This article has been translated: the original version is from 444.hu, which you can read here.
The Hungarian national news agency (MTI) carried an alarming news item on 28 March: ’40,000 migrants are about to set off from Turkey and Greece towards Central Europe, to be joined along the way by many more’. The agency reported that they were gathering then and were setting off on 5 April.
Hungarian national television and the pro-government Vadhajtások website, which attracted attention with its typical hysteria, sent a correspondent to Greece to report about the several hundred migrants who were about to set off. By the morning of 9 April hirado.hu, the news website of the publicly funded broadcaster, had carried 28 articles and 11 videos about the imminent departure of the caravan. The publicly funded M1 TV channel kept the item in the news throughout.
What really happened?
According to the Greek government the so-called caravan was advertised in Facebook posts aimed at people living in Turkish and Greek refugee camps. (The posts have since been deleted.) The posts claimed that the Turkish-Greek, Greek-Albanian and Greek-North Macedonian borders would all open for a short period, paving the way to Germany.
The posts told people to gather at meeting points on the outskirts of Ioannina, Thessaloniki and Athens in Greece, from where buses would take them north. People were urged to be there at the appointed time to benefit from this small window of opportunity.
On 4 April several hundred migrants in Athens tried to board trains heading north, because the posts had led them to believe that they could get to one of the next day’s meeting points this way. When the authorities blocked their way and told them their hopes had been based on false reports, some sat down on the tracks in protest. In the end they were taken away by the police.
From 5 April about 600 refugees gathered close to the Diavata refugee camp near Thessaloniki. They spent the night waiting for the buses promised in the Facebook posts. However, instead of buses the Greek police arrived the next day. The police told them to disperse and, when some refused and started throwing stones (injuring a photographer), they fired tear gas. Most went back to their lodgings on 6 April, while those who held out were detained the following day.
In Turkey, police broke up the smaller groups that had gathered on 3-4 April close to the Greek border. Those who had gathered close to Edirne had similarly been encouraged by Facebook posts to believe they could get to Greece. Many of them were under the impression that the Red Cross would help them, or that the German Chancellor Angela Merkel was once again opening the door to refugees.
The Greek government confirmed that the misleading posts had come from a series of servers, all of them outside the region: servers in America and Asia or elsewhere in Europe. The Greek ministry of the interior believed that smuggling rings were behind the rumours. The smugglers hoped to drum up new business by herding desperate people to the meeting points. The Greek authorities estimated that the posts reached around 60,000 people in Turkey and 5,000 people in Greece.
Since 7 April the situation has been calm. Everyone has returned to their allocated lodgings in the camps, and the Greek government and the UN has been informing the refugees in six languages that they should not be taken in by news spread on social media, and that the borders are not being opened.
The press campaign set off from Hungary
The source of the 28 March MTI report about the departure of the caravans was the Budapest-based Migration Research Institute, jointly run by the Századvég Foundation [which is close to the ruling Fidesz party] and the Mathias Corvinus Collegium. The story first appeared on the website Mandiner, which is run by András Tombor, a founder of the Collegium. The report claimed that tens of thousands of refugees were about to set off, and that the European press wanted to hush the matter up. It said that the caravans were being organised through social media, giving responsibility to two civil society organisations with Arab. However, the only hits that come up for these organisations in a Google search are in relation to the Migration Research Institute study.
From that date onwards MTI gave full coverage to these caravans, but its only sources were the Migration Research Institute and the M1 TV news. They never referred to any information in the Greek press or western news agencies. No other media in Europe dealt in such detail with the events near to the Diavata camp as Hungary. Even Greek newspapers were satisfied with just one story daily, while in Hungary there were 3-4 items every single day.
EU diplomats discussed the matter the day before the Migration Research Institute material appeared
Our sources say that representatives of the European Commission gave a run-down on the situation at a meeting of the leaders of the EU Parliament in Brussels on 27 March. The Romanian Presidency had asked for a report to be prepared on the organisation of the groups referred to as caravans. The Commission’s official explained that they first heard on 25 February that people were trying to organise “caravans” through social media. They made contact with officials at Europol, the European Asylum Support Office and the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, as well as with the Greek and Turkish governments. So they clearly took the situation very seriously and wanted to take action.
The Commission reported that a high-level delegation from Brussels met the leader of the refugee office of the Turkish ministry of the interior and one of the top officials of the Greek border guards on 25 March. Both countries assured the Commission’s representatives that the Turkish and Greek police were in control of the situation. It later transpired that even smaller groups were not allowed to cross either border.
Therefore the day before the article by the government-affiliated Migration Research Institute appeared the Hungarian government must already have had a pretty clear picture about the caravan rumours.
This was not the first time that social media was used in an attempt to herd refugees towards the Balkans from Greece and Turkey. At the time of the big refugee wave in 2015 many such websites appeared. Some were set up by real people offering real advice on how to make the journey, though others were manipulating the facts to serve the ends of human smugglers.
At the end of November 2017 much the same thing happened: a group of refugees around Thessaloniki were encouraged by Facebook posts to set off towards North Macedonia [as it is now known]. They had been led to believe they could cross the border, but they found lines of policemen blocking their way.
In the run-up to last year’s US mid-term elections the Trump administration and the Trump-friendly media sought to alarm the public with talk of migrant caravans heading towards the US-Mexican border. It brought the phrase migrant caravan into common parlance in the world press, including in Hungary. The “caravan” became an important argument for Trump in his propaganda battle to build a border wall. After the elections, the subject took a much lower profile in the press.