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German "escape helpers" are running an underground railroad for Syrian refugees

Migrants walk on the railway track after crossing the border line between Serbia and Hungary.
Migrants walk on the railway track after crossing the border line between Serbia and Hungary.
AP Photo/Matthias Schrader

BERLIN — On September 2, Ole Seidenberg flicked on the morning news in Berlin and saw an image he still can’t get out of his head: a police officer holding the tiny, limp body of a 3-year-old Syrian refugee who had washed up on a Turkish beach while trying to flee by boat to Greece. The photo of the dead boy has since become the most famous symbol of Europe’s ongoing refugee crisis.

Seidenberg thought of his own 4-year-old daughter and quickly canceled a holiday in the countryside that he and his wife had planned. Instead, the 32-year-old social entrepreneur decided to take a very different trip: He drove out of Germany, through Austria, and into Hungary to pick up refugees and ferry them back to his home country, a move that would help them gain asylum.

Seidenberg is one of at least 100 Germans who call themselves "Fluchthelfer," which roughly translates as "escape helpers." The term has a unique historical resonance in this country. During World War II, German Fluchthelfer helped Jews escape and hide from the Nazis. During the Cold War, they helped East Germans who were trying to escape the communist regime and flee to the West.

Aylan Kurdi, a 3-year-old Syrian boy who washed up on the shores of Turkey.

(AP Photo/DHA, File)

Modern-day Fluchthelfer, for their part, are creating an underground railroad to move refugees around Europe — and help those trying to escape war-torn countries like Iraq and Syria gain asylum.

The movement has arisen in reaction to a controversial European Union law called the Dublin Regulation, which states that asylum seekers must have their refugee claims processed in the countries in which they first arrive in Europe.

The law was originally meant to keep immigrants from circulating the continent, applying for asylum in many different countries. But amid the current crisis, with thousands fleeing from Afghanistan, Syria, and Libya every day, it means that refugees crowd into just a handful of countries: Those who travel via boat tend to end up in Italy and Greece, and those who travel overland through the Balkans tend to turn up in Hungary.

syrian refugees map updated
Countries marked in purple are part of the Schengen system: the EU's internal open borders zone where there are not border controls, or at least weren't until the refugee crisis. (Javier Zarracina/Vox)

The pile-up has created all sorts of roadblocks for the refugees. Italy and Greece have become so overwhelmed by applicants, immigration officials can't keep up. Meanwhile, the right-wing government in Hungary has become openly hostile to immigrants, refusing asylum claims and placing immigrants into chainlink pens with inhumane conditions. And because of the Dublin Regulation, refugees can't pass through Greece, Italy, or Hungary and make it to countries with more generous asylum policies and shorter processing times, like Germany or Sweden.

Critics say the Dublin Regulation is fundamentally flawed: It puts an undue burden on just a few countries, and it means the fates of desperate refugees are determined by accidents of geography. So that's where the escape helpers come in. If, say, the Fluchthelfer can sneak people from Hungary into Germany, the asylum seekers could have a better chance at gaining refugee status in Europe.

The catch is that this type of human smuggling — though volunteer and unpaid — is obviously illegal, flouting both the Dublin Regulation and human trafficking laws. But escape helpers view what they're doing as a form of civil disobedience. And despite its illicit nature, the underground railroad remains broadly popular in Germany.

"At the moment, there’s a lot of acceptance in society for Fluchthelfer," said Max (not his real name) a volunteer with the Peng Collective, an activist group that has helped organize and coordinate more than 100 volunteer escape helpers like Seidenberg. Wearing a blue hoodie and black jeans at Peng’s headquarters, an old factory in a Turkish neighborhood in Berlin, Max explained that he has already driven five groups of refugees across European borders into Germany, and he’ll continue to do so until asylum seekers have the same freedom of movement as other Europeans.

"All the escape-helping movements in the past have been illegal," he said. "But they were justified in the books of history afterward."

A secret journey from Austria to Germany

Asylum seekers outside Keleti train station in Budapest.

(AP Photo/Petr David Josek)

Ole Seidenberg’s first "escape helper" journey began on September 4. With a friend, he rented a silver Volkswagen Sharan, and left Berlin at night, driving through the Czech Republic and Slovakia to reach Hungary by Saturday morning.

Nothing went as planned. Little did they realize that right as they were driving, European countries were already in the middle of changing the already confusing rules around refugees — a perfect illustration of just how fluid the situation is.

Their original plan was to go to the Keleti train station in Budapest, Hungary, a major transit hub for Europe where immigrants had been arriving from the Middle East. The station had become a "de facto modern refugee camp," and thousands of asylum seekers had been stranded there for days. The far-right government, led by Prime Minister Viktor Orban, had ordered police officials to bar asylum seekers from getting on trains, even closing down the station at one point. Seidenberg hoped to pick up a refugee family and smuggle them back to Germany.

But that night, an unexpected twist occurred. German Chancellor Angela Merkel announced that she was temporarily loosening her country's immigration laws: Any Syrian refugees who made it into Germany could apply for asylum. They wouldn't be deported back to the European country where they'd first arrived. In response, the Hungarian government sent 100 buses to the train station to clear out the asylum seekers and bring them to the Austrian border, where they could then move on to Germany.

By the time they reached the train station — which Seidenberg said smelled like urine and sweat — thousands of refugees had already been loaded onto the buses bound for the border. It seemed like the underground railroad was no longer needed, at least for the refugees at Keleti station.

At that point, the two ran into a pair of Berlin-based computer hackers who were also in Budapest as escape helpers. One of the hackers, Alex (not his real name), told Vox that he had been checking Twitter and trying to figure out where they might be needed. They heard that an area about 31 miles from the Austrian-Hungarian border had become a hotspot, and that if they drove through the countryside toward the border from Budapest, they would find refugees looking for a ride.

The group drove their two cars through Budapest's streets and on to the refugee hotspot. As they neared the border, Alex said, they saw hundreds of refugees, along with a handful of cars opening their doors. When Seidenberg opened the doors of his Volkswagen, a family from Iraq tried to get in. The car was so full that Seidenberg's friend had to get out and wait while Seidenberg drove the family to the border.

A Syrian refugee child sits on his father's shoulder as they wait to get on a bus that will take them to a center for asylum seekers, after crossing the border between Serbia and Hungary.

(AP Photo/Muhammed Muheisen)

By 1 am, after ferrying several groups of refugees back and forth — a small effort to make an inhumanely rough refugee journey a little easier — Seidenberg, his friend, and the two Berlin hackers reunited at a gas station on the Austrian side of the Hungarian border. They wanted to figure out their next steps.

There, they spotted a family carrying a bunch of plastic bags, seemingly left behind. The family, originally from Aleppo, Syria, was hesitant to accept a lift. They had just paid 500 euros to traffickers who left them at the gas station in the middle of the night, and were wary of further strangers. "They thought we must be traffickers ourselves," said Seidenberg. "Why would we appear in the middle of the night in the gas station?"

After a tense negotiation, Seidenberg and his friend agreed to drive three men and three children to Frankfurt. Alex and his driving partner took another three adults who were headed to northern Germany.

In Seidenberg's car, the refugees fell asleep within 10 minutes. "They were completely exhausted," Seidenberg says. "They were on their legs 17 days. They had lived in Turkey [in a refugee camp] for 10 months." From Turkey, they had traveled by boat to Greece and from Greece to Macedonia, Serbia, then Hungary. Seidenberg wondered how they could trust him enough to just fall asleep in his car, but he soon realized that they were so tired, they had no other choice.

Seidenberg also learned that the Syrians were more of a de facto family that had formed in a refugee camp in Turkey than blood relatives. There were three men and three children — 6, 10, and 11 years old. Two of the men were friends, and the other man said he was the uncle of the three children. The hope was that if the kids got asylum in Europe, they could bring their mother over. The man’s own children were with his sister in Turkey. "They have no idea what’s going to happen," said Seidenberg.

"We drove through the night, scared, because there were so many police at every gas station," Seidenberg said. After all, the escape helpers were risking serious consequences. In Austria, they could be fined for smuggling people in this fashion. In Hungary, they could face up to four years in jail. In Germany, they were risking up to 10 years of prison time under trafficking laws.

"It’s funny how you feel criminal although you’re not doing something bad," Seidenberg said. If he was caught, he planned to negotiate. "I would say, 'Look, read the news. Do you know what Merkel did?'" He felt confident that he'd be heard out. "How could they put us into jail for helping to drive people?"

And if he did get caught? "Even if I were to be put in jail in Hungary, it’d be such a big thing for the press," Seidenberg said. "Humans helping humans to do what it is their right is to do: seek asylum in another country instead of just the country they reach first." He added, "The Dublin Agreement is absurd."

By Sunday at about 10 in the morning, Seidenberg and the refugees had arrived in Frankfurt. They drove to a Syrian relative's home, and together ate a breakfast of eggs, feta cheese, and flatbread, and drank many cups of black tea.

Seidenberg has kept in touch with the group of refugees, and learned that they’re now getting their paperwork together to apply for immigration in Germany. "One of them sends me WhatsApp voice recordings all the time to say hello and let me know how he's doing. It’s really cute," he says. One of the Syrian refugees will also come to Berlin to spend Christmas with Seidenberg and his family.

"You have to have empathy first, then you get organized"

A man walks on the railway track on his way to the borderline between Serbia and Hungary.

(AP Photo/Matthias Schrader)

About a week after the drive, Merkel reinstated border controls around Germany — the refugee influx had already become too overwhelming. Hungary, meanwhile, had erected a razor-wire fence at the border with Serbia to seal the country from foreigners coming in from the Middle East through the Balkans.

That means the escape helpers have become even busier. "Hungary is closing their borders more and more; there are more controls on the Austrian-Hungarian border," said Seidenberg. But the escape helpers adapt to these changes, often communicating over encrypted messages. "As the refugees' routes change, so do the routes of the escape helpers. It’s not going to end."

What happens next isn't clear. How will Europe deal with the 19 million people seeking safety and better prospects? Will other European countries follow Germany's lead and try to be more welcoming?

The situation will only become more dire during the winter, worsening what is already Europe's most urgent immigration emergency since World War II.

"People are going into the streets, protesting [against accepting more refugees]. They are afraid that with [these refugees] it won't be their Germany anymore," Seidenberg said. "But if you go there and meet those people, it washes away anything that could make that anxiety real. These people just left their countries. They need help. Everything else — that they are Muslim, that they come from a different country — it's not important. You don't organize a process and then help. First, we have to be empathetic and help, and then we will get organized."

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