Slamming the door: Refugees seek new routes as Hungary seals border

The UNHCR is concerned that the move by Hungary will simply push the problem elsewhere

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Through the grey drizzle, shuffling groups of refugees trudged along the disused railway line that separates Hungary from Serbia at the small town of Röszke.

They made the grueling journey last Thursday in the wet and cold. But at least they had made it: On Monday afternoon, the Hungarian government sealed the border with Serbia.

Every day for the previous month, thousands made the crossing on their way to Western Europe. Those that did so last Thursday were among the last to make it through freely.

And even for those who passed through before the border closed, Hungary offered a less than warm arrival.

They made the hour-long walk from Serbia in the rain. Many walked in worn shoes and shorts, covering their heads with plastic bags and blankets. Most were unequipped for the inclement weather. The rain compounded with the distance to make an already gruelling journey harder.

Volunteers lined the tracks, thrusting blankets, plastic rain ponchos and bottles of water into the hands of the arrivals. But there was only one question on anyone’s lips; ‘how do we get to Budapest, how do we get to Germany?’

A cluster of tents and transit vans made up a small reception centre. The ground had been churned up in the rain and was now a muddy bog. A few small pop-up tents provided some shelter but there were few places to sit out of the mud and rain. Most stood in huddles, discussing their next move.

Hungary, despite being an EU member state, is a transit country for the majority of people making the journey. It is in sharp contrast to the likes of Germany and Sweden, which have announced automatic refugee status for Syrian arrivals, or other EU states that are now hosting many thousands. Hungary has a rejection rate for asylum that is close to 92%. For this reason, all arrivals in the country are desperate to move on for fear of being deported.

“This is a tragedy, seeing it like this,” says Tariq, a British man from Bradford who rented vans in the UK with a group of friends and drove for two days to the Hungarian border with supplies. “We thought about food, but clothes never crossed our minds,” he said, as he surveyed the wet bedraggled travellers coming through the border.

By mid-afternoon last Thursday, the government buses ferrying people away from the desolate border were leaving half empty. The Hungarian police were trying to encourage groups of refugees to board.

However, Hungary had acquired a poor reputation among many for detaining migrants and for poor treatment in government camps. “Where do the buses go?” asks Muhammad from Damascus. “I don’t trust them, they will take us to a camp and take our fingerprints then we can’t go to Germany any more. No, we will go ourselves,” he says.

As well as the high rejection rate, the overwhelming fear among many is of being taken to one of the ‘reception camps’ around Röszke. Closed to the press and observers, migrants are held for days in what many say are terrible conditions.

A video shows police throwing food bags out into a desperate crowd of people. It was filmed by Michaela Spritzendorfer, the wife of an Austrian Green party politician who was delivering aid to the camp, and Klaus Kufner, a journalist and activist.

“The detainees at Röszke [camp] are held in filthy, overcrowded conditions, hungry, and lacking medical care,” said Peter Bouckaert, Emergencies Director at Human Rights Watch (HRW) in a recent statement. HRW, like many other observer groups, has been denied access to the camps.

“The Hungarian authorities have an obligation to ensure that migrants and asylum seekers are held in humane conditions and that their rights are respected,” Bouckaert added.

Hungary says that it is simply enforcing the EU rule on refugees and migrants – the Dublin Convention. This states that refugees and migrants in the EU must register in the first country of arrival. However, Germany has effectively suspended aspects of this, by stating it will continue to take Syrian refugees even if they have been fingerprinted in Hungary – so long as the official asylum process hasn’t been started. This prompts many to question Hungary’s zeal in enforcing this regulation.

Firas, his father and young brother, managed to leave one of two camps in Röszke and are were on Thursday waiting outside the nearby Szeged train station. Firas’s other brother hasn’t yet been released.

“We just want to find him,” he says, “We are waiting but we can’t speak to him – there is no power to charge phones in the camps and so he hasn’t seen my messages. He doesn’t know we are waiting for him. Maybe he will take a bus to Austria… but until we hear from him we will wait here.” In the confusion it is easy for families to be separated.

The move by Germany to accept all Syrians, however, angers refugees from other countries. Ali, 17, from Afghanistan shakes his head. “Why do they give Syrians preference over Afghanis?” he asked. “We have war, they have war, and we just want to get to safety too.”

While Syrians make up the bulk of recent migrants and refugees in Europe, many others hail from Iraq, Afghanistan and Africa.

Chaotic scenes followed the closing of the border. The now-completed razor-wire fence funned people towards riot police and the army at a crossing point in the village of Horgoš. Hungarian forces fired tear gas and water canons at gatherings of refugees and used batons to push back those who tried to cross.

The closure of the border is a worrying development, Melissa Flemming of UNHCR told Al Arabiya News on Monday. Flemming pointed out that the UNHCR is concerned that the recent move by Hungary would simply push the problem elsewhere.

Many have now started to head southwest to avoid Hungary, by continuing their journey through Croatia. However, unprepared for this move, confusion ensued with an initial welcome being short lived. Croatia is now trying to funnel people back to Hungary.

Many are worried that there simply isn’t the deployment of aid agencies and government services to house, feed and assist a large number of people in Serbia or Croatia – especially with winter coming, and more bad weather on the way.

Ahmad, from Syria’s Daara province, who was among those that got through last Thursday, smiled as he slid through the mud on the border. “I think we will just have to swim to Germany,” he shouted.

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