As of now, the border between Hungary and Serbia is hardly noticeable. There is no fence yet, no signs, only a few boundary markers peeking out of the bushes: small, white posts with the letter M on one side and PC in Cyrillic on the other. Even though a trench was dug in the 90s to keep car smugglers away, it’s easy to step over, and it’s slowly becoming overgrown with vegetation and covered with the dust kicked up by the countless feet that walk all over it every day.
Still, this 164-kilometre line running through forests and fields is almost impenetrable. The physical defence of the border (or a soon-to-be-built fence) is not the biggest obstacle for refugees; it’s the rejection demonstrated by Hungarian society that grows more vehement as the issue of immigration comes more and more into focus in European and Hungarian politics.
At the gate of promise, in Subotica, there’s a scrubland sprawling between the old, dilapidated brick factory and the landfill, which all refugees refer to as the jungle. The area seems abandoned at first, but in fact as many as hundreds of people could be hiding in the bushes, waiting to cross the border to Hungary. The huge number of refugees is revealed only when the van of the Eastern European Mission, founded in Switzerland, arrives.
Tibor Varga brings water and food for those in need. The conversation is a mix of English and Pashto, as most people come here from Afghanistan. The supplies run out quickly. Tibor spreads his arms, and says there’s no more, but he promises to return the next day.
It’s hard to comprehend what the conditions are like in the jungle of Subotica. The volunteers of the French organization Doctors Without Borders say that after the long trek, people have lots of wounds and scrapes on their feet, and those who sleep in the jungle develop scabies. However, the lack of drinking water and bathing facilities is the biggest issue. There’s a dug well next to the brick factory, that’s where the refugees get water for drinking and bathing, and the fact that there hasn’t been an outbreak of any kind of disease yet is quite a miracle.
The Serbian authorities are generally nowhere to be seen, but many speak about tyrannical policemen that take every last penny from the refugees, that is if they have anything left after giving almost everything to human smugglers.
In just a few months between the end of last year and the beginning of this year, tens of thousands left Kosovo for Austria or Germany. The immigration wave had somewhat subsided by March, but it still had a huge impact on statistics: data published by Frontex, the EU’s external border protection agency, suggest that the West Balkans route was the busiest in the first five months of the year.
Still, a growing number of people arrive from war-torn regions, primarily from Afghanistan and Syria. The route from Afghanistan leads through Iran, a journey many recount horrific stories about. Turkey is the first country on the way where refugees can expect to receive help and humane treatment. The journey to the Subotica brick factory takes the refugees through Bulgaria or Greece, and finally Macedonia. They often walk for days, which is easy to tell by their tattered shoes.
The Hungarian government likes to emphasize that those who cross the border illegally are not refugees, as they come from Serbia, which is considered a safe country. However, our southern neighbour is not safe at all. The numbers suggest the same: it wasn’t until 2012 that the first refugees were recognized in Serbia, and a mere 16 people had received any kind of status by the end of last year. The April report of Human Rights Watch reveals that Serbian police are deliberately nasty to migrants. Volunteers working with the refugees in Subotica told us that helping them is not allowed. The police turn a blind eye to occasional donations, but organized distribution is prohibited.
Statistics presented by Eurostat show that 625 thousand people asked for asylum in the EU last year, with another 185 thousand applications sent in over the first quarter of this year. While illegal migration puts the greatest pressure on Italy, the destination that most migrants seek to reach is Germany, which received 202 thousand asylum applications last year. The most applications per capita were submitted in Sweden: the country received 8.4 asylum seekers for every hundred thousand residents. Hungary is second on the list with 4.3 applications for every hundred thousand residents. Yet, the problems facing Europe are dwarfed by the ones arising in Turkey and Lebanon: the former needs to take care of 2 million Syrian refugees, whereas the latter had as many as 1.5 million by the beginning of this year.
Even though the money paid to smugglers would be sufficient to buy plane tickets, most people try to cross over to Europe illegally, undertaking long journeys or dangerous boat rides. The main reason is that these people have no chance of getting visas. The statistics provided by the European Commission corroborate this claim: seven Schengen countries have consulates in Kabul where a total of 6,282 visa applications were submitted last year, a third of which were rejected. The highest number of applicants wanted to reach Germany where the proportion of rejected applications is 44 percent. By comparison, last year more than 41 thousand Afghans sought asylum in Europe; most of them arrived illegally.
Since the introduction of stricter regulations after the turn of the millennium, the Schengen border has been referred to as Fortress Europe. The border between Hungary and Serbia is a mere gateway on the long borderline. Still, it’s quite a busy one, which is clearly visible in the forest by Ásotthalom where forest trails beaten by hosts of wandering feet have emerged. The presence of the refugees is apparent on the deserted farms as well: abandoned bags, clothes, banknotes, a few shampoo bottles and toothpaste tubes. The inhabitants of the farmlands located a couple of hundred metres from the border know the phenomenon well, but are much more tolerant toward the refugee issue than many in Hungary or Europe.
It seems that the Hungarian government is now ready to close the Hungarian gate, which has not stood totally unguarded until now, either. The infrared cameras keeping the Serbian border under surveillance 24 hours a day are hard to evade. The monitors are checked by a policeman sitting in a tiny, crammed building at the Röszke border crossing point, which is also constantly patrolled by German, Austrian and Swedish police. The roughly two dozen-strong police unit has been deployed by Frontex to assist the Hungarian colleagues.
Off the record, the police officers tell us that the assistance is, of course, welcome, and it helps that they speak foreign languages, know the relevant documents and have access to databases, but Hungarian police are on their own when handling incidents on the green border.
Fortress Europe has always been an expensive project: maintaining Frontex alone cost almost one billion euros last year, which does not include the police and coast guard related expenditure of member states. 72 million euros, the equivalent of about 22 billion forints, has been spent on erecting the fence around the African Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla.
According to estimates, the “temporary” fence to be built on the Hungarian-Serbian border could cost more, as much as 25 billion forints. Compared to the six-metre double fence of the Spanish, this one is planned to be four metres tall. Nevertheless, the most considerable expenses arise from returning rejected refugees to their country of origin. Based on the calculations of The Migrants’ Files, a project launched by a group of European journalists, 11.3 billion euros have been allocated to this purpose since 2000.
While some manage to elude Hungarian police, most illegal immigrants are captured. In the villages close to the border, civilians are on the lookout for refugees, who are then reported to the police; in Ásotthalom, a village led by a Jobbik-associated politician, local agricultural land rangers also take part in the operation. Many immigrants expressly seek out policemen in order to finally be captured and taken to a police station, especially in the winter months.
Those who don’t apply for asylum are deported back to Serbia, but according to the policemen, the first words most of them say to the first person they see in uniform are “refugee” or “asylum”, initiating the asylum procedure, which is a completely different story. Some of the people we spoke to said they were forced to ask for asylum by the police. What they achieve this way is they get rid of the asylum seekers, as the next part of the process is handled by another authority.
Asylum seekers are generally housed in Szeged’s border police station, and in case that’s full, they are taken to “another police facility”. One such “facility” is the refugee camp in Kiskunhalas, another is a truck hangar by the highway, not far from the border crossing. Instead of trucks, the hangar now has rows of stretchers in it with a tent and portable toilets set up out front. The police officers are not particularly happy when they see the camera, but we are allowed to take a few pictures of how one police van arrives after the other, carrying newly captured refugees. A small rebellion has already broken out here: police say the asylum seekers protested against fingerprint scanning, whereas other sources claim that the uprising was to do with insufficient supplies.
In line with Hungarian law, police can only detain asylum seekers for up to 24 hours, after which they must be handed over to the Office of Immigration and Nationality (OIN). This means that the police have one day to identify the refugees by scanning their fingerprints, taking their picture and submitting their data to the European electronic database called EURODAC. The refugees in Subotica are afraid of the fingerprint scanning process: they don’t know why exactly it’s performed, but they know that being recorded in a database can make the rest of their journey more difficult.
Asylum seekers are taken or escorted to the Szeged branch of the OIN where their petition is formally heard. Some of them are transported to the grounds of a penal institution in Nagyfa; that’s where they stay for the next few days. In theory, it’s an open camp, but actually the refugees are not allowed to leave. The office is authorized to order so-called asylum detention lasting 72 hours, and it has 24 hours to request an extension from the court. The law lists several reasons for ordering detention; theoretically, each case is assessed individually. However, the wording of the law is ambiguous at places; the various reasons for detaining a person include failure to present documents, failure to fulfil an obligation to appear and maintaining national security and public order.
The wording of the law suggests that most asylum seekers meet the criteria to be detained based on the first reason, as they generally lack any kind of documents they could use to identify themselves (the Kosovars were the only exceptions, they had valid IDs). Even though a 2013 amendment to the law resulted in fewer detainments, last year, detentions were ordered in 4,829 cases, which is about 10 per cent of the more than 42 thousand asylum applications.
According Árpád Szép, leader of OIN’s Refugee Affairs Directorate, down at the southern border, the authorities cannot yet assume that applicants will “not subject themselves to the procedure”, even if another 23 thousand have failed to do so already, but they can arrive at such a conclusion when they find them on a München-bound train in Győr. Yet, the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, whose mission is to assist asylum seekers, says the detention of refugees is entirely arbitrary; for many the lack of documents is a sufficient enough reason indeed.
So at first the office will generally refer the asylum seekers to the open refugee camps – officially called reception centres – in Debrecen, Bicske and Vámosszabadi. A strange requirement of the procedure is that everyone must find their way to the assigned facility on their own; all they get from the authorities is a certificate that serves as their train ticket and sometimes a schematic map. We also met refugee groups at the Szeged railway station and at the bus terminal in Budapest; they are easy to recognize by the A4 sheets they are clutching. In Szeged, the number of asylum seekers has reached such a high level that a civil movement has been organized to address their needs.
The consequence of asylum seekers travelling on their own is that half of all applicants don’t even show up at the refugee camps, but attempt to leave the country westward instead. Árpád Szép says organized transportation would be very expensive and pointless, as the camps are open. As a result, a further 30-40 per cent of applicants leave within a few days or a couple of weeks of arrival.
The final destination of most refugees is not Hungary, but Western Europe. Many of the people we spoke to by the Bicske refugee camp said they had successfully reached Finland or Sweden where they were faced with the EU’s so-called Dublin Regulations. The rule of thumb is that every case is processed where the refugee in question has entered the EU, or where they have first applied for asylum. The governing parties of Hungary are now afraid that, unlike in previous years, the Western European countries will soon start applying the regulations more strictly.
According to data recorded by the OIN, only a few individuals have been returned so far. Last year, about 30 thousand asylum seekers left Hungary to go west, and these cases have resulted in thousands of inquiries. Only in about less than eight thousand cases has Hungary acknowledged that, in line with the Dublin Regulations, the procedures must be carried out here.
In reality, barely more than eight hundred people have been turned back. In the case of the Kosovars, for example, several countries disregard the Dublin Regulations, and send refugees back directly to Pristina by plane after rejecting their applications.
No wonder that most refugees don’t wish to stay in Hungary. Even though the OIN didn’t let us film inside the refugee camps, citing as the official reason that the refugees must not be disturbed, the residents of the Bicske camp were very forthcoming with their stories about the conditions in the camp. The rooms are crowded, there aren’t enough bathrooms, and everyone without exception who talked to us complained about the quality of the food. The in-cash support refugees receive is only eight thousand forints per month, which doesn’t buy much. Sometimes they can afford to buy tea or bread rolls at the Tesco store on the edge of town, but cigarettes are considered a real treasure.
The camp itself is in quite a secluded spot, on the edge of the small town; walking to the town centre takes a good 15 minutes. Trips to Budapest happen very rarely. There are no organized activities or job opportunities, so the residents of the camp are condemned to idleness, which can take its toll over time, especially since the asylum procedure usually takes months. Some resort to drinking, others leave and go west.
Mohamed Kazem is a resident of the Bicske camp, he’s lived here for a few months. He came to Hungary once before, two years ago, and he travelled on to Finland, which he talks about as his second home. He spent one and a half years there, he made friends, he started learning the language. Then he too came up against the Dublin procedure, and he was suddenly told that he had to return to Hungary. Since then, Kazem hasn’t been able to sleep without sleeping pills. It also complicates the matter that his age is unclear: he says he’s only 17, which the Hungarian authorities refuse to believe, despite the fact that he had documents sent over from Iran that prove his age.
Kazem belongs to the Hazara people, an Afghan minority that was persecuted under the rule of the Taliban. That’s what prompted the family to flee to Iran where Kazem was born. However, refugees, including Hazaras, are treated as second-class people in Iran: they have no chance of becoming citizens, and their children are only allowed to attend school if the family pays for their education. Kazem has only completed six grades; he and his mother worked as cleaners in an ice cream factory before they decided to leave the country. As the family was fleeing, he somehow got separated from them at the Iran-Turkey border. The smugglers told him the others were captured by Iranian police, but Kazem cannot be sure.
“The whole procedure currently takes four to five months, and that’s pretty good compared to elsewhere in the European Union” – says Árpád Szép, adding that certain cases are very complicated, and there’s very little tangible evidence, nothing more than the oral statement of the asylum seeker. The migrants know they have a higher chance of being granted asylum if they come from a crisis zone; that’s why they tend to declare themselves citizens of a country where the situation is worse at a given time. “When things were worse in Iraq, everyone said they were from there, and when it was Palestine that had it worse, everyone said they had Palestinian nationality ” – says the OIN leader.
As most asylum seekers have no documents – they didn’t have them in the first place, they threw them away, or the papers were taken by the smugglers –, the office can only determine indirectly who belongs where: a few questions will reveal who’s been to Syria or the Palestinian territories. It must also be investigated if a person is worthy of international protection, that is whether they have committed a serious crime, for example. This must be determined by the Counter Terrorism Centre and the national security agencies as so-called competent authorities, which also prolongs the procedure. Furthermore, the process can get dragged out if a person encloses additional documents to their application, as these must be translated.
„If you look at Syrian nationals alone, Hungary has not sent back anyone to Syria for years” – says Árpád Szép. In the experience of the Helsinki Committee, however, the office is keen to take contradictory statements from the stories of the refugees and use them as causes to reject their applications. These rejections are then appealed against in court, often successfully. Last year, out of 42 thousand applications, asylum was granted in a mere 503 cases. This proportion is very low compared to data from elsewhere in the European Union, but the statistics are grossly distorted by the asylum seekers who do not wait until the procedure has been completed.
Last year, the asylum procedure was terminated in 23 thousand cases – more than half of the 42 thousand applications – because the applicants had vanished from Hungary (at the end of the year, about 15 thousand cases were still in progress). In 2014, as many as 5,056 cases ended with a substantive decision; about ten per cent of the cases were decided in favour of the applicant, which is not bad at all (most of the rejected cases were initiated by Kosovars). According to Árpád Szép, if everyone had waited until the conclusion of the procedure, as many as ten thousand people could have received some form of protection in Hungary.
Data collected by the OIN suggest that about three thousand people recognized as refugees or persons of subsidiary protection were living in Hungary at the end of last year; 500 of these persons were granted such a status in 2014. This is the equivalent of 0.03 per cent of the country’s inhabitants, and if the growth continued at this pace, it would reach one per cent in 200 years. While legal immigration must also be factored in – around 200 thousand people have the right to live in Hungary based on some kind of legal title –, it’s a very bold claim to say that the asylum seekers threaten the livelihood of Hungarians by taking their jobs.
Ali used to live in the camp in Bicske too, but since February, he’s lived in Budapest as a recognized refugee together with his wife and two children. Ali was a teenager when he fled from Afghanistan to Pakistan to escape the Taliban, but he couldn’t live in peace there either. After the bombing, the family decided that after 17 years they would return to Afghanistan, which their children had never seen. However, two months later something happened that Ali is reluctant to talk about openly for fear that his family might get hurt. They had to flee in a hurry, paying for their journey with jewellery that belonged to Ali’s wife, Baktavar. He doesn’t know how much the pieces were worth, all he knows is that he still owes money to the smugglers.
Ali was lucky. He became a recognized refugee, and he was able to move into a flat provided by the Refugee Mission of the Reformed Church. They found out in May that the programme will no longer be funded by the European Union, so they have to move out by July. Without financial aid, however, they won’t be able to rent an apartment. The family of four receives monthly aid from the state amounting to 172 thousand (according to the Hungarian Central Statistical Office, a family of this size needs a minimum of 253,318 forints per month). Several other families that are in a similar predicament told Ali that they’ll go west if they have to move out because they don’t stand a chance in Hungary.
When you talk to Ali, you realize how conscientious he is about everything. As if every small mistake could have a fatal consequence. As if every little slip-up could endanger his family’s safety. During the shoot he cannot exactly recall the number of fatalities claimed by a bomb attack in Afghanistan, so he tells us we have to re-shoot that part immediately. This meticulousness is also characteristic of the way he applied for asylum in Hungary. At first, he didn’t even know there was such a thing as an application for asylum, and now he can explain in detail what’s wrong with the immigration policies in Hungary and even Europe.
Farahnaz has lived in Europe for years, mainly in Hungary, but she’s been to Germany and England too, being turned back to Hungary each time based on the Dublin Regulations. In spite of all the hardships, she has slowly become attached to the country, perhaps because her daughter, Sarah, was born here, that is in the refugee camp in Debrecen. Currently, she and Sarah live on family allowance that is a mere 11,400 forints. Farahnaz is now studying for the matriculation exam, despite the fact that at home, in Afghanistan, she studied photography at university and was employed as a photographer by the European Pressphoto Agency. Sarah is five years old, and goes to kindergarten. She often asks her mum when they’ll have a real, permanent home.
Farahnaz, Sarah, Ali and his son, Barat Mehdi, all want what everyone else wants: to work, study, live, be useful, and above all, be happy. But all that is becoming harder and harder to achieve in Hungary, as not only do they have to face the hopelessness of everyday life, but also an invisible border, which is being reinforced by the government’s current, nationwide campaign to stigmatize refugees.