The refugee crisis in Europe is rapidly changing the political landscape. Tense political relationships are further pressured by the recent, rapid increase in the number of people seeking asylum as refugees, and migrants fleeing conflict and poverty in the Middle East and Africa. Earlier this year, Budapest was depicted by mainstream media as the epicentre of the refugee crisis. Thousands of people had converged at the train stations of Bicske and Keleti attempting to acquire safe passage into Austria and then onwards to Germany, and other countries in Western Europe. There was public, international opposition to the way the Hungarian state managed the crisis in Budapest, and the situation has raised many questions as to how Europe will cope with the influx of people crossing into European countries. Evelyn spoke to Jan Vrobel, frontman of popular Czech folkcore band Cruadalach, about the role he’s played in the humanitarian efforts to aid asylum seekers in both Bicske and Keleti, and the wider debates concerning the refugee crisis in Europe.
What was your motivation for going to Bicske and Keleti in Hungary to be part of the humanitarian aid efforts for refugees?
When I heard about the drowning ships full of people at the shores of Europe in the news for the first time, I thought, Oh my god, that’s insane, I hope the EU will take care of them. A few months later I realised that the states of Eastern Europe are more or less incapable of solving this terrible situation. For example, the Hungarian state communicated with the war refugees basically only via its security forces. I find it shocking. It has been 26 years since the fall of the Eastern Bloc and Eastern Europe still can’t raise its living standards to the level of our Western neighbours? I realised that there is literally nobody to help these people except the few NGOs at the Keleti train station in Budapest. So I gathered humanitarian aid from my friends, took some of them with me, and we did the job we believed was absolutely necessary. I didn’t have and I still don’t have a well-thought through long term political solution to this horrible crisis these people find themselves in, but I’m 100% sure nobody should die on the muddy roads of the European Union. This is something we just can’t let happen, otherwise we’ve lost everything we believe in.
What was your role and which organisations did you volunteer for?
I work solely as an individual. Actually, I was one of the first Czech citizens who travelled to help refugees and share their story. I was inspired by the Czech ethnologist Michal Pavlásek, who went to Macedonia to volunteer for the NGO called Legis, which does an amazing job. Maybe you’ve heard of Gabriela Andreevska, who is called ‘the Macedonian Borders Angel’ by Syrian refugees? During September a huge wave of solidarity rose across the Czech Republic and many people went to help at the key points of crisis – Röszke, Bicske and Keleti in Hungary; and later Tovarnik and Bapska-Berkasovo in Croatia and Serbia. Literally hundreds of Czech citizens loaded their own cars or rented cars with humanitarian aid and travelled to welcome and help the refugees in the name of humanism: these are people and we can’t let them die. We can’t let others spit on them, we have to return them to human dignity.
The hundreds of citizens were supported by thousands of others who gathered clothes and food in their own hometowns. In the whole of the Czech Republic many humanitarian gathering points were founded – in the cinemas, cafeterias, squats, gyms and schools. Many people were also sending money to the volunteers. These volunteers organised themselves naturally, without any hierarchy. We created our own system. Till now, the best-known result of the work of Czech citizens is the Bapska-Berkasovo checkpoint on the Serbia-Croatia border. There we have a kitchen, a place to distribute clothes, an information check-point, a play area for kids, music and tents. After more than a month of amazing work of many of my friends, we earned the respect of famous NGOs as well as Serbian and Croatian officials. Czech volunteers helped dozens of thousands of refugees on the border of European Union.
How were you able to mobilise yourself from the Czech Republic and get involved?
It was really easy. I have never done anything like this before, but I can work with social networks pretty effectively and I had earned some reputation earlier thanks to my various cultural activities. So I asked friends to lend me a car, I organised a gathering spot for the humanitarian help, and I went to Biszke and Keleti. It wasn’t a big deal, everybody can do that. Later I did the same when I volunteered at Berkasovo checkpoint, where Czech volunteers had already invented an effective operating system. However, Czech citizens are also active in the other aspects – unfortunately, our country is known for its infamous and horrible detention centres where hundreds of refugees including little children were detained. We try to help them, support them as long as they are in there with visits, gifts, food, clothes, information – and take care of them once they are released. Many people are serving 24/7, day and night, at the key train stations in the Czech Republic while offering refugees food, mobile phones and SIM cards, sleepovers, culture – everything they need. Two Syrian young people even ended up staying at my place in Prague for the night. In the morning my friends bought them tickets to Berlin to reconnect with their families. They are safe there now and starting to learn the German language. I wish them all the best in their lives.
When you arrived at Bicske what were your initial observations?
Bicske was crazy. At the time I was on my journey there, we got news from ČTK (Česká tisková kancelář, Czech Press Agency) that a thousand people from Keleti were on a march via a highway to the Austrian borders. We had the plan that we would help them; the distance to travel is around 150 kilometres, and we wanted to transport as many of them as possible during the night with our car, but it was against the law and the highway was strictly closed by Hungarian police. So we stopped in Bicske, where we got news that a few hundred Syrian refugees were stuck on the train. Hungarian railways sold them tickets to Vienna, but later the Hungarian state stopped the train after 30 kilometres because they wanted to transfer these poor people to detention centres. Naturally, the refugees denied this process and they protested by hunger strike against this betrayal. When I arrived, these people had already been inside the train for 30 hours, completely deprived. Some of them got out and continued on their walk via the railway to Vienna. Most of them followed the Hungarian riot police to the busses, which headed to detention centre Bicske. They looked completely destroyed, it broke my heart. Hungarian riot police didn’t even allow me to give them a bottle of water. I was told by the Hungarian Red Cross and the Amnesty International that one person died on the train because of an embolism. Bicske is the horrible shame of Hungarian state and it should be known and spread. I was shocked by this behaviour of the Hungarian government and its security forces. It reminded me of the content of books and movies depicting the Nazi era just way too much.
Did your observation of the refugee crisis change over time?
Naturally I got more and more information and experience. Since I have become involved basically on a full-time basis over last few months, I have gathered a lot of relevant information from the other volunteers and NGOs, media, statistics and social networks. I gained a lot of experience on my own. I have personally met around 15,000 refugees. I believe I have some ideas and solutions now and I am already working on some of them. For instance, we are putting pressure on our government and fighting xenophobia in the Czech public space. I strongly believe the EU should get the migration wave under control, and this means fighting the people smugglers, whom I’m not afraid to call murderers. These people are generally ok if their victims die on the sea, as long as they get paid. What has never changed is my recognition of refugees as human beings, but I consider this obvious. It is a challenge for Europe, but challenge means progress. Let’s embrace it.
How accurate was the reporting of mainstream media on the actual situation in Hungary? Are there particular aspects that weren’t covered, which you think people should be aware of?
It is hard to judge. Many aspects were covered, I’m just not sure if the coverage was sufficient. What wasn’t covered enough was the situation in Bicske I mentioned above. I still believe Hungary should be sued by its victims, but let’s not be selective – my own homeland treats refugees very poorly too. I’m very ashamed of that. That could also be one of my motivations as well as motivation of many other Czech citizens. There are many kind, liberal people in my country who respect the people from all around the world.
Can we talk about the reaction to refugees in the Czech Republic? I’ve heard that there is strong opposition to the settlement of refugees in the Czech Republic and in other parts of Eastern Europe. Is there a strong anti-immigration rhetoric in the Czech Republic?
Yes, there is. It has divided Czech society in the way which was unthinkable in the last 26 years. Anti-immigration rhetoric in the Czech Republic has shocked me. I believe it was sparked by a very intensive wave of hoaxes of unknown origin – maybe our intelligence agency knows more – as well as the socially irresponsible mass-media and the public rhetoric of our president, Miloš Zeman. It is shocking and unacceptable. Since the start of our cause, the public opinion has fortunately changed a lot and now the situation is much better. You have to understand that the Eastern block dwelt in social isolation for the more than 40 years. 26 years later we are still an inexperienced democracy. Many Czechs travelled the world, got a lot of amazing experience and work all around the globe. Many, though, have never met a foreigner of ‘exotic’ origin in their lifetime and this is the first time they face such a situation – through the media. Xenophobia is a natural phenomenon, but it has to be conquered by the voice of reason. Czech people also lack the skill to work with media and social networks correctly. Some people think within a ridiculous stereotype: Arab equals Muslim equals terrorist, because they have never met any Syrians and they have all their information delivered via mass media, which naturally tends to create the most shocking face of actual reality.
How have you continued to be involved in supporting the migration of refugees into Europe?
As needed, it is a natural process. I do media coverage, I speak publically at demonstrations, my friends and I are helping refugees in detention centres, we still go to the places where we are needed. We are offering our help to our country in case it accepts more people and families. We are ready to teach them the Czech language, to become friends with them and to help them start new life in Europe. As a Czech citizen I am aware of the fact that whenever we were occupied by hostile forces, the most important help always came from abroad. During World War One and World War Two we had our diplomats and exile governments. Czechoslovak legions were founded abroad. Even the fall of Eastern Block wouldn’t have happened without the help from abroad. So I say – let’s give the shelter to the possible future elites of less lucky countries. The fact we live in peace is not a privilege my generation took a role in. It is our responsibility to participate in the peaceful present and the future.
You’re the singer of well known Czech band Cruadalach. Can you tell us a bit about the band?
Cruadalach is a unique collective of nine musicians. We describe our music and approach as the ‘folkcore family’. We mix world music with hardcore punk. We have been active for six years, we have released two albums and since the start of our existence we’ve travelled to 12 countries and have played more than 150 shows with a great reputation for their energy and positive vibes. During the last year we are also getting known for our social activism. We support heavy music scenes in non-liberal countries, we do and plan to do benefit gigs for refugees or orphanages.
What does your music talk about? Does your music discuss the politics of migration?
It discusses the values of humanity. It celebrates acceptance, an ecological approach to life, and criticises war and totalitarian regimes. I wrote all lyrics for the last album during years 2013-2014, and when I scream it now at the shows, I feel like I predicted to some extent what might come. And I actually live by my lyrics. If you read the lyrics of the songs like ‘Rebel Against Me’ or ‘Life-Worshipping Bastards’, it is basically about my approach to life.
Our lyrical themes are very personal and social. The last album, Rebel Against Me is a strong lyrical reaction on the rise of conflicts around the globe and it has a strictly anti-war message. I believe that the next Cruadalach album will react on the refugee crisis from my personal points of view a lot. It won’t be political, I will simply describe the experience my activities let me earn.
What has been the public reaction to your work with refugees?
I didn’t expect any strong public reaction, but it has astonished me. My posts on social networks went viral during the night while I was at Keleti. Thousands of people were reading my impressions and later I got a huge media attention because of my activities. Many people sent me words of support during last months, they could be thousands of people. Many messages were very nice and kind. I also received some death threats for ‘high treason’ but I guess that would happen in every society and I don’t take this seriously whatsoever. I’m not scared at all. The public reaction was generally incredibly positive.
Do you have any suggestions for how people can involved with the refugee crisis?
It really depends on where you are. Think for yourself. Gather the information and learn how to work with media. Be empathic and think about the needs of others. The most beautiful thing that can happen to you is that you actually meet the refugees. It is a blessing for you. They have nothing and they are powerless. You have the power now and you should use it in the way you would like to be treated yourself. We are facing a clash of civilizations, but nobody said this clash has to have negative consequences. Shake hands with these people. Say Hi. This is where the friendship starts – by good will and good deeds.
Jan Vrobel is a humanitarian, activist and frontman for the Czech band Cruadalach.
Evelyn Marsters has a PhD in Development Studies from the University of Auckland and is currently based in Berlin. Her focus is global health and migration, and she is Deputy Editor at Impolitikal. Read more by Evelyn.