Sunday

21st Jan 2018

The road to Europe: trains, hunger, and bitterly cold delays

  • Passengers were happy to leave Croatia (Photo: Eszter Zalan)

As the sunset gilds the cornfields along the single train track, unlikely passengers arrive at Botovo, a sleepy village at the edge of Croatia. The human cargo of 11 carriages is part of the biggest wave of refugees Europe has seen since WWII.

There are about 1,500 refugees and migrants: Syrians, Iraqis, Afghans and others from troubled hotspots in the world, who are making their way slowly through the heart of Europe via Greece.

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  • Waiting in the dark on the Hungarian border (Photo: Eszter Zalan)

They are knocking down borders hastily reinstalled in the European Union, as no one seems to know how to deal with the desperate and determined mass.

The EU's plan, to be discussed by ministers this Tuesday (22 September), to relocate 160,000 migrants in the space of two years, seems increasingly out of touch to how quickly things are moving on the ground. Twenty seven thousand people entered Croatia in just five days, according to the interior minister.

It is a surreal scene as the 1,500 passengers clap and cheer when rolling into their last stop in Croatia - Botovo, a village of 319 people, some of whom stand by, staring at the exotic faces of the migrants.

An old man with a loudspeaker speaks in Arabic to the passengers.

Between 30 and 40 unarmed Croatian policemen stand along the train track, and local Red Cross staff present bottles of water.

The refugees disembark the train in an orderly fashion, and are quickly herded onto the road leading towards Hungary, just 2 km away over the green border, a small forested patch of land across the Drava river.

Croatia has seen a massive influx since Hungary, the originally preferred route for migrants, sealed its border with Serbia last week.

Refugees and migrants hope to avoid Hungary, which earned itself a bad name after constructing a fence along the border with its Serbian neighbour, and introducing harsh rules for illegal border crossings.

Croatia, which itself was a country of refugees just 25 years ago, during the Balkan wars, first said it would uphold EU rules and register the migrants, but quickly gave up and began transporting them by buses and trains to neighbouring Hungary and Slovenia.

This has led to a heated row and an exchange of political accusations with Budapest.

The Hungarians accuse Croatia of dumping the migrants at the Hungarian border without any co-ordination, and announced the building of a fence.

Fleeing ISIS

"Thank you, thank you," say some of the refugees as they descend from the train, and start to walk on a motorway, Croatian police keeping on eye on them.

"Bye, bye," says one policeman.

The refugees are somewhat baffled at being shoved around eastern Europe. Most came through Serbia, at the Croatian border crossing of Tovarnik, which became a hotspot last week as thousands of migrants poured in.

"We waited two days for the train, there are thousands at the border," says Shirin, a 30-year-old Syrian Kurdish teacher of Arabic language, who is on the road with her two sisters, holding hands, walking determinedly alongside a cousin.

They are relieved to be off the bus, but find it strange that they have to go from one EU country to another, by way of some bushes.

"There was a lot of pushing to get on board the train. There is no order in Croatia," Shirin says.

Her mother and father managed to get onto the train towards Hungary the day before, but they have no way of finding out where they actually ended up, as their mobile phones ran out of battery.

Shirin's cousin, Qawa, a student, said the train ride from Tovarik took about five hours, with the women sitting and the men standing.

Shirin says they are fleeing ISIS, or Daesh, as it is called in Arabic. She says ISIS surrounded their town, Kamishly, and there is constant bombing.

Like so many on the road, they are headed to Germany as well, where they say they have relatives.

Along the short trek, Croatian police are replaced by Hungarian police officers as we enter Hungarian territory, showing the way towards on open field. There, a police line stands in the way, letting the thousands through into the train station in tiny Gyekenyes in small groups.

Some of the refugees settle on blankets as night falls. The air gets increasingly chilly as children, bored and cold, start to cry.

Some take the time to eat the canned food they were given in Tovarnik, their first meal of the day.

Others with small babies try to push to get through the police line, but things are moving excruciatingly slowly.

The train rolled into Botovo at around 6.30pm, but by around 9pm, there are still hundreds on the field under the starry sky, waiting to continue their journey in Hungary.

Hungarian policemen try to prevent people from wandering off, trying to chat to some of the migrants, who are desperate to find out why they have to wait in the cold with no supplies, or facilities, and where they are being taken.

"Osterreich, train," says a police officer, but no further details are given.

There is a constant murmur of chatter among the migrants. Others try to sleep while waiting.

Exhausted faces are illuminated by mobile phone screens, amid deep inhalations and exhalations of cigarette smoke.

A man with a bag of medicine asks for cigarette. He starts talking about his wife of 25 years back in Syria. But he stops himself as his eyes fill up with tears, recalling memories of what was once a good life back home.

Rising tensions

Tensions mount, as by 10pm it is bitterly cold, and no one knows what's going on. The dozen police holding back the line of refugees on the way towards the train station are shouting: "Get back! Get back!"

As we push through the police lines in twos, police men shine the flashlight into our eyes, shouting to move quickly, as they march us to the train station.

They let women and children through first, which seems to be a gesture in vain, because at the small, local station, there is more waiting on the cold ground.

Several more hours pass before the Hungarian carriages roll in to take the refugees towards Austria.

I am lucky, I can pull out my Hungarian passport to the surprise of a bewildered officer.

Penalty for EU citizen crossing EU border

The absurdity of Hungary's new laws on illegal border crossing was highlighted, when this EUobserver reporter, an EU citizen, was fined for crossing the green border between two EU countries despite having valid documents.

Yet, the thousands of migrants who travelled along the same route without documents and against whom the laws were passed, are authorised to carry on to Austria.

It is a grim evening, and as the cold and hunger take their toll, Europe seems less and less like the land of hope, peace and prosperity that most of the people who set out on this epic journey, believed it to be.

Croatia puts migrants on buses to Hungary

Croatia started ferrying refugees to Hungary by bus on Friday, saying it can't cope any more, while also suspending EU rules on registration of newcomers.

Croatia-Serbia border tensions escalate

Serbia has banned imports from Croatia after Croatia closed its border to Serbian cargo traffic, in escalating tension over the migrant influx.

Macron eyes France-UK border agreement

French president Macron wants the UK to take in more refugees as he revisits the 2003 Le Touquet agreement, which allows British border controls to take place inside French territory.

Magazine

The asylum files: deadlock and dead-ends

The EU is reforming a number of internal asylum laws, but lack of staff, politics, and the sheer complexity of the bills means deadlines - like those announced by EU council chief Tusk - are likely to come and go.

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