Asylum seekers say conditions are poor while the closures of Balkans borders exacerbate overcrowding.
Asotthalom, Hungary – A group of five police officers chopped wood and tossed it in a small fire pit as the brisk wind rattled their makeshift tent, hastily constructed with plastic tarps and tree branches to shield them from the cold on a morning in early March near the Hungarian border village of Asotthalom.
On the Serbian side of the Hungarian border fence that lines the 175-kilometre border between the two countries, abandoned Yugoslav army barracks and watchtowers testified to wars that had concluded 15 years earlier.
Today, however, the Hungarian army has launched a war of its own – one to stem the flow of refugees and migrants into Central Europe.
An army jeep bounced along the dirt road that hugs the barbed wire-crowned fence. A unit of officers from the village patrol sauntered along the trail, while a pair of army soldiers repaired a hole made by refugees who had crossed the border the night before.
Last year, more than a million refugees and migrants arrived on European shores by boat, according to the UNHCR, the United Nations’ refugee agency. Fleeing war and economic devastation, more than 3,750 drowned when their dinghies went under and were swallowed by the sea.
Built in September, the fence was a response to the hundreds of thousands of refugees and migrants who in 2015 crossed through Hungary in hopes of reaching Western Europe and obtaining asylum after leaving their countries in the Middle East , Southeast Asia and many parts of Africa.
A village patrol officer, who declined to provide his name, drove a pickup truck up and down the border, stopping occasionally to try to spot refugees in the forest of mostly dead trees that starts some 50 metres beyond the Hungarian side of the fence.
“They cross before dawn and hide there,” he said, motioning in the direction of the trees. “In the morning, they try to move. We usually catch them. The fence is not 100 percent effective, but it’s pretty good.”
He added: “They aren’t real refugees. If they were, they wouldn’t have to enter illegally. They are just coming for a better life.”
Down the road, Frank, a police officer who did not provide his full name, smoked a cigarette, shielding it as the wind picked up.
Wearing a thick police jacket and sunglasses despite the dim day, Frank said that he and his colleagues were warned to expect three times the number of people attempting to enter the country since Slovenia and Croatia sealed off their doors to refugees in early March.
He paced to keep warm, complaining of the assignment. “Don’t take a picture of the tent. It is embarrassing. It’s like we have World War II equipment in 2016,” he joked.
A few hundred metres down the road, a rifle hung from the tree branch outside a portable bathroom behind another police tent.
Amid the woods, sleeping bags, blankets and the still simmering embers of campfires were the sole remnants of the people who crossed the night before.
In early March, the Hungarian government extended a state of emergency to the entire country, citing the ongoing refugee crisis. The interior ministry announced the deployment of an additional 1,500 soldiers and police officers to the Serbian frontier.
In September 2015, Hungary introduced legislation making it a felony to climb, breach or damage the fence.
According to Hungarian police statistics, authorities arrested at least 2,230 people on the border between March 1 and March 22, filling up refugee camps and closed detention centres across the country.
Meanwhile, the number of those who dodge Hungarian authorities and make it into the country undetected remains unknown.
Nearly five months ago, police arrested Ahmed, a 43-year-old man from Somalia , after he cut the fence near Asotthalom. Earlier this month, he was transferred from a detention centre to the Bicske refugee camp near Budapest.
Ahmed said he would rather be arrested in Hungary than go on fearing attacks by al-Qaeda-linked armed group Al-Shabab because he worked with the local government in his hometown.
“We don’t have a civil war. It’s an Al-Shabab war, a slaughter,” he said as he stood outside the camp’s entrance, using his hands to make a throat-slitting motion. “We want to live our lives.”
Initially hoping to reach Germany or Sweden, Ahmed said he has now applied for asylum in Hungary. “This is Europe. I am happy to stay here. I want to bring my wife and kids.”
Like most of those arrested on the Hungarian border, Ahmed was informed that he would be sent back to Serbia – a country that does not accept deportations from Hungary.
Stuck in a state of legal limbo, Ahmed and many others like him are not allowed to stay in the country, while Hungarian authorities are unable to deport him.
According to rights groups, Hungary’s record of accepting a tiny fraction of asylum applicants has rendered it virtually impossible to enter the country through designated border crossings. Only 146 of the 177,135 applicants were granted asylum in Hungary in 2015, according to the government statistics. Many of those started the asylum process and continued to Western Europe.
Welcome to Hungary (WHO), a group of volunteers who campaign for refugee and migrant solidarity, warned that the hyper-militarised borders have made it dangerous for refugees and migrants hoping to pass through Hungary.
Veronika Kozma, a member of WHO, argued that the border barrier “is dangerous to [asylum seekers’] health and that of their families”.
“The fence has not and will not stop desperate people from entering, but it can cause injuries,” she said. “This was all predicted before its construction, so in reality it serves a very cruel and inhumane purpose only.”
Kozma accused the government of employing a campaign of “hate propaganda” against refugees and migrants since the crisis escalated in early 2015.
The Hungarian government is dominated by Orban’s right-wing Fidesz party, and the largest opposition group is Jobbik, an ultra-nationalist party that sits to the right of Fidesz and describes itself as “principled, conservative and radically patriotic Christian” in its platform.
Though opponents on many domestic issues, Fidesz and Jobbik have found common ground in their shared stance against the presence of refugees and migrants.
In an op-ed in the German Frankfurter Allgemeine newspaper in September 2015, Orban fashioned himself as a defender of Europe’s supposed Christian character.
“Everything which is now taking place before our eyes threatens to have explosive consequences for the whole of Europe,” he wrote.
“We shouldn’t forget that the people who are coming here grew up in a different religion and represent a completely different culture. Most are not Christian, but Muslim … That is an important question, because Europe and European culture have Christian roots.”
WHO’s Kozma argued that Orban’s government has used the refugee issue as a means of shoring up support among the general electorate.
“Unfortunately, many Hungarians have fallen for this propaganda now and express hate and fear towards refugees and migrants,” she said. According to a recent study , more than 80 percent of Hungarians who were polled oppose Hungary’s participation in a programme that will distribute asylum seekers throughout the European Union.
“Every day the idea of ‘Europe’ as a place based on human rights is becoming less and less true,” Kozma concluded. ” Viktor Orban likes to play his new role as a policeman at the southeast gates of Europe.”
Of the 2,189 refugees and migrants tried for breaching the fence between September 15 and March 19, the courts issued guilty verdicts for 2,162, according to the Hungarian Helsinki Committee watchdog group. From that total, the court banned more than 96 percent of those sentenced from the country for one to two years.
Mark Kekesi, a spokesperson for the Migrant Solidarity Group of Szeged, stood in an old abandoned school turned into a warehouse for refugee donations. “People go through a show trial – but the verdict is one 100 percent sure,” he said.
“It is expulsion from Hungary or the European Union. This does not look at all like a decision-making process. The defendant has no chance for any decision other than expulsion.”
As volunteers behind him prepared packages of food and clothes to send to the thousands of people stuck on the Greek-Macedonian border at the Idomeni crossing in early March, he recalled the height of the refugee influx in Hungary.
During that time, tens of thousands of people crossed through Szeged, a town just a half-hour’s drive from the village of Asotthalom. “It was crazy. We were busy all the time.”
After the wall went up, the number of arrivals plummeted for several months, he recalled. “But the spring is coming, the news is spreading that the Western Balkans route is closed and people are going to use [crossing the Hungarian fence] as their last hope. I think it’s quite obvious that in the next few weeks there’s going to be big pressure.”
Kekesi walked through the school’s hallway as he spoke, gently gesturing with his hands as he accused Prime Minister Viktor Orban of misleading the public.
“Orban is very cynical when he says we have solved the problem,” he opined. “Come on. Is it a solution if you just push the crisis to your neighbours? The fence – it is like a cat-and-mouse game. You close the border here; people go around to another area.”
Andreas Kovats, director of the Menedek Hungarian Association for Migrants, agrees that the Hungarian government has far from solved the crisis.
He explained that Hungarian authorities are ill-prepared to continue placing refugees in camps or detaining them, although they are planning to open a handful of new centres this spring.
“The facilities are full – both the closed centres and the open camps,” he said, explaining that the government has started releasing people and quietly allowing them to move on to Western Europe.
Kovats explained that police have been preparing for an increased influx in arrivals since December. “There were already signals there that [refugees and migrants] would be coming back to Hungary.”
Anticipating that refugees and migrants will use a detour through Romania, Hungary also plans to build a fence on its border with that country.
“The old traditional way through Hungary – going up north to Romania and crossing Hungary and going on to Vienna – is the most efficient,” Kovats added. “This is the fastest, safest and most developed in terms of smuggler networks and logistics along the way.”
Back in Asotthalom, Laszlo Toroczkai, the 38-year-old mayor, has emerged as one of the most aggressive anti-refugee voices in Hungary.
A hardline rightist and founder of the ultra-nationalist 64 Counties Youth Movement – which calls for the resurrection of the Kingdom of Hungary – Toroczkai was one of the first advocates for the border fence.
Clean-shaven and dressed in a suit with no tie, he sat at the large desk, his arms folded atop one another. Behind him there was a large Hungarian flag hanging in the back corner.
Playing with his wedding ring as he spoke, the mayor placed the blame for the ongoing arrivals on the lack of unity within the European Union. “The most important thing is that the European Union should defend its outside borders – and this they don’t do.”
On his Facebook page, Toroczkai regularly posts images of captured refugees and migrants, calling for yet more restrictive border measures.
On March 7, he published three images of Iranians, Sri Lankans and Moroccans captured on the border. In a fourth photo, a police officer is gripping a Serbian smuggler by his hair in order to lift his head for the camera.
In that post, Toroczkai proposed putting people caught crossing the fence in “closed work camps” until their legal proceedings conclude and Hungary can find a way to deport them.
Although not a member of Jobbik, that party has publicly supported the mayor’s anti-refugee measures, including his deployment of the militant field guard, a 24-hour armed patrol funded by local taxes.
Jobbik has also promoted Toroczkai’s YouTube threat to refugees, published the day that Hungary criminalised breaching the fence.
In that video – titled ” Message to illegal immigrants from Hungary” – dramatic shots show the mayor directing police officers and armed men near the fence. Others depict a simulated chase scene, including cop cars and village patrol officers on horseback.
Toward the end, he urges the refugees to pass through Slovenia and Croatia instead. “Hungary is a bad choice,” he concluded, the camera zooming in on his face. “Asotthalom is the worst.”
Back in his office, he said plainly: “Do we have to accept everyone whose standard of living is worse than an average European Union citizen’s? Maybe it’s one billion people.”
“I don’t know why they’re coming, but it’s not because of war,” he claimed.
Erno Simon, a senior communications officer at the UNHCR’s Central Europe division, insisted that crossing borders irregularly “is not a crime”.
Referring to the wave of border closures across the borders, he said that asylum seekers fleeing war “will continue to come” as they “find safety not only for themselves but for their families, for their children.
“If all the borders along the Balkan route will be closed totally, then all these asylum seekers will have to find an alternative route if they want to continue to come to Europe,” he continued. “They will be forced by the circumstances to rely more on the services of human smugglers.”
Simon said the consequences will be dangerous, alluding to the deaths of 71 refugees who suffocated in the back of a truck in August 2015.
“According to our data, only in the first week of March, 91 percent of people arriving in Greece were from three war-torn countries – Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq.”
“There are 37 of us here,” one man said through the chain-linked fence, as others could be seen praying through the window behind him. “We are from Afghanistan, Morocco and Pakistan. We are coming to Europe.”
Waiting for their asylum cases to be processed, Hungarian authorities had already detained them for five days.
A border officer rushed over quickly. “Do not talk to them,” he barked. “Please, don’t take pictures.”
At a café in the Hungarian capital, Mari, a 40-year-old Afghan refugee who fled after receiving death threats from the Taliban, dismissed the notion that the Hungarian border fence would stop refugees and migrants from arriving.
“People are fleeing war,” she said, shaking her head. “They will not stop because of a fence.”
Follow Patrick Strickland on Twitter: @P_Strickland_