Thursday

22nd Feb 2018

Migrant surge creates tension on Hungary-Serbia border

  • Tired but happy to have made it (Photo: Eszter Zalan)

Two-year old Nazenin Zahara says an unfaltering thank you with a smile when his jaded father asks for directions.

Her extended family of 14 rest on the pavement of the road between the Serbian border and the first Hungarian village, Asotthalom.

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  • Police and local authorities are ill-equipped to deal with the numbers (Photo: Eszter Zalan)

They are exhausted, but in a surprisingly cheerful mood. They’ve made it.

Said, a 23-year old carpenter, the English-speaker of the group, says they are from Herat, Afghanistan, and have been on the road for two months.

He cites threats by the Taliban and extortion by the Islamic State as the main reason for their flight. “They are killing us”, he says. In the meantime, the others in the group get canned food out of their backpacks.

Said said they came through Iran, Turkey, Greece, and Macedonia, sleeping in parks and on the street. In Serbia, police took their money. “There was some fighting too”, he mutters.

In Greece they were detained for 10 days, he doesn't know why. They want to go to Belgium, where Said has distant relatives.

Their main concern now is Said’s sister, who is six-months pregnant. She lies down on the pavement on a blanket, dehydrated and tired.

Said asks a local, who called the police to pick the migrants up, to take her sister to the village by car. But she refuses fearing it will amount to trafficking, which is punishable by a three to five-year prison sentence.

Shortly after the police show up and tells the group to wait for a bus that will pick them up and take them to nearby Roszke, where their asylum process will start.

EU entry point

This corner of southern Hungary is becoming the biggest entry point to the European Union for migrants, rivalling the deadly Mediterranean route.

The number of asylum seekers coming to Hungary, a country of 10 million, has risen from a few thousand in 2012 to 43,000 in 2014.

Over 70,000 people have claimed asylum so far this year. In 2014, 508 asylum seekers received some kind of protection.

On the day of Said’s arrival, 752 “illegal immigrants” were picked up by police, according to official data. Locals think it’s only a fraction of the actual number of people making their way into Hungary here.

More than 80 percent of them are fleeing Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq, and almost all cross into Hungary from Serbia. The vast majority of them do not want to settle in Hungary, and quickly move onto Western Europe, to countries such as Germany, Austria, or Sweden before their asylum request is processed.

The thick acacia and pine forest covering the border area between Hungary and Serbia is littered with torn-up Greek asylum documents.

Migrants get rid of them out of fear they might be sent back - as EU rules stipulate - to their first registration point in the bloc.

Hairulla Faizi sits in the shade, exhausted, and covered in cuts and bruises. He says they are from walking in the forest for the last 10 hours.

He sits with a group of 15 other Afghans in the middle of Asotthalom, among them women and an 11-year old boy, who smiles shyly. A few policemen stand guard, handing out water.

Hairullah, 33, said he needed to flee Baghlan province because he worked with the Hungarian Nato forces there as IT personnel. “Now the Taliban is after me”, he said.

He wants to join his wife, who is already in Germany.

He is carrying one backpack with his wife’s turquoise jacket in it to keep him warm. Just like the other group of Afghans, Hairulla also says he did not pay traffickers.

Not far from the village centre, another group of Afghans is caught by police and put on buses.

In a comic yet sadly telling scene, a police officer asks one man, in Hungarian, to put his ragged backpack in trunk of the bus. The migrant, from Afghanistan, himself begins to climb into the trunk. The officers laugh and escort him onto the bus.

“Hungary as Hungary"

Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orban, has launched a campaign against migrants, pledging to keep “Hungary as Hungary”.

His government launched a billboard campaign against immigrants, while the army on Monday started to build a four-metre high fence along Hungary’s border with Serbia to keep migrants out.

Some of those living on farms close to the border are fearful of the hundreds of foreigners marching through their fields, on occasion taking some of their food crops.

“Europe is full. We don't want situations like in Paris or Sweden, we don't want to live like that”, said one farmer.

“We might have failed on empathy, but neither our government, nor the EU, came up with any kind of solution to this”, added a local, who wanted to remain anonymous because the issue is so toxic.

Police and local authorities are clearly not equipped to handle the large numbers.

Locals say there is a vibrant human trafficking network reaching all the way to Turkey.

“Even though this is a Schengen border, nobody protects it, and it is horrible. But the wall is an unnecessary waste of money,” said another resident standing on the border with Serbia, just as four migrants appeared from the bushes.

Others across Hungary are moved by the migrants’ plight and, despite the government’s rhetoric, are determined to help.

Volunteers help migrants with directions to asylum camps, and they distribute food and toiletries.

At the train station in the southern town of Szeged, where most migrants pass through, volunteers hand out water and advice.

“I am here out of mercy. If I would be fleeing, I would like to get the same kind of help,” said one middle-aged Hungarian woman.

New asylum law may infringe EU law

To stem the flow of migrants, the government passed stricter asylum rules earlier this month.

Human rights groups say the law is worse than the planned fence, and the UN warned the measures could have fatal consequences.

Gabor Gyulai, refugee programme co-ordinator at the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, a leading human rights NGO, said the new asylum law also breaches EU law.

“It practically means a ‘legal fence’”, Gyulai told this website. He added: “At some points, the amended law does not even try to pretend that it complies with international obligations.”

The controversial measures include fast-track screening of asylum claims without proper due process safeguards, allowing prolonged detention of asylum-seekers (including women, children and people with special needs) and little room for legal redress.

Declaring Serbia a safe third country, contrary to the assessment of UNHCR and the guidance of the Hungarian Supreme Court, might also ring alarm bells in Brussels.

Since 99 percent of asylum-seekers cross into Hungary from Serbia, human right groups fear this move could result in sending almost everybody back to the Balkan nation without any substantive inquiry into their asylum claims.

“It [the new law] basically prevents people fleeing from war and persecution to be granted asylum in Hungary”, Gyulai added.

Critics claim Hungary’s government is not genuinely interested in a solution.

“A proper solution to this real challenge lacks political will because the government is interested in keeping the crisis on the news headlines”, Gyulai added, saying: “It uses it for internal political purposes as well as creating a tough stance against Brussels”.

Hungary U-turn on migrant trains prompts unrest

Hungary's decision to block migrants from going to Germany has prompted chaotic scenes in Budapest, with PM Orban to meet European Commission chief Juncker on Thursday for talks on the situation.

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