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24 Oct 17

Hopes and Fears on the Balkan Refugee Route


Refugees and migrants taking the long, hazardous journey to the European Union offered unique personal insights into their lives in transit as they made their way across Serbia.

Omar Marques, Krystian Maj BIRN Serbia

ALI: Syrian father-of-six heading for Hungary

After being on the road with his wife and six children for more than a year since they left eastern Syria, Ali was living in the Subotica transit camp in northern Serbia.

They had managed to cross the mountains and the sea, but they had got stuck in Serbia because of the closure of the route north.

A girl runs at the Subotica refugee camp, the final hurdle of the Serbian leg of the refugees’ journey before entering Hungarian territory. According to officials, there are 144 people in the camp, and they are supposed to stay for two or three weeks before being granted approval to go to the Horgos or Kelebija border crossings. Photo: Omar Marques, Krystian Maj/BIRN

Ali and his family had applied for asylum in Hungary and after waiting for six months, they were finally selected to cross the border.

However, this did not happen right after the decision was taken; instead they were transferred to the refugee camp in Subotica and waited for around two more weeks until they were able to cross the border.

In March 2017, the Hungarian parliament approved a new law which has been broadly criticised by human rights organisations in Europe and beyond. The law allows for the detention of people who seek asylum in Hungary.

The Hungarian government started to build two shipping container camps surrounded by a barbed wire fence which now house those who request asylum in Hungary.

One warm morning, after two long weeks of waiting, Ali was informed about the family’s day of departure. They would enter Hungarian territory the next morning.

After lunch, they picked up a taxi to the Kelebija transit point at the border, where they stayed overnight and waited to cross over into Hungary at 8am the following day.

Ali, a Syrian refugee and his family, arrive at the final step of their journey in Serbia - the Kelebija transit point between Serbia and Hungary. They are walk past the newly-built Hungarian detention centre for asylum-seekers on the other side. Photo: Omar Marques, Krystian Maj/BIRN


Ali's wife holds their youngest child and looks towards the barracks of the refugee detention camp. After getting into Hungary, they will have to apply for asylum in the country. Photo: Omar Marques, Krystian Maj/BIRN


According to Hungarian law, asylum-seekers can be detained for up to nine months in camps until a decision on their asylum application asylum is made. If their application is turned down for any reason, they will be returned to Serbia. Photo: Omar Marques, Krystian Maj/BIRN


Two years after escaping from the Syrian war, Naser, a former bank worker, and Ali’s brother travelled over 200 kilometres just to make sure his brother and his family could safely enter Hungary. At night, he calls his pregnant wife who stayed in Serbia to check everything was all right. Photo: Omar Marques, Krystian Maj/BIRN


Naser Sherida, Ali’s brother, came with them to say goodbye, hoping that in the near future, he, his pregnant wife and two children will be one of the families selected to cross over to the Hungarian side and be welcomed by his brother. Sadly, the reunion will be inside a detention camp.

The final minutes together before the two brothers are separated. Ali and his family are now allowed to enter Hungary. Photo: Omar Marques, Krystian Maj/BIRN


Ali’s family walks through a tightly-controlled tunnel from the border gate to the Hungarian detention camp. A revolving steel door and barbed wire seem more reminiscent of a jail than a sanctuary. Photo: Omar Marques, Krystian Maj/BIRN


Although they did not think about Hungary as a destination when they left, there is a chance there for a normal life here for their children, unlike in Syria.

Ali’s brother Naser hopes they will be able to meet again soon in the detention camp in Hungary.

After living for two years under the ISIS regime, even this perspective does not disillusion him.

"It's temporary," he says hopefully.

He reasons that it's still a better perspective for the future of his children: "You can't have a normal life in Syria now. The situation between factions is so tense, I'd be forced to carry a gun and participate in the fighting," he says.

MUSTAFA: Iraqi asylum-seeker helps others cross the border

At the Kelebija border crossing, Mustafa, a young Iraqi asylum-seeker, and his two partners act as an informal bridge of communication between the Serbian Migration Office and the Hungarian authorities.

Every morning, they get a list from the Hungarian authorities with the names of the families or single people that will be allowed to cross the next day.

They carefully prepare a small corner for the new arrivals inside an abandoned building without electricity or water, located 20 metres from the crossing. Food, water and blankets are provided there on a daily basis by the UN refugee agency and the Red Cross.

Food and water are the only assistance that people waiting in transit camps receive. It is not much, but no one complains because it is still enough to make a simple dinner and feed the family for the next day. Photo: Omar Marques, Krystian Maj/BIRN


Today Mustafa, who left the city of Dohuk in Iraqi Kurdistan almost two years ago, gets a lovely surprise. Some of his family, who are living in a camp in northern Serbia, come to Kelebija to enjoy an evening meal with him.

It would be hard to call the Kelebija transit area a refugee camp. It’s an abandoned shop in no-man’s land between Serbia and Hungary, with a few chairs and an old barrel as a fireplace. Photo: Omar Marques, Krystian Maj/BIRN


A huge barrel with wood burning inside, a piece of an old grill, three pans, and the outdoor kitchen is ready to operate. The men are the cooks and a spicy, tasty chicken dish with rice and fresh salad is prepared.

But even with the family environment and the food, their ‘dining room’ continues to reflect their situation.

Trucks passing all the time on the left side, a barbed wire fence on the right side, plus a menacing voice from a loudspeaker shouting in Hungarian. Between the laughs and recollections of memories, sometimes the conversation falters.

Back in Iraq, Bashar (the husband of Mustafa’s sister) was a Kurdish language university teacher, and his wife a veterinarian. Until ISIS arrived in Iraq, they had a normal life, but after that, everything they had was torn apart. Photo: Omar Marques, Krystian Maj/BIRN


Bashar's children are the reason they left Iraq. They left home because they feared for their safety. The family hoped to wait out the end of the war in Turkey, but they quickly realised that it would not end soon, and his children had no chance of getting any education there. The risky decision was made to do whatever it takes to reach Europe. Photo: Omar Marques, Krystian Maj/BIRN


Mustafa connects his mobile to the internet and starts playing a video of the Nawroz Kurdish New Year, trying to lighten the mood.

Mustafa’s family gathers on the ground next to the abandoned building to celebrate their reunion over a simple meal. Trucks rush past them, but it does not matter - they are all together and that is what is important. Photo: Omar Marques, Krystian Maj/BIRN


Trying to reach the European ‘promised land’ the legal way may prove to be more painful, depressing and take longer than Ali and Mustafa have imagined.

But there is always an alternative to reach their dream destination.

Choosing the official way of entering the EU is full of uncertainties. Refugees must remain for an indeterminate time in camps in Serbia, and even if they are lucky enough to get on the list of five people a day who are allowed to enter Hungary, there is always a chance they will be turned back. Photo: Omar Marques, Krystian Maj/BIRN


MUHAMMAD: Pakistani migrant travelling the illegal route

Muhammad, a young Pakistani migrant, is confident about the possibility of crossing over into Hungary illegally. For more than four months, he has been living in a derelict former brick factory in Subotica.

He shares his accommodation with more than 20 other Pakistani nationals, waiting for a smuggler to get in contact.

The unofficial way to enter the EU, using smugglers, may seem quicker at first glance, but when you are outside the system, you lose all your rights. There are no doctors, no legal assistance, no protection, and the only hope is to find a good smuggler. Photo: Omar Marques, Krystian Maj/BIRN


An abandoned and demolished brick factory in Subotica occupied by ‘illegals’. Photo: Omar Marques, Krystian Maj/BIRN


The walls of the factory’s huge brick kiln provide shelter from the rain and cold outside. Photo: Omar Marques, Krystian Maj/BIRN


Tents inside the kiln make it a temporary home for the migrants waiting to be smuggled into Hungary. Photo: Omar Marques, Krystian Maj/BIRN


The view from inside the brick factory. Photo: Omar Marques, Krystian Maj/BIRN


When the weather is warm, Muhammad and his fellow travellers organise cricket matches. Muhammad describes these moments as a way to remember their homeland and to forget the long and painful road ahead of them.

As living illegally means no access to the activities provided in the official camps, daily life gets tedious.

Every day, next to the local train line, humanitarian organsations like Fresh Response, Doctors of the World and the UN refugee agency, among others, come to provide some medical assistance, food supplies, portable showers and meals.

The ‘jungle’ next to the train line is one of the places where illegal migrants live. They are all single men, the conditions are very hard, and the only form of protection from thieves and police is how fast they can run. Photo: Omar Marques, Krystian Maj/BIRN


Food is distributed once a day by NGOs nearby, so that people living in the ‘jungle’ can prepare a meal themselves. Plastic from a tent destroyed by the police during their last raid covers the simple fireplace. Photo: Omar Marques, Krystian Maj/BIRN


Late in the evening, Muhammad and his brothers gather inside the abandoned building. Inside this dark room, without electricity or running water, a fire is lit and thick black smoke circulates overhead. Photo: Omar Marques, Krystian Maj/BIRN


While waiting, the migrants try to live a ‘normal’ life. They make food together, take care of each other, and divide up all the daily chores.

A huge pan, full of chicken, potatoes and some vegetables, constitutes their banquet. There are smiles amid the wood smoke, and even some jokes and laughter as they enjoy the evening feast.

When the smuggler will make contact, how the Hungarian police has beat them and the amount of money needed to cross the border – these are just some of the topics that get discussed as they dine.

Two Pakistani men take the skin off a chicken before preparing the only hot meal of the day. Photo: Omar Marques, Krystian Maj/BIRN


Once you contact a smuggler and agree the terms, you have to wait for a good day or, to be more precise, a good night. When the right spot to cut the fence is found, making sure the Serbian police don’t show up too quickly and the car on the Hungarian side is ready to pick up the migrants, the smugglers call to begin the operation. No one knows when it will happen, but the migrants have to be ready at all times. Photo: Omar Marques, Krystian Maj/BIRN

Moments after the meal, Muhammad goes for a walk along the train line with his companions.

Muhammad talks about his attempts to cross the Hungarian border. Once the fence is cut, you only have seconds before the Hungarian border police show up. You have to run as fast as you possibly can towards the forest and hope that somehow the motion sensors, drones and infra-red cameras will not spot you. If they do, prepare for the worst of welcomes from the Hungarian police. Photo: Omar Marques, Krystian Maj/BIRN


Speaking about one of his late-night crossing attempts, he tells the story of the stressful moments between crossing the border next to the checkpoint in Horgos and the long walk to the M5 highway with 23 other migrants.

Cutting the fence and avoiding the high-tech motion detectors are just a few of the challenges of crossing.

The moment they reached the M5, his first thought was that they had succeeded - but due to miscommunication between the bridge contact and the smuggler, the car was too small to take all of them.

A discussion started up, time passed and the Hungarian police showed up. The smuggler managed to escape by car, but Muhammad and the 23 others were caught and returned to Serbia.

According to Muhammad, the smugglers’ prices are negotiable (between 1,000 and 1,600 euros per person) no matter how many attempts at crossing are needed.

The money is given to a third party (a family member in their homeland) and the moment the client reaches the destination, a wire transfer is made to the smuggler’s bank account.

Ali, Mustafa and Muhammad are just three examples of around 4,000 refugees and migrants who are currently in Serbia and are still hoping to reach the ‘promised land’ of Western Europe.

Photo: Omar Marques, Krystian Maj/BIRN

The names of some people in this article have been changed.