Beregsurany, Hungary – Minibuses carrying people who have fled the war in Ukraine do not stop arriving in Beregsurany, a rural Hungarian town near the Ukrainian border. The moment one drops off a group at the town hall, another quickly takes its place.
Everything moves like clockwork. Volunteers register each person and organise onward transport. Elderly residents of the town push forward with hot tea and meat sandwiches. Medics stand by to offer assistance.
Since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine began on February 24, this sleepy village has become a hive of activity as thousands of people sought safety from rockets and bombs.
Overseeing this military-like effort is the town’s mayor, Istvan Herka, a man with snow-white hair.
“We know these people who are fleeing. Our lives intersected all the time. So this war has struck a chord in our heart,” he told Al Jazeera in between phone calls. “[Prime Minister Viktor] Orban did the right thing by keeping the border open. We had to help in any way we could, and our community is rising to the challenge every day.”
Hungary has received more than 140,000 people from Ukraine in just seven days. All along the 135km (84-mile) frontier, volunteers from across the country have travelled to the border region to help with the impressive humanitarian effort.
Overall more than 1.2 million people have crossed Ukraine’s western borders according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), a number that is expected to grow in the coming days.
Beregsurany has a population of about 600 people, the majority of whom are elderly residents. When news broke last week of Russian President Vladimir Putin starting a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, members of the community met in the town centre to plan for an expected influx of Ukrainian refugees.
“We knew immediately people were going to come through here, so we ran down and turned the heating on in the town hall and started to carry pots of tea to the border. We were right, within a few hours there was demand,” said Andrea Lukacsine Posze, a resident.
She has been at the town hall every day since last Thursday, making hundreds of meals and sorting thousands of donated items.
“We’re here. We’re doing everything we can,” said Lukacsine Posze.
Hungary, like Poland, has been accused of selective sympathy given its opposition to any European Union open-door policy that benefits those fleeing conflict, poverty and oppression from beyond the continent.
In 2015, Hungary closed its border with Serbia and erected a razor fence to deter people from crossing into the EU via the Balkan route.
In July 2016, Orban’s nationalist government passed a law that legalised pushbacks – the practice of pushing asylum seekers back across borders without due process. The European Court of Justice has ruled the move violated EU law.
Orban has previously said his people “didn’t want any migration” and referred to those seeking help in the EU as “Muslim invaders”.
Speaking to Al Jazeera on Thursday, he said it was his country’s ability to “tell the difference between who is a migrant and who is a refugee” that led to the eastern border staying open.