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Refugees Face Cold Shoulder in Hungary’s Border Towns

As thousands of refugees heading to Europe cross Serbia and Hungary, hostility and fear of terrorism is on the rise in border villages.

September 1, 2015 - Natalia Żaba - Articles and Commentary

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The old brick factory in Subotica

About 2,000 men, women and children are trying to cross the Serbian border to Hungary every day – twice as many as just one month ago, and the numbers are still growing. The number of refugees crossing the Western Balkans to reach Western Europe worries politicians across the EU and has left the Balkan countries struggling to cope with a humanitarian crisis.

The influx has alarmed the public in much of Europe and put European values to the test – and Serbia and Hungary are no exception.

Cool welcome in border towns

Most locals in the small border towns of Hungary and Serbia do not want the refugees around their homes at all, sometimes because they fear they could be terrorists. Many of the men, women, children and infants reach Asotthalom, a small town in Hungary. The migrants used to cross the Serbian-Hungarian border early in the morning, but now it happens all day long.

Veronika Dobo, a deputy mayor of Asotthalom, is very direct about the problems the community thinks it has been facing:

“What we fear here is terrorism, of course. It is not a pleasant feeling to see columns of unknown people wandering around your village every day,” she says.

“They don’t have any respect for other cultures, and we cannot distinguish who is terrorist and who is not,” she adds.

“We have no control over them, so now Europe can get many terrorists. It would have been better if none of them had come,” Dobo continues.

She says the refugees destroy people’s crops and steal bicycles, although she isn’t sure how many. Dobo also says that the refugees enter people’s homes without asking to charge their cell phones.

Between January and July this year, 90,000 refugees have sought asylum in Serbia and 103,000 in Hungary. These are only official statistics, however. Nobody knows exactly how many more have reached the European Union via the so-called Balkan route.

Hungary says the Balkan route has become the most popular route for refugees trying to reach the gates of Europe. After entering Hungary, they continue further north to richer EU countries, such as Germany and Sweden.

Worried by the threat of terrorism, some locals are patrolling the 10 kilometre stretch of border between Asotthalom and the neighbouring Morahalom.

One of the locals is Zoltan, a 24-year-old from Asotthalom. Zoltan wakes up at 5 am each morning and is on patrol at 6 am before heading home at 11. If he spots refugees he calls the police. “Nobody is aggressive,” he insists.

The locals in such small border towns welcome the government’s decision to complete a border fence by the end of October.  They believe it will help defend Hungary and Europe from a wave of illegal migrants.refugees2

The government has so far erected 110 km of the 175 km-long fence along the Serbian border. For now it consists of only coils of razor wire. The real fence will come later.

Hungary has also announced that by September 5th it will deploy more than 2,100 police on the border with Serbia to control the number of refugees and migrants entering the country.

Hungary is not the only country taking such action. Bulgaria has also strengthened its fence on the border with Turkey. Both Slovakia and Poland have meanwhile announced that they do not wish to receive Muslim refugees, only Christians.

Countries with large Muslim communities, like France, Germany and the United Kingdom, have made no comment about the religion of the refugees. At the same time, all face different internal problems related to the influx. So far, 20 asylum camps have been attacked or set on fire in Germany.

While xenophobia and religious intolerance spread, nobody seems to have much idea about how to solve this situation, either in the EU, or in the Balkans.

Improvised shelter in Subotica

Subotica, the northernmost city of Serbia, is only 20 km from Asotthalom and only 10 km from the Hungarian border. Refugees waiting there to reach Hungary have converted an old brick factory built in the late 19th century into a shelter. There are no signs indicating how to find it, but those looking seem to know where it is.

Overgrown with grass with no floor and a ruined roof, the old factory has become an informal camp for refugees mainly from Syria and Afghanistan. There is no electricity or running water and people sleep on rags on the bare ground.

“Migrants with money do not go to the brickyard. Only those who have nothing or who have lost their way come here,” Tibor Varga, a local priest who helps the refugees explains. “There are up to 300 people in the brickyard at any given time, but it is difficult to know because the area is large and the people are scattered,” he adds.

Continuing their journey from Greece and Macedonia, about 7,000 refugees, mostly from Syria and Afghanistan, crossed into Serbia last weekend alone. After they formally request asylum, they have three days to reach the border with Hungary, which is rushing to complete its fence.

Mohammad got to Subotica with his family from Afghanistan. He has come with his wife, young daughter, sister and seriously ill father, who has pancreatic cancer. “He took his last medicine today but without continuous therapy he will die,” Mohammed says.

Doctors working at the brickyard know about such patients but cannot help, as cancer-treating drugs are not easily available in Serbia. They recommend asking for assistance in Hungary. Mohammed is a former lawyer and his wife is an engineer. His sister, Mahtab, wanted to be an architect and finished four years of school before leaving Afghanistan.

“I do not know why we are here, it’s terrible,” Mahtab says. “I’m afraid my father will die. I do not understand why this is happening to us, but I know that we are nothing – less than zero,” she adds.

Many of the refugees complain that the Serbian and Macedonian police beat and rob the refugees, she continues. Most of the people at the brick factory are men, but some are women and small children. They line up for the food brought by Father Tibor and other volunteers from the local Catholic church. There is no pushing, quarrels or aggression, just waiting in line for their turn.

“You will not find [Islamist] radicals here. Sometimes you hit on some crooks, but not radicals,” another priest, Father Varga, said. “Some are so good, even naively good.”  

But he fears that the animosity felt in Europe against the migrants and the rejection and humiliation they will experience on their way, will lead to some of them becoming radicalised. Until recently, Father Varga was the only one really helping the refugees in Subotica. During the July and August heat wave, the authorities only supplied water. They have promised to provide portable toilets.

“The government is helping, but we have a problem in Subotica. There is no vision to solve the problem, no plan,” Rados Djurovic, director of the Asylum Protection Centre from Belgrade, says. “With regard to the fence [in Hungary], that money could have been spent much better,” he adds.

Djurovic says that the procedures need changing in preparation for winter, because more migrants will arrive and there will be no place for them to find shelter from the cold. “There is still no humanitarian disaster, but we definitely could have one and we need to deal with it before the winter comes,” he continues.

For now, according to Djurovic, the situation is tough but not tragic as migrants are not hungry and move along fairly quickly. But it will get worse if the fence that Hungary is erecting forces the migrants to stay for longer in Serbia, he predicts.

“We constantly remind the politicians that anything can happen – except the fact that the migrants will suddenly disappear,” Djurovic warns.

Natalia Żaba is a journalist and interpreter based in Belgrade working at Balkan Investigative Reporting Network. She also cooperates with Al-Jazeera Balkans.

This article was first published by Balkan Insight.

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