[ 03. May 2016 ]

Report from the Hungarian-Serbian border

Fence at the border between Hungary and Serbia.

The Hungarian online media has been steadily reporting in the past weeks on the miserable situation developing in the transit zones at Röszke and Kelebia; alleviating the humanitarian challenges is particularly difficult given the uncooperative attitude of the local authorities.


However, there is another aspect of the refugee crisis that gets little to no attention. We know that the Hungarian Office of Immigration and Nationality adjudicates approximately 20 cases a day, making it possible for about 40 asylum seekers / day to enter the country "legally" at the Serbian-Hungarian border. We also know that it is practically impossible for unaccompanied men to enter the transit zone and submit their asylum claim, not even if they are fleeing from Syrian war zones.

According to official police statistics authorities captured 3200 illegal border crossers in April while only 800 were allowed to enter the country legally in the same month. We wanted to find out how the 3200 so called "illegal migrants" entered the country, who handles their cases, what sort of support system is available to them.

I have therefore spent the past several days in Serbia, where I scouted the Szabadka-Röszke-Kelebia triangle with two local volunteers, in order to get more accurate information on what is happening along the border.

I have witnessed a great deal in the past months, but for the first time I was almost reduced to tears as we have visited abandoned buildings, forests, swamps to search for the hideouts of refugees.

Why are they in hiding? The current European asylum policies shut most doors in the face of those who are seeking refuge from war, or are otherwise en-route towards the perceived "Canaan" of the West for a better life. Turkey has been declared a safe third country, a country with only a restricted application of the Geneva Conventions, and on whose territory civilians die regularly at the hand of the Turkish military in the course of its military operations against Kurds. (i.e.: shelling of towns)

Nowadays, most asylum seekers who make it to the Hungarian border arrive via the Turkey-Bulgaria-Serbia route. They are exploited by smugglers, many having walked days cross rough terrain.

In the shadow of illegality they are often afraid of registering in official refugee holding centers. Most travel through Belgrade in the direction of Szabadka, but since they are not claiming asylum in Serbia, they are considered illegals. This gives the Serbian police an incentive to constantly harass and fine them for all sorts of reasons – mostly pocketing their money. Even more dangerous is the Albanian mafia hunting them down and taking their money, often using violence, knowing that no asylum seeker will report abuses to authorities. Therefore many of them end up in front of the Hungarian razor wire fence exhausted and penniless.

To illustrate the reception they receive upon arrival let me share my own case of approaching the Hungarian border fence from the Serbian side. It was raining and I probably looked soaked and in disarray, but my "" jacket was clearly visible. Despite this, they must have took me for an asylum seeker, because I saw 5-6 police officers and soldiers gather at the spot where I approached. I heard one of them say "lets spray him with a bit of gas" and took out the teargas canister. I figured it was best to quickly identify myself and let them know that I did not intend to cross the fence.

The surroundings clearly show however that the border fence is useless in lieu of police presence. The fence shows numerous signs of damage-repair. The Serbian side is full of hiding spots along the shrubs and reed-beds where refugees await an opportune moment to cross. There are fresh tracks in the grass about every 50 meters, blankets, rain coats, water bottles, sleeping bags discarded, signaling that people have been hiding here recently. All this is a mere 10-20 meters away from the fence and the soldiers and police guarding it.

Ever since the start of spring the vegetation grew denser, making it harder for police to spot people crouching nearby in the bushes. In fact authorities from the Hungarian side of the fence often attempted to ask me if I can see anyone ...

A few kilometers away, in hidden forest areas we find the refugees’ hideouts, where they wait hungry and cold, without any support, for a moment when they might approach the fence without detection. There are no aid agencies here, no UNHCR ... etc. I brought the largest backpack I could find and stocked it with granola bars and water in order to help them out a bit.

Providing aid to these people is perhaps the greatest challenge for us today. They are in hard to reach areas, they are desperate and distrustful. Aid is further hindered by the fact that volunteers must approach these areas carefully almost invisibly in order to avoid calling the attention of the police or the mafia and possibly risking getting detected by them. I often felt like I was in some Hollywood movie, crouching in the tall grass with binoculars on the lookout for any suspicious movement.

The Serbian Red Cross, MSF and the local Caritas have all logged requests with the Serbian authorities a few weeks ago in order to get authorization to provide aid to asylum seekers stuck on the Serbian side. If they get authorization it may alleviate the situation of those waiting. Meanwhile it is possible to provide limited aid from the Hungarian side through collaboration with UNHCR, we were able to send some tents and sleeping bags to the transit zone at Röszke recently.

But there are scores of invisible refugees, in the forests near the transit zones. We would like to attempt to provide them aid as well.

Article published first by Migration Aid in ::