HORGOS, Serbia/Hungary border – The now world famous razor wire border fence that Hungary is building on its southern frontier is almost complete. The rusty old train tracks leading from the quiet Serbian border village of Horgos into Roszke in Hungary is one of the few major avenues still available to migrants and refugees wishing to head north into the EU. In the last week, thousands crossed on these mudcaked tracks.
Thousands more are on their way, looking forward to a hot meal in a camp just beyond in Roszke, before moving on to Germany. The thousand mile migrant trail leads from Afghanistan, and places in between. The mostly Syrian and Afghan refugees walking along these tracks seem to sense that their objective is in their grasp: Hungary would be a ticket to Germany and the north.
At a long out of service train station in Banski Vinogradi, 10 kilometers from the border, a half-dozen men from Afghanistan roasted their wet socks over an open fire kindled from plastic bottles. Mehdi S. from Afghanistan tells that as Shia Hazzara minority, he escaped war and poverty and traveled with friends to Pakistan, and then via Baluchistan to Iran and Turkey. For two months they journeyed over misty mountains and through forests.
From Turkey they were smuggled into Bulgaria and then made their way to Serbia.
Unlike many of the Syrian refugees who could afford taxis or buses, these single men walked a great deal and barely had backpacks. They toss aside some tomato spread one had managed to buy, “it’s not halal and it’s disgusting, you want it?” The number of people trudging down the train tracks on the damp Friday morning came in spurts.
Some minutes saw more than 22 people cross, at other times there would be fewer. Nevertheless it seems that easily 1,000 crossed that day and as night fell more were coming.
A Roma woman sold water and cigarettes to the refugees, the latter of which seemed a more popular choice. About 60-70 percent of the migrants appeared to be men, while the rest was women, children and even babies.
Contrary to the view that this migration is uncontrolled chaos, the reality is that there is a well-oiled machine moving the migrants north from Greece. Most of the refugees are in good spirits, expecting that things will work out in the EU. From their perspective they have seen much worse.
Men with crutches hobbled beside older women who seemed like they were putting their last ounces of energy into this effort. They don’t seem short on food, water or basic necessities, though there is also almost no presence of charities, NGOs or the UN to provide them much on the Serbian side. An Islamic charity, staffed by men from the UK, set up shop at the Hungarian border and volunteers walked Serbia bringing the tired people clothes.
But language skills and good intentions don’t always work.
A bearded British volunteer shouts at the migrants, “you’ve taken enough for a whole family, just take for one!” and a scuffle almost breaks out.
In the Serbian towns one wouldn’t know that there is an immigration crises. The police patrol the roads, and garbage crews are out at 10 a.m. Locals receive their mail, and signs advertise local attractions, such as a “wine route.” This is, after all, a central wine district in Serbia. Along the train tracks is another matter. Here the refuse, diapers, shoes, and more have been thrown to the side. Sleeping bags, tents, and women’s jackets – either too wet or too heavy to carry – lay by the road. The refugees seem to know not to stray too far from the well-worn path, and not to create problems with local authorities. Just to get to Hungary.
The irony of the ease of this informal and undocumented migration, is that a kilometer away on the major Serbian- Hungarian Roszke border crossing, cars wait for 20-30 minutes. If one is willing to go by foot, there is no waiting.
But Hungary seems keen on stopping that. There is a huge police presence now gathering at the border, with buses, riot police and green armystyle tents. The Hungarian police are not in a mood to discuss their activities, unlike their Serbian and Macedonian counterparts who all seemed clear on their goal: move these people north as seamlessly as possible, they pose us no problems.
The refugees heading north expressed hope that they will make it through but also expressed concern over the Hungarian police presence.
Local Serbs didn’t seem overly bothered by the migrants, so long as they kept to the train tracks and off the main roads.
People were helpful, pointing the way to Hungary, and smiling. Media representatives from Japan, Russia and Ireland gathered at a small migrant camp festooned with colorful cheap tents. This is the last stop before Hungary. The people passing sense the opportunity and quicken their pace.
“How far, five minutes, 1 kilometer? No police?” They ask.
For the Afghans this is the easy party. “What’s 5 kilometers, we came 2,000,” says Mehdi.
On the Hungarian side of the border, refugees find themselves first at a temporary makeshift camp where police encourage them to board buses for processing.
Police wearing face-masks keep the refugees in order.
Rumors that conditions in a nearby Hungarian migrant camp are crowded and unacceptable were confirmed Saturday, with release of an amateur video showing police throwing food at migrants “being treated like animals.”
Any attempt to get near the camp is forbidden.
Here dozens of NGOs set up camp alongside refugees.
An aid group from Malta has medical supplies; others are distributing water, socks and diapers. The Islamic charity has a truck full of a big mish-mash of supplies. The one thing the migrants need, that isn’t provided, is a warm shower. “This is my first trip, but my friends have done several to this spot,” says Adeel, one of the British volunteers.
“They say there is great fear Hungary will close the border soon. I don’t see why Germany has to take them all though, it doesn’t make sense,” says Adeel. However, he admits that none of the refugees want to stay in Serbia or Hungary. “We tried to get a truck into Serbia to give out aid. We waited five hours at the border and gave up.”
It’s obvious Hungary is taking this situation seriously and is trying to funnel the undocumented migrants onward. In contrast to the rest of southern Europe, this camp provided aid organizations an opportunity to serve the arrivals.
In the town of Szeged, the hostels are full with aid workers and volunteers. But locals who want to help the refugees are being dissuaded.
A Polish hitchhiker told me that he saw a Hungarian man stopped by police and given a fine for hosting a Syrian family.
The Hungarian authorities seem keen that the situation, of unfettered access across national borders, will not continue. For the migrants arriving every minute, hopes and happiness at crossing to Hungary are met with stern police wearing masks and with crowded conditions in a regulated camp.