Fences and Tear Gas at Europe’s Gates

Among the refugees trying to make their way through Serbia and Hungary and toward a better life.

Migrants run over a field as their crowd broke out of at collection point near Roszke village at the Hungarian-Serbian border on September 9, 2015. Some 400-500 migrants on Wednesday broke through police lines in Hungary near the main crossing point from Serbia.  AFP PHOTO / CSABA SEGESVARI        (Photo credit should read CSABA SEGESVARI/AFP/Getty Images)
Migrants run over a field as their crowd broke out of at collection point near Roszke village at the Hungarian-Serbian border on September 9, 2015. Some 400-500 migrants on Wednesday broke through police lines in Hungary near the main crossing point from Serbia. AFP PHOTO / CSABA SEGESVARI (Photo credit should read CSABA SEGESVARI/AFP/Getty Images)

ROSZKE, Hungary — In the early hours of Friday, Sept. 4, in the heavily guarded registration camp in the Hungarian border town of Roszke, a desperate Syrian man from Damascus shouted through two layers of fencing. “Very bad here! Very bad, very bad!”

Dressed in beige shorts, sandals, and a sun-faded red polo shirt, he stood by the inner layer of fencing, about 40 feet away from journalists, who aren’t allowed inside the camp, in front of the entrance to one of the camp’s 30 to 40 large green military tents. Two women and several children sat on beds behind him. The Syrian man had spent two days in the camp, where days are hot and nights are cold. “No shoes, no water, no food, children sick,” he shouted.

On Sept. 2, the Hungarian police had caught the man at the Serbian-Hungarian border and had placed him in the Roszke camp, where roughly 2,600 people, mostly from Syria but also from Afghanistan and Iraq, await fingerprinting and registration before they can claim asylum in the European Union. The EU rules, the so-called Dublin Regulations, mean that if registered refugees are stopped later elsewhere in the EU, they will be returned to Hungary, their official point of entry.

The Roszke reception center has quickly become one of the flash points in Europe’s migrant crisis. More than 2,000 people are arriving at the Serbian-Hungarian border every day, according to news reports, on their monthlong journeys to Germany, Sweden, and other wealthier Northern European countries.

On that Friday, the refugees in Roszke — many of whom had been waiting for more than two days in the crowded camp, where nighttime temperatures had fallen into the 40s — decided they had had enough. They were fed up, eager to move on with their journeys. Shortly before noon, several hundred angry men, women, and children broke through the camp’s barriers. They scuffled with Hungarian riot police, who fired tear gas from small hand-held canisters and used their clubs and shields to repel them — the second time in 10 days that authorities had resorted to forceful measures to push the angry crowd back behind the fences.

Not all the migrants were destined for escape. Some families with children knelt down after breaking through the barrier rather than forging ahead, giving up on fleeing the camp in the unfolding chaos. Of the 300 to 400 refugees who managed to escape, some crossed the nearby M5 highway, one of Hungary’s main north-south traffic routes, and fled in small groups into the surrounding fields around the borderland. Hundreds of others stayed on the highway and set off for Budapest, forcing authorities to shut down the highway and the nearby border post.

On one side of the highway, police caught a group of 30 escaped refugees just minutes after they’d broken through the fence. A Syrian woman cried out, covered her face with her hands, fell to the ground, and rocked back and forth in despair. She gestured at the officers and pointed into the fields in the distance, where her husband and 2-year-old son, Ahmed, were on the run from the police. Their exact whereabouts, she couldn’t say. Ahmed’s blue winter jacket lay next to her on the ground. “My baby, my baby,” she cried. She had been separated from her husband and son as the refugees made a break for it.

Michael Klaver, a Dutch guest officer with Frontex, the EU’s border agency, sat next to her. “They are searching for your baby now, everywhere,” he assured her. “No, no, you shouldn’t have found me,” the woman replied through her cries. Authorities then lined up the 30 refugees they had caught, loaded them into police trucks, and drove them back across the highway to the camp.

The search for the remaining escapees continued through the afternoon, with caravans of buses with police escorts circling the roads, while additional police cars traversed the terrain on the gravel roads that crisscross the fields and farmhouses. At the end of the day, authorities had apprehended and returned all of them to the Roszke camp. Two-year-old Ahmed and his father were likely among them.

Back in the camp after the escape, more than 400 riot police had set up a human perimeter to prevent another mass escape. As tensions ran higher and higher, the crowd chanted “U.N.,” the two letters they considered synonymous with human rights and refugee assistance. Soon after the chant died down, the refugees began pulling the metal fence and tearing down tents, threatening to break free once again. The riot police released tear gas and moved closer to the fence, their clubs and shields raised, forcing the camp residents back.

As part of Europe’s Schengen passport-free travel zone, Hungary guards the southeastern outer border of the 28-member EU. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has been the driving force behind the construction of a 109-mile, 13-foot-tall fence along the border with Serbia, raising concerns among European leaders and populations with still-stark memories of the Berlin Wall.

“The state will defend its external borders” and protect Europe from “every illegal entry,” Orban said on June 19. Since then, he has maintained an uncompromising stance on the fence plan and a far-from-welcoming approach to the daily influx of refugees. He recently said that the mass migration posed a threat to “Christian values” and could make Europeans “a minority in our own continent.” And after a visit to the fence on Monday, Orban, dissatisfied with the progress on its construction, forced his defense minister, who was in charge of the construction, to resign. The fence had been set to be completed on Aug. 31.

Most, if not all, of the thousands of migrants who meet the police have no intention of staying in Hungary, instead seeing the country as a necessary step on the path to a more sympathetic European destination where they hope to find sanctuary. European leaders are now considering a quota system to divide the refugees among them. But at present, if the refugees run into the Hungarian authorities at the border, getting their passports stamped and their fingerprints taken, they — according to current EU rules — will be sent back to Hungary.

This is the dilemma facing 30 to 40 Syrian men from Damascus, Homs, and Aleppo who gathered on the border crossing a few miles from the reception camp in Roszke. They stood on the railroad tracks that cut a gap in the razor-wire border barrier up ahead, one foot in Serbia and the other in Hungary. They stood by small poles bearing black-and-white signs stating “PC,” Cyrillic for the Republic of Serbia, and “M” for Hungary. It was time to make a decision: to stay in Serbia or to go forward and risk getting caught by the police and sent to the Hungarian registration camp?

“I don’t want to go to Hungary. They will stamp my passport,” said one man from Aleppo who refused to give his name.

As small groups of three to five people passed by and walked straight into the arms of the police a mile up the tracks, some of the Syrian men in the group studied a map on a smartphone. “If you can get me past them,” a man from Damascus said to me, pointing to the police car parked along the razor-wire barrier, “I will give you my iPhone.” (I declined the offer.)

“We go back to Serbia. No stamp,” a third Syrian man from the group said as he started walking south toward Serbia. He will most likely come back and use the shadow of night to cross without being caught.

In a surprise move late on Sept. 4, the Hungarian government — faced with unrest and escapes in the camps and overwhelmed by the number of arriving refugees — caved in and gave up on trying to stop the flow of people entering the country, instead deciding to help them travel by bus to Austria. On the morning of Saturday, Sept. 5, one day after the escape from the camp in Roszke, 4,000 migrants arrived in Austria after crossing the border with Hungary. Janos Lazar, chief of staff to Orban, said that Hungary would work to finish its border fence in order to stop the influx of migrants streaming in from Serbia.

Back in the Roszke camp, conditions have calmed since the camp escape and ensuing scuffles. The refugees are moving along in groups of 20 to 30 and onto buses that will transport some of them to Austria and others to Hungarian camps near Austria’s border with Hungary.

At the end of the day, I met a 32-year-old refugee from Baghdad by the border crossing on the railroad tracks. He was an officer in the Iraqi Army who wants to go to Sweden to be reunited with his family. “I don’t want to be here now. Never the stamp,” he said about being registered in Hungary. “You think I love coming here? It’s for my family, my wife and my baby.”

“Inshallah, I will try. Today, tonight, tomorrow, I will go. I will come back again.”

Photo credit: Csaba Segesvari/AFP

Jorgen Samso is a freelance journalist based in Belgrade, Serbia.

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