This is the second part in a two-part series. The first part examined the trek asylum seekers make from Greece to Macedonia.
ASOTTHALOM, Hungary — Sitting under a shady tree within sight of Macedonia’s border with Serbia, Hekmat found himself with a rare moment of solitude on his voyage from Syria to the European Union.
The 18-year-old had become separated from his mother and sister six hours earlier, as hundreds of asylum-seekers clambered onto a train from the Greek frontier to the village of Tabanovtse, where he now waited, entirely alone, for them to catch up.
Seven of Hekmat’s relatives had gone on with fellow passengers into the nearby woods, to where Macedonian police allow migrants — often about 1,000 a day — to cross another border and move deeper into Europe; Hekmat’s family would wait for him and his mother and sister on the other side, in Serbia.
“After walking from Greece into Macedonia we let two trains go from Gevgelija station yesterday evening, because so many people were trying to get on,” Hekmat said, in flawless English, beside Tabanovtse’s dusty and deserted platform.
“But today’s 5 a.m. train was crazy too, and we got split up. I’ve called my mother but she doesn’t answer; maybe the Greek SIM card in her phone doesn’t work here. I just hope she and my sister are on the next train from Gevgelija.”
Like more than 100,000 asylum-seekers so far this year, most from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, Hekmat’s family was taking the so-called Balkan route to what they hoped would be safety and eventual prosperity in Europe.
Most pay people smugglers in Turkey about $1,000 for a place on a rickety boat to Greece, then brave criminal gangs and often predatory police to cross Macedonia and Serbia to Hungary, an EU member that can be their gateway to wealthier and more welcoming states like Germany, the Netherlands and Sweden.
“I would like to study at a German university,” said Hekmat, whose family’s journey began more than six weeks earlier in Jisr-al-Shughour, a war-ravaged town in Syria’s Idlib province that is now controlled by armed groups.
Few if any migrants wish to settle in Greece, Macedonia or Serbia, and those cash-strapped states do little more than register some asylum-seekers before allowing them to continue their voyage north.
But as Balkan barriers crumble under the rapidly rising pressure of migration, Hungary is — literally — trying to fence off the EU to uninvited outsiders.
Prime Minister Victor Orban has ordered Hungary’s army to build a 13-foot-high, steel and barbed wire security barrier along its entire 109-mile border with Serbia, after more than 100,000 asylum seekers entered the country so far this year. After initially planning to complete the fence by November, Hungary now wants it to be in place by the end of this month.
The vast majority file an obligatory asylum request and quickly move further west, however; last year, Hungary granted asylum to only 240 people, having received some 43,000 requests.
Orban has also rejected an EU plan to distribute refugees around the bloc as “mad and unfair,” and lambasted an EU rule under which asylum seekers must be returned to the first member state that they enter.
Crisis-ridden Greece is considered to be incapable of dealing with returnees, so Hungary is being called upon to take back migrants who crossed its territory. “We are now in a situation where masses of people are coming, and countries in Western Europe want to send them back to us, which is why there is pressure on us from the south and the west,” Orban said last month.
“It’s an illusion for anyone to think that people from the African crisis areas will keep arriving in Europe only until the crises there are pacified. … If we allow it, a modern mass migration could take place of millions, even tens of millions and even hundreds of millions.”
Hungary’s government says refugees should stay in countries further south on the Balkan route, which are just as safe but less wealthy than migrants’ desired destinations, and it sent police in late June to help Serbia tighten its border with Macedonia.
“There is a clear contradiction between demands to tighten borders and the obligations countries have to allow people to apply for protection,” said Ivana Vukasevic, legal adviser at the Humanitarian Center for Integration and Tolerance in Serbia, noting that most refugees are fleeing the Middle East’s deadliest conflicts.
“The more tightly controlled a border is, the more dangerous and expensive it becomes to cross. It will be same with Hungary’s fence. But people will always find a way through. With money any border can be crossed. Those without money, the most vulnerable, will have the most problems.”
Syrians tend to have the best clothes, rucksacks, mobile phones and other gear on the Balkan route and can more often pay for bus and train tickets and for people-smugglers to help them cross borders; people from Afghanistan, Pakistan and African states such as Somalia and Eritrea seem to be the poorest migrants, and their journeys are the slowest and most arduous.
They come together at bottlenecks in the route, at places like Idomeni in northern Greece and Gevgelija just over the border in Macedonia, and here at Tabanovtse train station and the town of Presevo 20 miles north in Serbia.
In Presevo, migrants can buy tickets on a growing number of direct bus and train services to towns and villages some 360 miles away on Serbia’s border with Hungary.
Tired travellers are now a near-constant presence in the small parks and squares of these small towns, where they rest before trying to cross the towering cornfields and thick woods that separate Serbia and Hungary.
They fear that it hides rapacious people-smugglers and truncheon-wielding border guards, and have given it a suitably fearsome name.
“We’re going to the jungle together, 10 of us — it’s too dangerous alone or in a small group,” Mohsen, a young man from Ghazni in eastern Afghanistan, said as he rested with travelling companions in a park in the border town of Subotica.
“I don’t quite know what day it is — I lost my phone in Macedonia — but I left home about two months ago. I’ve walked almost all the way, through Iran, Turkey, Greece, Macedonia. The police here told us to come to the park and not to hang around the streets. And they told us to leave town quickly,” Mohsen said.
Migrants – most from Afghanistan and Pakistan — also gather at Subotica’s abandoned brick factory, where the sooty floor is covered with ash from dead fires, wrappers from cheap biscuits and mobile-phone sim cards, and bright green mounds of small, unripe wild plums.
“Some [migrants] have paid people-smugglers thousands of dollars to get them to the EU. They have a number to call at each stage of their journey,” said Protestant pastor Tibor Varga, who brings food, water and medicine to people at the derelict building.
“But most who end up here at the brick factory are poor and have no contacts. They wait around until a group forms, or someone comes up with a plan, and then they try to get across.”
Most try to cross overnight, and dawn in southern Hungary finds groups of tired people traipsing along country lanes and through lush fields towards the nearest village.
Some are picked up by police and taken to a holding center to lodge an asylum application, but most try to avoid a process that could lead to them being sent back to Hungary if detained in another EU state.
“We feel sorry for them, of course. They’re tired and hungry and ask for food and water,” said Monika Cseszarne, one of the border village of Asotthalom’s 4,000 residents. “But more and more are coming. Now the numbers are just brutal.”
The mayor of Asotthalom, Laszlo Toroczkai, is credited with issuing the first official call for a border fence last autumn.
“Some days thousands come across, and only about half are caught and registered,” said Toroczkai, who has close ties to Hungary’s ultra-nationalist Jobbik party.
The rising popularity of Jobbik is seen as a factor behind Orban’s anti-migration campaign, which has seen billboards across the country emblazoned with slogans — in Hungarian — such as: “If you come to Hungary, you can’t take Hungarians’ jobs.”
Toroczkai wants the EU to overhaul its approach to migration, and fund refugee camps close to warzones to protect Europe from a flood of displaced people.
“For Syrians, for example, the EU and U.S. should fund camps in Turkey… It’s just impossible for Europe to take in billions from Africa and Asia,” he said.
“Most of those who come here have destroyed their documents, so we’ve no idea who they are or where they’re from. And even if they really come from a warzone, what did they do there? Is this person a real refugee or a jihadi?”
Refugee groups fear a winter crisis if migrants are trapped on the Hungary-Serbia border, or if states further south respond by closing their frontiers, or travelers seek new, longer and potentially riskier routes through other unprepared and unwelcoming Balkan countries.
The Balkan route now brings an estimated 1,000 migrants to the EU each day, and shows no sign of losing its attraction to people fleeing warzones and failed states.
In the park in Subotica, surrounded by cafes where Serbs sipped cappuccino and cool lemonade, Mohsen’s group suddenly packed up, having apparently received a call or other signal that this was a good time to make for the “jungle” and the EU beyond.
“We want to be somewhere safe, to work and live in peace,” Mohsen said, grabbing a bag of his companions’ trash and stuffing it into a bin.
“We’ll try anything,” he called over his shoulder as he strode away. “We can’t go back.”