The long walk to Europe

Nowhere else in the world are thousands of people crossing borders without documents and being actively moved through by army and police border units.

A thousand migrants crowd a bridge crossing from Greece into Macedonia. They are leaving refugee camps in the hope of a new life (photo credit: SETH J. FRANTZMAN)
A thousand migrants crowd a bridge crossing from Greece into Macedonia. They are leaving refugee camps in the hope of a new life
(photo credit: SETH J. FRANTZMAN)
There are times that make you pause and wonder if you’ve made a mistake.
Five hundred meters from the Hungarian border a Roma woman was selling cigarettes and water to Syrian refugees trying to make their way north to Germany. It was damp and rainy. The unused railroad tracks were covered with mud and with items disposed of by the thousands of people who had used this corridor to Hungary from Serbia.
But something didn’t seem right. All of a sudden I was alone, and a strange-looking man was walking back from Hungary toward Serbia. He stopped and whispered to the woman. It dawned on me that there was nothing to stop someone from robbing me or the migrants along the tracks.
The man seemed to be part of a group of men, lingering just off the tracks, Roma travelers or Gypsies. Some of his friends had been picking through the trash discarded by the refugees earlier. Something was not right about the whole scene. No one had reported about migrants being waylaid on these tracks at night, their phones or money taken, but if it had happened, who would they tell – the Hungarian border police? Safety in numbers seemed like a good choice. So I waited for a group of Afghan young men to catch up and settled in with them for the rest of the walk.
We passed an old guard tower from the Communist period. Here Yugoslavia’s soldiers once kept close watch on the tracks to Hungary.
Perhaps in 1956, Hungarian refugees fleeing the Soviet crackdown had come this way. Now the tower was abandoned and a man with a thick Irish accent from a TV crew was reporting on the migrants down below.
“Hungary has threatened to close the borders, as tensions rise here,” he was saying. In the distance the trail of refugees, this long march from Greece, was unending.
At midnight on September 14, Hungary did close its borders, leaving hundreds stranded along a 10-meter-high fence, with coils of barbed wire facing Serbia. Other EU countries have begun to institute border checks, a historic change in EU policy after years of free movement.
But only a week before, I ambled along with a group of Afghans, eventually reaching a group of men in neon yellow vests. They were surveying the railway tracks, checking the as yet uncompleted razor-wire fence. But there was only one police car here, parked improbably deep in the mud on the side of the tracks. In the distance was a green military truck. No one was present to stop the people crossing.
Having crossed into Hungary, I now turned back. I’d come to walk these last few kilometers with the people, to meet them and see the troubles and obstacles they face. Now they were in Hungary, going to a collection point and camp up ahead. It would not help to be detained with them. Serbia beckoned again, and the friendly local police there.
And my car was in Serbia, where I’d slept the night before.
IN THE last month the issue of migration into Europe of primarily Syrians and Afghans fleeing war and poverty has caught the world’s attention.
According to a Macedonian police commander at Gevgelija, the issue has affected his town of 15,000 on the Greek border for the past six months, but the number of people crossing illegally has skyrocketed recently.
As you drive into the town, things seem normal; signs for a casino and restaurants dot the highway. Gevgelija is known as the Las Vegas of Macedonia because gambling is legal and many Greeks come up to play the slots.
Now, as you approach the old train sidings, you see dozens of people scuffling along the sidewalks. They keep a low profile, but there are so many carrying backpacks and plastic bags, and toting children, it’s clear they aren’t tourists. And then you notice down on the tracks people walking, more and more; some with blankets, others with crutches, mostly young men but also many women and children. The human face of the massive refugee crisis is hard to comprehend.
On September 6, around 10,000 migrants reached Germany, after the long trip from Turkey. This was the first massive groupof some 100,000 people or more now stretched out on railroads, in buses and in camps from Hungary to the Greek islands.
A United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) representative in the Greek border town of Idomeni estimated that 4,000 would cross on September 12. At that rate it would make 120,000 in one month. The numbers are probably higher, because his estimate covers only this one main undocumented border crossing. Some of the Afghans said they had come via Bulgaria and then on to Serbia from a different entrance.
The image of a drowned Kurdish boy washed up on a beach in Turkey published on September 2 brought attention to this crisis. Since then, it has emerged that many Syrians, after four years of war, have become fed up with staying in Turkey. Two years ago it seemed Syrian President Bashar Assad might fall, as Western states threatened air strikes. Now, with Iran empowered, it is clear he will not.
Some Syrians who made their way to Europe reported that one could settle in Germany or Scandinavia.
Eventually, what was a trickle of people paying $5,000 to smugglers became tens of thousands paying as little as $1,200 to reach Greece.
Greek islands such as Kos and Lesbos became overwhelmed, in some cases with refugees outnumbering locals. The Greek solution has been to move the migrants by ferry to the mainland and then by bus or train to the border.
As opposed to the chaos depicted in some media, or the “invasion” of people crossing borders, the reality on the ground is far more nuanced. This is a well-oiled machine of migration. From the Greek islands, the buses and trains take the people to the border. Some take taxis. The Greek police and army are on hand to sort the people into groups of 50 and send them across to Macedonia on the rail line. There are moments when the sheer numbers of people overwhelm the ability of the local authorities to deal with the crisis.
ON SEPTEMBER 12, the day was sunny and the clouds and rain from the night before had moved on. In small groups of four or five, the refugees came walking up the train tracks to Idomeni, next to Macedonia. They had disembarked at the nearby station.
This is a small farming community. A large highway, the main highway leading from Thessaloniki north to Macedonia and Serbia, runs parallel to the train tracks.
At the official border crossing on the highway, passports are stamped and cars queue to get through.
But here, at this new unofficial crossing, a slightly different procedure has been put in place. About 1 kilometer from the border an NGO camp has been carved out of a field next to the tracks. Dozens of vehicles line the small farm road leading to it. Here Praxis, a local NGO hired by the UNHRC to provide food, water and essential services, has set up a table. Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) has set up portable toilets, drinkable water and showers. They have nailed a small sign to a tree reading “please put the garbage into the garbage bin, respect the place for your own health.” Another group called Annapurna Team is also distributing food packs and water.
After the refugees pick up the food and water, they make their way quickly toward the border. The Greek police have put up some metal gates, like one might use to control crowds at a concert, to funnel the migrants into a collection area.
Although a police contingent of 30 men has been sent to deal with this area, only two are needed. One man explains to the refugees to form two lines of 50.
The dozens of young men, women and children comply.
They are smiling and talking. None of them seem in a hurry to use the bathrooms or showers; for them it is about the speed of reaching Hungary and then Germany.
They have not heard the daily reports that Hungary is preparing to close the border, that a razor-wire 13 fence may await them. They haven’t seen the video released on September 12 of migrants being “treated like animals,” kept in overcrowded conditions and having food tossed to them behind metal cage-like structures. The reception in Greece has been better.
The police smile at some of them. A small army contingent camped in a field looks on as well. They won’t be needed to keep order; the only people they have to shout at are photographers who have arrived to take pictures of the plight.
After five minutes waiting, the line of 50 people is told to move out toward the border. Police have closed this immediate section to journalists, but the story is that they are moved onto a train for Macedonia and then sent across.
The media have tended to focus on the sensationalist details of these last few weeks in Europe. Yiannis Mouzalas, a Greek deputy interior minister, told reporters on September 7 that the island of Lesbos was on the “verge of explosion” because of the 17,000 people who had arrived on rubber boats from Turkey. Images showing ferries full to the brim with people unloading at docks in Thessaloniki or Athens were made to seem like barbarian hordes invading Europe. One website, called theconservativetreehouse, claimed there were reports of “mass migration rampage events.” Some posted videos showing “spiteful” migrants throwing away non-halal food, or complained the refugees had tossed trash everywhere. A Hungarian camerawoman working for a right-wing channel was filmed tripping refugees who broke through a police cordon. Seventy- one refugees suffocated to death on a truck in Austria.
There is a great deal of remonstration against Gulf Arab states for not taking refugees from Syria and foisting the issue onto the EU.
THE RECEPTION in Europe has been mixed. While Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban has said Hungary does not want Muslim immigrants, Slovakia has said it would take in Christian refugees. The pope called on Catholics to open their homes to the people on September 7. But in Germany, a train was painted “welcome” in Arabic and many motorists in Austria and Germany went to help refugees who were walking from Hungary to Austria and onward to Munich.
Rime Allaf, a Syrian writer living in Europe, wrote on Facebook that when she heard trains were running from Nickelsdorf on the Austrian border with Hungary to Vienna, “we went strait to Westbahnhof, to help welcome mostly Syrian refugees.”
Vienna even put up “welcome” flyers saying “we are prepared for supporting you during your stay.” British author Adam Le Bor tweeted “proud day for humanity.”
There is some debate over the size of the crisis. News outlets have had to grapple with whether to call the arrivals migrants or refugees. Some reports claimed people were faking Syrian nationality to get into Europe, as if that would help them get asylum.
“EU faces migrant crisis of ‘biblical proportions’” claimed the Telegraph. But the 150,000 or so Syrians and Afghans arriving last month, while unprecedented, is not out of the ordinary. The EU has been absorbing refugees and migrants from Africa for 15 years as people arrive by boat from places like Libya. These reach peaks of hundreds of thousands a year. Before the Syrian migration issue was on the agenda, thousands of mostly Africans and Syrians had camped out in Calais and disrupted UK Channel-bound trains.
The real story is that the massive numbers of people making their way from Greece have revealed failures of EU policy to coordinate on handling the issue. Germany admitted on September 1 it could not “fingerprint all arrivals” but said it would spend an estimated 6.6 billion euros to aid 800,000 immigrants this year.
Jewish organizations have stepped up to try to aid those in need – this includes IsraAid, HIAS and Jewish groups in Italy.
But how accurate are these reports? Were migrants rioting, destroying the countryside, like some sort of new invasion of the Huns? Were they desperately in need of aid from NGOs? How many people are there and where are they from? The ideal way to explore this crisis would be to go to Turkey, to the little towns across from Chios, Kos and Lesbos where markets now sell red life jackets and smugglers arrange for transport by rubber boat across the narrow straits, arrive on a beach in Lesbos and claim to be a refugee who wants to go to Germany.
With the Greek economy in tatters, and Eastern and Central Europe uninviting, almost all the refugees want to head north. Mohammed N., a Kurdish refugee who says he is from Tikrit, says he wants to go to Finland. A family from Hasakah in Syria, also Kurdish, wants to go to Germany. That seems to be the destination everyone has heard about as welcoming and a decent place to make a living and resettle. But as mid-September approached, there were grumblings in Denmark about stopping trains and feelings of resentment among some of the local communities that had become transit points.
AS ONE follows the refugee trail north, it becomes apparent how unique this event is. Tens of thousands of people strung out over 1,000 kilometers from Thessaloniki in Greece to the Hungarian border, and all of them being quietly encouraged by authorities to move onward. Nowhere else in the world are thousands of people crossing borders without documents and being actively moved through by army and police border units.
On the Macedonian-Greek border at Gevgelija, there is a small bridge spanning the dry rocky Konska riverbed. On September 10, the entire bridge was full of a mass of people being prevented from crossing by a dozen Macedonian civil police in camouflage uniforms and backed up by riot police with plastic shields.
A Macedonian policeman argued over a bullhorn with the congested masses. “Go back, stop pushing! Do you want to cross or not?” He explained that there were not enough buses in Gevgelija to move the people on to the border with Serbia, 150 km. to the north. The police had been tasked with an orderly movement of people onto the buses and taxis so that 1,000 people didn’t move into the town.
Herein lies the kind of border chess game being played out. The Greek police try to move people, 50 at a time, into Macedonia, and Macedonia has to make sure there are enough buses to get them to Serbia. No one examines passports, no one searches bags, there is no customs, of course. It’s a massive quiet understanding that these people don’t want to stay as undocumented workers and live permanently in these countries. They want to go north, and rather than have them become a permanent migrant camp on the border, or have them all try to find alternative routes across the border, it’s better to just press the entire taxi service of Macedonia into work for the month. A few euros each and the refugees will be in Serbia.
Those refugees who tried alternative methods to cross the borders did not benefit from the attempt.
A group of Afghan men stuck in a cornfield near the Macedonian border were lost and couldn’t find the transit point. Others straggled down roads or got lost walking toward the highway rather than the rail link. Many of them would spend hours before finding transport north. The same thing would transpire at the Hungarian border, where I saw dozens of people stuck on the side of the highway near the official border crossing, where they would be turned back and sent to the “unofficial” one.
Those we spoke to expressed hope they would get to Germany quickly. Some were worried that their relatives, still stuck on the bridge, wouldn’t make it through.
Unlike in Greece, the NGO presence in Macedonia is bare bones. One UNHRC woman, who looked more like a high school girl with flowing brown hair, rushed back and forth to see if any refugees wanted to stay in several metal sheds the UN had erected near the train station. But as in Greece, where they had eschewed showers, here they didn’t want to stay.
Locals were nonplussed that some of the people who had gotten off the bridge and had not found a ride north were squatting under the awnings of stores and restaurants, seeking shelter from intermittent rain.
“Move, move, there is a place to camp by the station,” an owner of a local fish place said.
“Are you open?” asked a Syrian refugee.
But he was open; some local journalists were inside eating bacon-wrapped hamburgers and salad. He didn’t seem to want these people congregating inside.
As night fell, I drove north over the valleys and plains of Macedonia toward the next border crossing.
At each LukeOil gas station, the neon lights glowing in the night like a little oasis on the highway, some migrants had exited taxis to get some food or go to the bathroom. These were the middle-class Syrians who had saved $2,000 each or more in Turkey and could afford better transport. They looked like “weekend warrior” types in the US, the kind that buy cheap camping equipment because they have never camped.
Earlier in the day we had seen a group like this kitting themselves out at a gas station in Greece. Camouflage rain jackets, tents, sleeping mats. They were right to do so, the rain was coming, and most of these people had no more than one or two changes of clothing.
All of this material, purchased in Greece or Turkey, would end up discarded on the railroad sidings near the Hungarian border, or in fields of makeshift night camps. The media claims that the people “throw garbage everywhere” seemed to miss the fact that if you took 50,000 people in any country and had them walk for miles on train tracks without any trash cans and camp at night, there would be litter.
When one sees a woman carrying a newborn baby, it’s hard to ask her why she left an empty plastic bottle by the side of the road rather than carry it with her child.
IT’S INTERESTING that Macedonia, Serbia and Hungary have become transit points, if only because of their own histories. Along the highway of Macedonia are signs reminding travelers that the highway is named for Alexander of Macedon, the Greek leader who conquered Persia and invaded India in the fourth century BCE. At the Serbian city of Nis, on the way to Belgrade, a sign memorializes the birthplace of Constantine the Great, who moved the capital of Rome to Byzantium, which would become Constantinople and then Istanbul.
These leaders looked east; the lands they ruled or conquered included present-day Iran and even Afghanistan.
And here were Syrians and Afghans coming across the borders, much as the Huns, for whom Hungary is named, who came to the area from the east, perhaps with origins as far away as central Asia.
So here is the crossroads of an empire, where Ottoman Turks once ruled, in states like Macedonia which were once part of Yugoslavia, which are struggling to find their footing after independence in 1991.
The main border crossing from Macedonia to Serbia is at Presevo, a town of 30,000 mostly Albanians that sits on the border area of Serbia, Kosovo and Macedonia.
The damp, cold weather made the place seem foreboding. Large, stately houses dot the countryside.
At the entrance to the town is an artisan who makes Muslim gravestones, a reminder that the population is mostly Muslim. A large mosque with a Turkish-style minaret dominates the center.
In the 1990s, a local separatist armed militia calling itself the Liberation Army of Presevo even tried to wrest this town from Serb control. Today, all seems quiet on the Albanian separatism front, but the town has now become a huge refugee transit area. Serbian police have erected checkpoints at the exit to the village near the highway, apparently to make sure that private cars do not give rides to refugees, and that refugees board buses in the village to head north to Belgrade and then the Hungarian border, some 700 km. north.
In the town, a small industry makes money off the refugees, with an army of cars, many of them small compacts, moving the refugees from the Serbian border to a collection point in the center. Over some fields, and past an Islamic cemetery near an Albanian restaurant, the refugees are strung out along the road for kilometers.
An Afghan family of eight from the Bamiyan region asks for a lift. I bundle three women and four children into my car and take them over the potholed road to the mosque near the center. The men in the family say they will walk and catch up.
At the makeshift bus station near a railroad crossing, a dozen buses wait to fill up. Men from Aleppo eat chips they have bought in a store. The local Albanian men have gathered at the store beside the parked buses.
An old man with a thick mustache and gaunt face looks on as if with a mix of pity and wonder.
“We’ve never seen so many; maybe with the rain they are congregating closer to the town,” he said.
At the local mosque the doors are closed. It is a reminder that there has been no evidence of local NGOs sheltering people, and churches or mosques seem to be playing no role in helping, despite communal solidarity or what the pope has said (most of the population of these countries is Orthodox, not Catholic, although Hungary is 40 percent Catholic).
Night is falling. A little girl from Syria has boarded a bus with a sign indicating “Slobodna Vozna” (free trip). She sits next to the windshield peering out at another bus that has the sign “Wi-Fi.” Perhaps that one is more popular, as almost all the Syrians have smartphones and are eager to text or email family.
Some even took photos.
The next major stop for the refugees, after some seven hours overnight on the buses, is near the Hungarian border. Here, a triangle of villages has become the way station for this great trek. Subotica and its satellite villages of Backi Vinogradi, Palic and Horgos form the entryway to Hungary. Unused train tracks run directly from Subotica to the border. It’s a straight walk of 5 km. In the mists, the travelers along this lonely stretch of tracks seem ghostly.
It’s early morning and the signs on the cottages and well-kept houses along the road advertise “wine route” and “historic wine palace.” This is a popular tourist destination and home to some 100,000 people, many of whom are ethnic Hungarians.
Like the other villages overtaken by the refugee trail, the local people are not hostile, but go about their life calmly in the spotlight of this crisis. One old man on a bicycle, also walking on the train tracks, tells a family it’s only a few kilometers to the border.
At the old brick train station at Vinogradi, five men from Afghanistan have kindled a fire with plastic bottles.
Where once tourists came to this “wine region,” now these men from the hills of Taliban country dry their socks on a polluted fire.
“Do you want this can of sauce? It’s not halal,” a young man asks me. Then he wants a photo taken.
“I’m Mehdi from Afghanistan,” he says. Is he ready for the next few kilometers of walking? “We came 2,000 in two months; this is nothing,” he says.
BACK ON the railroad tracks, the hardship of these kilometers is wearing on people. An older woman sits down by the side; it’s too much for her. A man on crutches makes slow progress. They are overtaken by hundreds of others. One man wears a shirt with a giant smiley face; another, purple camouflage pants that look like they came from a ’90s rap video.
Although the groups are mostly men, around 30 percent are women, and some of them do not wear head scarves. This is a heterogeneous migration, with large numbers of people from Aleppo, Syria.
Almost a third of the people I spoke to were from there. One of the great ancient cities of the Middle East, the place has been destroyed in fighting, its two million inhabitants scattered to the winds. It was once the largest city in Syria; now it may be that more Aleppines are making their way to Germany than reside back home.
I make the last two kilometers to Hungary on foot with the refugees. We pass the Roma camp and the old Yugoslav watchtower and come to the razor wire Hungarian fence.
Hungarian police, in contrast to their Greek, Macedonian and Serbian counterparts along the migrant route, are in no mood for messing around. Kitted out with riot gear and hospital-style masks, they have fanned out all around the border area between the large town of Szeged and Roszke, the Hungarian border village opposite Horgos. The old border crossing at Horgos has been closed to traffic.
It seems one of the last avenues for the refugees is this single track of rail and the yet unclosed fence. The refugees seem happy and ecstatic to reach Hungary; they smile and some congratulate one another. For many, they feel they have made it to the EU, the gateway to Germany.
In a field, they are treated by dozens of NGOs, including local Hungarian humanitarian organizations such as Magyar Maltai Szeretetszolgalat, connected to the Order of the Knights of Malta, which is involved in help for the poor and disabled. The local branch of Caritas, a Catholic charity, is on hand, as is an organization called
This illustrates that despite Orban’s pugnacious statements about refugees not having “a right to a better life [in Europe],” many Hungarians have pitched in to help. In Szeged, some have let out their homes and welcomed refugees into hostels; volunteers from all over Hungary and Europe have come to help. One Islamic charity from the UK is sending trucks back and forth to give aid.
Bearded young men with British accents enthusiastically want to aid the refugees. “Salaam aleikum” they shout at those arriving, giving boxes and blankets, socks and other items. “Share it, don’t take it all for yourself,” they say.
But things seem to have deteriorated at the camps Hungary is running near Roszke. Video has emerged of police throwing food at groups of people standing behind metal pylons, as if in cages.
Next to the border post at Horgos, one such camp can be seen, made up of military-style tents. The entrance is manned by dozens of police and blue government buses. It’s all very organized, but the warm welcome the migrants receive when they cross on the railroad seems to set them up for a shock.
Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann told Der Spiegel that the scenes and treatment of the refugees “bring back memories of the darkest period of our continent.”
In addition, many of the 23 EU countries have balked at a “migrant quota system” where refugees would be shared among the states.
What few of the EU countries seem to want to do is ask the migrants what they want. They don’t want to go to the Czech Republic or Hungary, or Italy and Croatia. Their destination is Germany or Scandinavia, either due to having relatives there or hearing that life is better there.
How a continent that has already let down its borders would keep “quotas” is unclear. Hungary seems intent on making the experience more strict, but judging by the migrants streaming across the Greek border to Macedonia on September 12 at the rate of 4,000 a day, the story of Hungary closing its border or of the treatment in Roszke camps is not dampening their view that it is the best gateway into the EU.
As one family lines up in Greece to cross to Macedonia, they flash the thumbs-up and victory signs at several cameramen. They have won, they are in Europe.
Now it is just a matter of weeks or less and they will be in Germany to start a new life.