Risking theft, rape, humiliation, torture and racketeering for reaching shores of Europe only to become eye of storm.
Asotthalom, Hungary – The day before, I’d been in Serbia, at abandoned brickworks where migrants from a dozen countries make their last stop before the Hungarian border.
They know to come here because word is passed on the road. In small clearings among the bushes they make camp.
Medics from the charity Doctors Without Borders (MSF) visit with a mobile clinic twice a week. A Hungarian priest based in the Serb town of Subotica brings bread and water donated by his flock.
As we film, a police car drives in, pauses, reverses and leaves. But for our presence, this crop of migrants might have been relieved of their small amounts of cash, harassed and perhaps even beaten, by the cops. It happens a lot, the migrants say.
One man stands out, but won’t be filmed. He is Syrian. His suspicion of the media is such that he won’t give me his name.
Off the record, he speaks.
“What can you do for me?” he asks. “I have spoken to many journalists and all that happens is we are portrayed as shameful people. To be pitied.
“I am a man with dignity. At home, I have a villa and four cars. Can you believe that? Now, I have not seen my family for two years. They fled to Egypt. I have tried to reach them, but I cannot.
In fact, Hungary is poorer than Syria was before the war.
“I am trying again.”
I stutter an apology. What can one say? I offer him my phone – call them, if you want to.
“I don’t need your phone,” he says. “I have a phone. I have money. I have given $6,000 so far [to people smugglers] on this trip.”
At which point, he breaks down and walks away to sob quietly in the shadows.
Today, I am on the Hungarian side of the border. Here, I encounter first-hand the kind of prejudice to which migrants are subjected daily.
Laszlo Toroczkai, mayor of the small border town of Asotthalom, carries an air of self-importance and casual menace. “Most of them are Muslim,” he declares. He talks of a violent culture clash “with our Christian civilisation”.
“They know nothing of the European Union. They think the fences are made of sausages [a Hungarian expression], and money lines the streets.”
“In fact, Hungary is poorer than Syria was before the war.”
The mayor uses local council money to employ a small band of well-armed “rangers” who prowl the woods in search of migrants crossing over from Serbia.
Hungary has just announced that it will unilaterally ignore EU-wide rules stating that migrants should apply for asylum in their country of entry. Last week, the government said it would erect a 4m fence along its 175km border with Serbia.
“To defend itself,” the spokesman told journalists. A government poster campaign carries the message that migrants are either stealing Hungarian jobs, or are terrorists. Or, presumably, both.
It all seems to be sinking in.
When we arrive, there’s a local state-run media contingent eager to get pictures of migrants to illustrate the evening news. A group of men, women and children – mostly Syrians – cowers on the road side, under arrest. Police officers mingle among them.
A young man who tried to escape is in plastic cuffs.
A young reporter – recently graduated – is surprised that there is such international interest in Hungary’s “problem”. She speaks of them to us as though they are vermin. They carry diseases, she explains, and leave SO MUCH rubbish, their cigarette butts on the street.
Then she sees the terror in a child’s eye. The father, an uncontrollable stream of tears falling down his face, clutching a shocked-looking girl. The man from Cameroon crying for the sister and two nieces he became separated from in the chase.
The reporter realises they were part of an earlier capture that she’d witnessed, and which had apparently failed to move her then. What moves her now is her inability to communicate with the stricken Cameroonian, to be able to offer him hope or calm.
As they are driven away, the bedraggled group, in police vans, she collapses too. Soon, she leaves to edit her report for the evening news. The event had clearly made an impact, though it was unlikely to affect her reporting. The state-run channel, and she, will tell it like the government wants it told.