Monday and Tuesday 14-15 September 2015
Last night the Hungarian military finished closing the border fence between Hungary and Serbia to keep out asylum-seekers. While the media has paid attention to this issue, there are many elements to this story which must be discussed. We consider these the most pressing :
In the last 48 hours, police and military have been engaging in strategies of intimidation to put fear in those seeking to enter the Schengen zone. These include repeated and low-altitude flights of a polie helicopter over tents housing adults but also families with young children, many of whom are already traumatised from their experience of war, a demonstrative presence of force by armed police and military officers as well as attack dogs, the erection of a three metre fence not only topped with barbed wire but lined with three layers of it on the exterior face, a lack or manipulative diffusion of information regarding what is and will happen to asylum-seekers, obvious laughter and insults towards asylum seekers, waking and evacuating asylum-seekers in the middle of the night to put them on busses and trains, and bars which appeared on the traintracks in the last two days. While we do not know the purpose of these bars, they are located at ankle height between the tracks and, if not seen, can easily trip someone. Sunday night, volunteers from the Roszke « pick-up » area stood on the tracks with flashlights to prevent those crossing from sustaining injuries that would inevitably result from them otherwise.
While the fence was closed at roughly 16:30 on Monday, 7.5 hours earlier than the declared closure of the border itself, asylum-seekers were redirected to the nearby Roszke-Horgos border crossing where they were asked to line up in order to be put on busses, the destination of which we cannot confirm. One UN representative was present at this border crossing when we arrived, but could not be found at a critical moment. Were it not for a handful of dedicated volunteers – European civilians associated with no organization or government who have come to help, many of whom also set up the initial « pick-up » area at the train tracks in Roszke – the evening could have ended in disaster for hundreds of asylum-seekers.
Indeed, these volunteers not only organized and coordinated the departure of the last group of asylum-seekers allowed into EU territory, but also managed the subsequent influx of people arriving at a closed and militarized border in the early hours of Tuesday morning. This included negotiating permission from the Serbian Police for to set up tents for those arriving to stay in the area ; explaining the situation, calming, and reassuring tired aslyum-seekers ; distributing tents, blankets, food and water, and generally coordinating the border area in the climate of a continued demonstration of force by Hungarian Police, who remained lined up behind the border gate throught the night and morning. These actions are all that much more important given the singificantly increased presence of police and military patrolling the area, as well as reports of smugglers and profiteers who feed misinformation and fear to asylum-seekers in order to exploit their remaining financial resources and encourage them to pursue illegal methods of entry into Europe.
During the night, a number of NGOs based in the region also passed by to distribute food and blankets (names to be cited in a deeper study) and provide basic medical services (MSF, local medics sent by Caritas), supporting the work of the volunteers who continue to coordinate this space today. We do not know for how long this improvised encampment will be tolerated by the Serbian Police, who have thus far been accomodating and have treated both asylum-seekers and volunteers with decency and respect. The UNHCR and other organizations have been coming in for observation this morning, and it is hoped that humanitarian organizations who were already present on the other side of the border will show up soon. This morning, the Hungarian police forces flew a helicopter very low over the border checkpoint for over 20 minutes*, inciting further fear and stress.
The situation today is dire ; as a Serbian Police officer noted in a discussion with a group of asylum-seekers this morning, those present today – around 500 or 600, mostly Syrian families from what we see – represent 10% of those who are still on their way to the Hungarian border. It is clear to us that European asylum policies, specifically the Dublin Regulation, are no longer tenable. The aggressive response of the Hungarian government further complicates the situation and has the potential to cause a humanitarian crisis in Serbia. The closure of the Hungarian border means many will seek alternative routes into Europe – the closest, that of Croatia, is dangerous due to the Danube river – and will only serve to feed them more into the hands of smugglers who may exploit their vulnerability. It is unclear whether, when and how many will be allowed to cross into Hungarian territory today, and in the coming weeks. Action must be taken throughout Europe to address this issue.
*Update: the helicopter continued to fly directly over the area, at very low altitude, well into the afternoon.