First, their feet: nails cracked and falling off, soles blistered, toes doused in ointments and powders, wounds stained with yellow iodine and wrapped in soft white gauze. Their feet have carried them here, one step at a time, across 5600 kilometres: through Afghanistan, then Turkey, then Greece, then Serbia, and now to this encampment at the border of the European Union.
Most of them wear navy-blue Crocs. They’ve gathered, some 60 tents strong, five kilometres from the Hungarian village of Röszke. The air is full: with the sound of summer cicadas hissing in the tall grass, with the fragrant bloom of milkweed and the sharp smell of garbage that overflows from a bright-blue dumpster in the centre of the encampment. Clothes dry on lines hanging from ribbons of barbed wire atop the border fence.
Those camped here are waiting to cross – legally – into Hungary. Last summer the Hungarian government constructed a four-metre-high razor-wire barrier along the Serbian border. At Röszke, they’ve designated a “transit zone,” where the fence gives way to thick blue plastic and cut-out doors, at which asylum seekers enter and are processed. This is one of two transit zones along the Serbian-Hungarian border, the other being at Tompa, about 35 kilometres west.
Hungary allows 15 to 17 asylum seekers into each of the two transit zones per day. Asylum seekers can be held by authorities for up to 28 days in the zones before being granted onward passage to refugee camps in Hungary.
There’s greater demand than there are available daily spots at the transit zones, creating a bottleneck. Many asylum seekers attempt to circumvent this by entering Hungary at illegal crossings.
Farhan al-Hwaish, a Syrian migrant, drowned in the Tisza River near Röszke on June 1, while attempting to cross the border in a larger group with the help of human traffickers.
Hungarian prosecutors have opened an investigation into whether the Csongrád County Police Department was criminally responsible for al-Hwaish’s death. The investigation, first reported by Reuters, came on the heels of a press release from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) the week of the incident.
The UNHCR said al-Hwaish was allegedly pushed back into the river by police officers, thereby leading to his death. The police department has denied wrongdoing.
But to those currently waiting at the camp by the transit zone, the excessive use of force sounds familiar.
Munir Darwais, a 17-year-old Afghan asylum seeker, said his family paid EUR 2000 to human traffickers, that they would smuggle him from his home city of Herat to Austria. That plan stalled out on his first attempt to cross the Serb-Hungarian border.
“I hate to go with smugglers,” Darwais said. He said he had walked for several days through forest in northern Serbia before coming to a crossing at the Tisza River. “My friend said it would be up to here,” he said, pointing to his ankle. Then, pointing to his waist: “but really, it was here”.
Darwais said he successfully crossed the river but was stopped soon after by the Hungarian border patrol, and was physically forced to turn back.
“They caught me. At first they didn’t beat me or nothing. But then they came with the three big dogs,” he said, causing him to make a hasty retreat across the river and back to Serbia.
Several people interviewed at the Röszke camp said that trafficking across the border to Hungary is arranged in Belgrade, Serbia’s capital, from where smugglers direct migrants to holes in the fence for EUR 150-200.
One migrant, Iranian Mohammed Yahyaei, said he paid EUR 150 for the guidance of traffickers, and he and a Pakistani refugee attempted to cross into Hungary from Serbia through a dry forested area, near where the two countries meet the Croatian border.
“They smuggle me two days. No water, no food, no success,” the 28-year-old man said. He had made it “five metres” into Hungary before running into trouble.
According to Yahyaei, Hungarian border patrol “told me “f___ you” and then they spray. My friend, it burn his face.”
The UNHCR says that since May they’ve collected information on 100-plus cases in which excessive force was used upon migrants attempting to illegally cross from Serbia to Hungary.
This border demarcates the beginning of the Schengen Area, a 26-country passport-free stretch of the European Union. Last September, in response to a glut of asylum seekers arriving from Syria, Hungary lengthened its maximum sentence for illegal border crossings to three years.
Parliament also passed a law on June 13 that will allow authorities to escort refugees back to Serbia and Croatia if they catch them within eight kilometers of the border. Earlier in June, the Austrian government announced a plan to send soldiers to further help control Hungary’s southern border.
According to the Hungarian police department, 3251 migrants were arrested for crossing the border illegally from June 1-27, or about 120 arrests per day. There were 131 asylum seekers at the Röszke pre-transit zone on Sunday, according to those at the camp.
Some say that the policy and political rhetoric coming out of Parliament is responsible for the hard treatment of asylum seekers at the border.
“There is a very anti-refugee climate in this country,” said Anikó Bakanyi of the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, a human rights organisation that provides legal assistance to asylum seekers. “There has been a government-sponsored anti-refugee campaign in the government for a year now, and I think this a direct consequence of that.”
Neither Europol, the European Union’s law enforcement agency, nor Frontex, an EU agency that deals with European border management, responded to requests for comment on the importance of the border in stopping terrorism continent-wide.
Yahyaei, whose foot was bandaged from a previous foray at the border, told The Budapest Times that he’d been at the pre-transit zone camp already once before, and was stuck for weeks before returning to Belgrade in the hopes of securing the more expedited illegal passage.
But Yahyaei, who worked as an electrical engineer in his home city of Isfahan before striking out for Europe, says he’s once again stuck waiting at the pre-transit camp, this time for 28 days and counting. He believes that a major reason for his delay is that he’s travelling as a single man, and the transit zone gives preferential treatment to families.
“I’m a single man, so I’m at the end of the list. A single man isn’t human? Twenty-eight days, it’s so much.”
Yahyaei demurred when asked whether he’d consider attempting another illegal passage, Yahyaei was noncommittal. Others are less willing to skirt the law, despite the squalor of the camp.
A group of Afghan men who had all been waiting for weeks at the camp spent the afternoon resting on fleece hammocks and straw UNHCR mats, under the shade of several tall alders, playing cards, waiting for their names to be called and for passage to be granted.
Shakrullah Behbodi, 22, said he couldn’t imagine attempting to cross through illegally. “It’s too difficult,” he said. “There’s always danger. It’s just too difficult.”
Behbodi, who is from the Maidan Wardak province of eastern Afghanistan, said he’d been in the pre-transit zone camp for over two months. Still, for him there is no choice. “When you go illegally, they punch, they spray. There’s no other way to do it.”
Likewise, Behbodi said he can’t imagine making the return trip to Afghanistan, should he continue to be denied access to the European Union. “It’s so dangerous. Bombs. ISIS. Kidnap. That’s why I left.”
He said he has been a refugee for nearly 11 months. He expressed frustration at the state of the camp, pointing out the bathing area: a cluster of four trees, wrapped together with fleece blankets and torn polyurethane tent netting, meant to create privacy for the bather. Inside the shower, a muddied blue bath mat.
There’s no running water here, so refugees must bring full basins from a tap at the other end of the campsite. A collection of used disposable razors and bars of soap litter the periphery of the showering area.
“I’m not an animal, to be staying in the jungle like this,” Behbodi said. “This is not for man. I need a good life. I keep waiting.”
Adam Janos @AdamTJanos