Lately, the situation along the Hungarian-Serbian border has received quite a bit of negative news coverage. This has prompted me to skip ahead in my chronicles of my journey through Europe to the last and maybe most emotional stop. Since my travel there, the situation has become increasingly polarized, with the refugees suffering as the governments of Hungary and Europe stand-off in a political fight. I hope to write a nuanced portrayal that focuses in on some of the personalities I encountered at the border.
Recently, Hungary updated its border fence with electric shock capacity, heat sensors, cameras and loudspeakers to warn-off intruders. All this in addition to the previous fence constructed in fall of 2015, and the massive security operation involving 10,000 police and soldier patrol. Since the erection of the original fence, around 8,000 migrants have been stranded in Serbia. Hungary is also constructing more transit camps, and has enacted legislation, which approves the detention of all migrants in camps.
The upgrades come on the heels of international condemnation regarding Hungary’s treatment of migrants and refugees. Oxfam released a report this week, in which they documented widespread abuse of the migrants by Hungarian police. This includes episodes of police forcing migrants in detention to strip naked, and sit in the snow, while officials douse them in cold water. Doctors without Borders (MSF) also documented the injuries they have been treating, which point to systematic, brutal abuses. Anecdotes include refugees forced to lie on the ground, while border guards stomp on them. Such imagery along the border of the European Union gives pause; it is deeply at odds with European values. MSF referred to this abuse as a “a ritual of brutality at the European Union's own border, designed to stop people from trying to cross again.” Hungarian advocacy groups are calling for investigations into the nature of the abuses.
When I visited the border, I learned that the Hungarian government rotates the Hungarian border police and military in short regular intervals: they are recruited from other regions in Hungary, far from their community and families. Whether by design or not, this law enforcement strategy ensures that border patrol is a short-term job and that the exposure of individual officials to the refugees is limited. Even though refugees reside in camps sometimes up to 15 months, they remain just passing strangers to the officials on rotation. I could not personally speak to the border patrol, or take pictures; my presence was against the law.
Let me back-track to July 2016. I have just finished an 800-mile journey from Berlin to Budapest, which took an extra week than planned. At this point, I knew I could not bike to the border within my time frame. I nearly skipped the last stop, but it was all the kind people I met in Budapest, who urged me on. We don’t know, who to believe- the international media, or the local media, some said.
Hungarians don’t have easy access to the border, and increasingly difficult access to independent news. Hungarian government has made the border a restricted military zone: no one is allowed near without permission. Yet, anti-migrant vigilante groups activities are tolerated. In the meantime, Victor Orbán’s government has launched a persistent propaganda campaign against the refugees. Through steady government interference, Orbán has limited press freedom significantly. Simultaneously, starting in early 2015, he utilized the refugee question to deflect criticism of corruption, and to whip up nationalist sentiments. Spending tax-payer money, his government sent out letters of disinformation about refugees to 8 million Hungarians; rolled out a misleading poster campaign, and organized a referendum on the refugee resettlement question. In short, the government has opportunistically utilized the refugee crisis to fuel its own popularity. This has elicited a polarized response, with liberal human rights activists engaging in resistance and solidarity work, nationalists enthusiastically supporting Orbán and non-political Hungarians somewhere in between: uncomfortable and saddened with some of the international news, but also unsure how many of the Hungarian media claims are true. Who to believe? To help me answer this question, a Hungarian couple drove me the last leg of the journey to Szeged near the Hungarian-Serbian border. Their commitment is a stellar example of Hungarian hospitality. The more troubling the political situation along my journey, the more support and hospitality I received from people as well.
In Szeged, I met with Migszol, a volunteer-run migrant solidarity group. Migszol formed in the early days of mass border crossings in 2015 in response to the humanitarian emergency: the massive number of migrants without food, water, clothing and direction. They organized volunteers, received and sorted donations, and as more and more international humanitarians arrived, acted as on-the-ground coordinators. Over a Hungarian dish of lecho, they gave me an overview of how their organization came to evolve, and provided an overview of the political developments on the border. Migszol takes care to build relationships with the local police. Through those relationships, they gain access to the border as one of the few nonprofits. Without their coordination, the police and military would have blocked my access to the refugees.
Migszol drove me to the border-crossing near the village of Röszke. With the border fence erected, the Hungarian government has two official transit centers at the Serbian border. The other one is the Kelebia/ Tompa Transit point. The border itself was hot and dusty, and well patrolled: in the 90 minutes that we were there, at least one patrol came through, and stationary patrol kept an eye on me. Anytime I spoke too long to a refugee, they would saunter over. Directly at the border, there are around a dozen containers, which are reserved for single men. These, walled off with high fences, are under constant surveillance. Men sit in small shipping containers in incessant waiting. Since I visited, Hungary installed another 324 shipping containers between the two transit zones. They each sleep 6 men in bunk beds. I could not get access inside. Hungary built a detention camp nearby for families.
The fenced off detainment area for refugee men. They live in these shipping containers, in this this narrow strip for up to 9 months just waiting to for an asylum decision
Every day, Hungary admits around a dozen of refugees into the caged transit area. These can submit their asylum claims. The asylum procedure takes about 4 to 9 months. Most refugees do not want to apply for asylum in Hungary; their prime destination countries are Germany, as well as France and the United Kingdom. Together with Greece and Italy, those countries account for 80% of refugee applications in the EU. Hungary just passed legislation undercutting incentives for stay even more: Hungary does not permit refugees to work, does not offer financial support to those detained, restricts freedom of movement, and these actions together with the rising xenophobia, ensure that refugees want to travel on. That is why Merkel’s announcement in 2015 that her government would discontinue automatic deportation to Hungary, disregarding the EU Dublin rules, was so important: It decreased refugee anxiety over undergoing forced asylum applications in a transit country.
Beyond the border fence, there is a narrow strip, which is still Hungarian territory. This way, when the government rejects an asylum application and deports the individual to the other side of the fence, they are not deporting them directly into Serbian territory. Hungary thus avoids having to report the deportation as such to the European Union.
Across the border, people wild-camp in the desperate hope of getting into Hungary. In July 2016, when I arrived at the camp, BBC reported that about 850 people were wild camping in this unofficial camp. The Guardian reports that around 7000 refugees are stuck in Serbia, waiting to gain access now. From the fence, I could observe encampments for around 200 people. There were 12 portable toilets for their use. More refugees were in Serbian migration camps nearby. These are unofficial camps. Humanitarians visit and provide medical attention, but cannot have a steady presence. Serbia prefers for refugees to stay in official camps further from the border, whereas refugees hope that their immediate presence increases their chance of being among the 12 to 15 chosen individuals to enter the transit detention area, and maybe to be allowed to leave and travel on to Germany.
Most migrants waiting at Röszke are from West Asia, and specifically Afghanistan, but also Pakistan and Iran: repeated displacement is common. As more Afghans flee to neighbor countries, the ability of local communities and economies to absorb them decreases. A mix of local hostility and lack of livelihood forces refugees to move again, in hopes of a safer place. I learned that the refugee movements self-organize along linguistic lines: Afghans travel via Horgos, and Syrians travel via Kelebia. I spoke to some West Africans as well, from Mali, who were excited to speak with someone in French. The refugees self-organized a steering committee in the camp. With 850 people waiting at the time to be one of the 15 admitted refugees, the community self-organized based on urgency: families with young children, the sick, the elderly, and those, who waited the longest get priority. Some had waited for over a year already.
Speaking to refugees across the fence was moving: the family I spoke to was from Mazar-E-Sharif, in Afghanistan. I learned that kids create toys out of the discarded things, and find a way to occupy themselves in the dusty sand. Mothers ask for shawls and medicine. Those from the leadership council update Migszol on who made it into the caged transit area, and what other humanitarian organization visited. Refugees eschew talking about the journey, and emphatically avoid answering questions about their destination: if someone could prove that their destination is not Hungary, it could be grounds to reject their asylum claim. The official logic here is that a true refugee should stop at the first safe country, here Hungary, even if the country does not want them.
I spoke to the men lingering in the caged area. Most did not want to be photographed: any documentation of their existence in Hungary could undermine their asylum claim in another country for the same reason. One men particularly stuck out: he spoke English fluently with a British accent. I asked, how come, and whether he worked for the British military in Afghanistan. Maybe, maybe not, I cannot speak to you about that, he answered with a smirk and a hint of irony that left me feeling that likely, he had. It is not uncommon for Afghans, who worked as freelancers for NATO as translators or guides to then be targeted for retribution attacks. Not recognized as official employees, coalition governments do not guarantee their safety, and do not provide preferential access to visas. Together with other refugees, they are left to fend for themselves on the same dangerous journey from Afghanistan to Europe on foot. Before the Hungarian military shooed me away, he added, just because I’m here behind the fence doesn’t mean I am so different from you. His words stayed with me.
I left the border impressed by the resilience of the families and young men, who fled violence in Afghanistan, covered thousands of kilometers and waited for months in a dusty hot camp for the remote chance of access to a country, where their fate is increasingly political fodder for a nationalist government. I do not know, whether the people, to whom I spoke, made it to Europe, or got rejected.
Hungary has only doubled down on its detention practices, and it denies the abuses, despite the documented evidence. International institutions have also spoken out against current detention practices. The European Court for Human Rights ruled in favor of two migrants, deciding that the Hungarian detention in the transit zone was unlawful. The United High Commissioner for Refugees reminded the government that the detainment of children contradicts both international and EU law. Indefinite detention without recourse often aggravates the mental suffering of people, who suffered trauma, and is particularly harmful for children. But Orbán’s government in a stand-off against the EU, the individual stories of those caught on the border are likely to be lost. I have no doubt that local organizations, such as Migszol, the Helsinki Committee and others, will continue to advocate for more humane solutions and raise awareness. I am deeply inspired and grateful for their work.