkel diddled till she couldn’t diddle any longer. The one and only reason why she decided to change course was the damage to her stature as a leader and politician. The images of little Aylan Kurdi dead on a beach, and the images of thousands of refugees walking to the Austrian border, had simply become too damaging to Merkel’s reputation.
So she took the opportunistic and at least somewhat cynical decision to tell Orban he could set them free.
The Syrian refugees have taken to calling her Mama Merkel. They don’t know who she is, or what role she plays.
The situation would have gotten out of hand somewhere, either in Budapest or along the highway to the border. People would have died, and cameras would have recorded the deaths.
Merkel might have had a second Aylan on her hands, and at some point even the thickest among reporters would have made the connection to her, the only voice with decision power in that part of the world. She knew her Teflon coat would at some point wear off.
To a large extent, Merkel’s headaches have only started. She can’t let the Budapest train station scenes, or the miles long stream of walking destitute, or the image of drowned children, repeat. If she had come to her senses earlier, much of the misery would have been avoided. And she knows it. She knew the risk of more and worse tragedy was getting too big. And it still is, this is far from over.
But there’s another side to the story as well. That of private European citizens. And not the goons attacking refugees on Kos and in Hungary. We’ve seen the tireless long-term Greek private efforts to feed and shelter refugees on the islands and the cities, Hungarians handing out hundreds of bottles of water, 2200 Austrians last night volunteering to drive across the Hungarian border to pick up the refugees marching along the highway at night (which was a major factor in the decision to send buses).
There are many examples of European citizens showing what decent behavior actually is. And it comes naturally to them.
There is a huge gap between these Europeans and the people who are supposed to be their leaders. And that gap cannot be bridged, and will not be, just because Angela Merkel acknowledges that she’s been being defeated by numbers and images, everytime she is.
Merkel has shown us once again this week that humanity is an orphan in European decision making. Neither Angela or any other of the leaders, be it in national capitals or in Brussels, put humane treatment of refugees first. They are cool and calculated first.
Their attitude towards Syrian refugees is the same as that towards the poor in Greece. They are more than ready to accept that there will be human casualties because of whatever it is they decide. They want the power but not the responsibility.
The EU meeting on the refugee topic, which you can bet they will label ‘migrant’, is still over a week away, on September 14. And it will be about numbers, not about people.
German financial support on the issue is planned to be more than 3 weeks away. During that time, the horror is sure to repeat somewhere along the line that runs from Syria to Berlin. Yes, it starts in Syria.
Therefore, Europeans -and the international media- need to keep the pressure on Merkel now. And on Hollande and Cameron and Juncker, and all of their minions. But first of all on Merkel. She’s key.