The 6 days surrounding the closure of the Hungarian border
On Tuesday, September 16, the day after the Serbian-Hungarian border was officially closed, the media was saturated with images of refugees** shouting at border police, and border police responding with tear gas and batons. Online commentaries have swung in both directions, accusing the police of brutality, and asylum-seekers of illegitimacy and aggressiveness.
The following is an exposé of what we witnessed in the 6 days preceding these mediatized occurrences of violence, in order to provide a more rounded picture of the events in Rözske and Horgoš leading up to them.
Friday, 11. September
Horgoš is a small Serbian town down a railroad that leads towards Rözske, a Hungarian town 3,7km away. From August, thousands of asylum-seekers used this route to get to Hungary, crossing the border at the last remaining opening of the Hungarian fence, still under construction at the time.
Once past the fence, a 1km walk led to what some referred to as the “pick-up area”, an encampment where volunteers and NGOs distributed food, water, clothing, tents, blankets, and provided medical services.
Almost all of those with whom we spoke had come to Europe through Turkey, then Greece, and Macedonia. Once in Serbia, they rested in Belgrade, a transit point on the way to the Hungarian border. Their objective was to reach their country of destination without being caught and fingerprinted in a country signatory of the Dublin Regulation first.
This is because, in a bid to ensure efficiency and avoid duplicated asylum requests, the Dublin Regulation mandates that one Member State is responsible for the asylum procedures for the individual or family in question*. However, since the country people first enter, the “country of entry”, is the one required to take on these procedures, countries like Greece, Italy, Spain, and now Hungary are taking on a larger portion of applications. Reinforcing these tensions, EU countries do not accept asylum-requests in their embassies abroad. Thus, people fleeing war and other situations of crisis must be physically present on European soil to have any hopes of receiving asylum*.
Back on the railroad tracks, some, fearing being fingerprinted and thus prevented from seeking asylum in other European countries, attempted to escape into nearby cornfields before reaching the “pick-up area”.
Though the walk was not difficult for the young and healthy, many elderly, injured, or ill struggled to carry their few belongings down the railway. For them, the “pick-up area” was a welcome moment of pause.
Nonetheless, a police line blocked further travel to the north, directing asylum-seekers towards busses that would carry them to the next step of their journey.
At first it was unclear where these busses were taking people. Some believed they would be taken to Budapest, while others presumed they would be brought for fingerprinting. By this point, confused and often contradictory information had already reached their ears, as everyone present speculated over border closings, policies in various European countries (eg. Germany, Austria, and Sweden), and the hardline Hungarian response.
It soon became clear, however, that a significant portion of asylum-seekers were being brought to one of two nearby camps.
Saturday, 12. September
The UNHCR is coordinating the pick-up area along with other organizations such as Save the Children, Doctors Without Borders (MSF), Caritas, a number of local NGOs, and the volunteers who set up the encampment over the two previous weeks.* Of the local and international NGOs we saw, MSF was the only one present in every location, including those set up ad-hoc. Caritas was also regularly present. These volunteers, European citizens not representing government or non-governmental organizations, regularly ensured that basic services were provided to those in need. We will discuss the coordination of humanitarian activities on the border in a subsequent article.
Contrary to the previous day, a backlog of busses at pick-up area, and an increased flow of people, contributed to pressure for both police and asylum-seekers.
Sunday 13. September
On Sunday, military began patrolling the border fence opening. While we had not seen a military presence there previously, people who had been onsite longer than us indicated a heavy police presence in the fields surrounding the border, as well as the presence of civilian militias supposedly working in collaboration with the police. A police helicopter was also seen searching the fields with a spotlight during the night and subsequent day.
While armed forces were present, they continued to allow asylum-seekers to cross the border freely towards the pick-up area.
This leaflet, found in a restaurant in Horgoš, is an example of the strategies of intimidation employed by the Hungarian State to dissuade potential asylum-seekers from crossing into its borders. It has since been published in Jordanian and Lebanese newspapers*.
Misinformation and messages of intimidation contributed to driving people towards smugglers, who themselves spread rumours and lies to aslyum-seekers, convincing some to pursue illegal routes of entry into and through Hungary. Many times, we were told of smugglers charging over 1’000 euro for rides as short as 5Km. Worse still, a number of stories circulated about smugglers dropping people in fields where they would get caught by police. Some speculated that smugglers and police worked together to exploit the vulnerabilities of individuals and families.
In the evening we returned to the starting point of the railroad walk at Horgoš, where busses and taxis were dropping people off from nearby towns like Kanjiža and Subotica, Serbia. We saw people walk back down the railway from the border, who told us that the border had been closed. We then made our way towards the border to verify this information.
Upon arriving, we observed that three bars had been placed on the railroad tracks roughly at ankle height, just metres before the border fence. While we do not know whether they served another function, nor who installed them, were it not for volunteers lighting the way many injuries would have resulted from the bars.
Although the border was still open, large groups of asylum-seekers waited in the dark along the sides of the railway, hesitating to advance further. As we crossed, a procession of military vehicles drove up and down the fence in an obvious show of force. An UNHCR officer was present and provided information to arriving asylum-seekers. Nonetheless, many turned back concerned about the conditions they would face in Hungary.
We continued towards the pick-up area on the Hungarian side of the border, to find that police had emptied the encampment, waking everyone in the tents and putting them on busses. Speaking with volunteers who had been there throughout the afternoon, we learned that once again long lines at the busses created tensions and stress, with many fainting as they waited. One volunteer reported that a woman standing in the line began to have chest pains. Refusing to leave the line for fear of losing her place on the bus, a doctor came to examine her. He told her she was having a heart attack, and needed immediate medical attention, but she still refused to leave the line. After running to get her life-saving medications, the doctor returned to find the woman being dragged on the bus. When he attempted to get the medication to her through a police officer, the officer told him to “f*** off“. Upon telling us this story, the condition of the woman was still unknown.
With no information as to their destination, volunteers organized themselves to follow the busses with a van full of water and some snacks.
It was soon found that the busses were heading to Rözske train station, where asylum-seekers were being loaded into trains destined for Hegyeshalom, a small town a few kilometres from the Austrian border. The Hungarian police continued to load asylum-seekers onto trains throughout the day, providing water and bread from the camps for the ride.
Monday, 14. September 2015
On September 4, the Hungarian government passed laws to dissuade asylum-seekers from entering its territory. In particular, the new measures: “make it a criminal offence to cross or damage the fence, and illegal border crossings will be punishable by up to three years in jail.”* Authorities claimed they would “make it possible to submit asylum requests at border crossing points and allow for the expedited processing of the request.” (ibid.) These laws were to take effect on September 15, the same day the border was to be officially closed.
After closing the border, a volunteer attempted dialogue with the Hungarian police in order to assist a Somali woman and her baby who had been separated from their family in the chaos of the last passage into Hungary. As a response, the Hungarian police officer turned his back and rested it on the gate. This absence of dialogue was the norm, and continued with regards to any information about whether and when the border would re-open. When new arrivals asked about what would happen the next morning, the only information volunteers could give was a hesitant, “it might open, we heard they would allow 100 people through”.
Tuesday, 15. September
The following day, as of 8am, a police helicopter began flying low over the street where we had camped. Hovering for multiple hours, it did not as in previous days search for people hidden in fields, but rather circled over and over the street where people had been sleeping only moments earlier. This tactic of intimidation contributed to stress and fear, particularly among young children fleeing war.
As the day went on, asylum-seekers, now stuck in a no-mans land between Serbia and Hungary, began to chant slogans, calling for the Hungarian government to “Open the border”. While some were at the Rözske-Horgoš border crossing, others – mostly families – camped in the field between there and the larger highway border crossing. More waited on the pavement in front of a closed highway gate and line of police officers.
All transportation was blocked into and out of Hungary within a 50km radius. Furthermore, on this day Hungarian authorities announced that, “any minor found without the correct documents will be taken from their parents and placed in ‘childrens institutions’,” while parents would be placed in “transit zones”,* essentially detention centres.
Those stationed at the highway crossing began a hunger strike, refusing both food and water despite sitting in direct sunlight on the road for many hours.
Saying our goodbyes to the many people we had met in the previous days, one young man informed us that the Serbian police had said media would soon be pushed out of the area. In light of this possibility, he offered to send us images of what might occur in the coming hours and days…
Wednesday, 16 September
The images below were sent to us by a Syrian asylum-seeker who requested that we publish them. They are dated Wednesday, 16 September, and were taken at the Rözske-Horgoš border checkpoint, where clashes erupted between police and asylum-seekers. Hungary is not the only country in which people have experienced police violence (notable among these, according to testimonies we received, are Greece and Macedonia). However, Hungary is the country to have taken the most extreme stance with the erection of its razor wire border fence and its overt strategies of intimidation, including a more recently published sensationalist video by the mayor of the border town Asotthalom*. Clips of the clashes on September 16 were diffused widely on the internet and television screens. Nonetheless, it is often difficult, even when present, to understand exactly what occurs at moments like this.
Media reports indicated that people forced the Hungarian gate; news outlets 20minutes*, BFMTV*, and many others reported that the police responded with tear gas when bottles and stones were thrown at them; BFMTV further indicated that the Hungarian police were overwhelmed by migrants, “…who managed to penetrate Hungarian territory.”*. The Hungarian government spokesman told CNN that, “…an armed mob of a couple of hundreds (sic) of people are trying to enter Hungarian territory without any kind of permit,”* further accusing migrants of using children as human shields*. An RTS journalist injured during the clashes, however, wrote in his account of events that the crowd was not threatening police.* According to Refugee Crisis in Hungary, a blog created by activists and journalists covering the refugee crisis,
“Our local sources, however, claim the police on the Hungarian side passively looked on while a few people climbed the fence and opened it. The crowd – among them a lot of children – moved in, many of them believing the authorities have opened the border, and started to loudly chant ‘Thank You’. This is when the police attacked them with water cannons.”
Contributing to the tensions that gave rise to these clashes, expedited processing of asylum requests had begun the day before, though “expedited” appeared to be a term more synonymous with rejected. The following testimony was published on Wednesday by a volunteer on location:
The Guardian also reported* on this phenomenon, indicating that the Hungarian government was systematically rejecting applications, and redirecting people to Serbia which it considers “a safe country” that refugees could apply for asylum in. This declaration is in relation to “earlier legislation declaring Greece, Serbia and other countries along the migrants’ route as “safe,” allowing Hungarian authorities to turn down aslyum requests from people arriving from these places” according to a Bloomberg article*.
There are many reasons why aslyum-seekers have not stayed in the previous countries they have visited. Often, it is a question of opportunity. For example, a number of aslyum-seekers explained to us that in Turkey, the absence of formal status, employment opportunities, and social marginalisation made it impossible for them to stay long-term in the country. Macedonia and Serbia, not being party to the Dublin Regulation, are not constrained by the same requirements for treating aslyum-requests. Furthermore, police violence in Macedonia discourages anyone from staying, and Serbia has accepted the asylum requests of “only a handful of people” this year*, preferring to accentuate its role as a “transit country” in which “nobody wants to stay“. Greece, a party to the Dublin Regulation, is on the front line of the flow of aslyum-seekers, and has clearly reached capacity.
As of the publication of this piece, aslyum-seekers have shifted towards Croatia, attempting to reach Europe both through the Croatian-Hungarian border, and the Slovenian border. Croatian authorities have attempted to manage the situation and have largely allowed people to enter its territory, but it is overwhelmed. As of the September 21, Slovenien authorities had not yet announced a policy regarding how they would handle the situation, but seek to negotiate a humanitarian corridor with neigbhouring countries*.
During an EU Summit on September 24, Germany and France reiterated their calls for a quota system, which a number of countries reject. Little was actually agreed upon beyond the provision of € 1 billion to the World Food Programme (WFP) and the UNHCR, financial support to countries receiving refugees, a doubling of funding for Frontex – Europe’s border control agency -, and the creation of “hotspots”, registration centres for aslyum-seekers in Italy, Greece, and eventually Bulgaria, at end of November.* Amnesty International criticised the failure to find a more adequate solution, stating that, “…EU leaders should have been agreeing on how to ensure safe and legal routes for refugees into Europe and fixing Europe’s failing asylum system.”* EU leaders are set to meet again on October 15. In the meantime, tensions are rising in border zones as temperatures drop throughout Europe.
People seeking refuge in Europe are trying to get to Europe’s inner nations: those protected by the barrier erected in the Dublin Regulation’s “country of arrival” policy, which are also those with the best economic means for taking in asylum-seekers. The front line countries of the Dublin Regulation, like Greece, Italy, Hungary, and now Croatia and Slovenia, have each reacted differently to the situation. As a member of the EU, and as a party to the Dublin Regulation, Hungary’s response is both a reaction to its internal politics (Orbán’s right wing party narrowly beat out an even more right wing party, and is facing upcoming elections), but also to the longstanding failure of European nations to respond to a problem that is neither new, nor unforeseen.
* A previous version of this text stated that UNHCR arrived in Rozske on Friday and Saturday. This has been corrected, as UNHCR was present in the field but not visibly so until this date. At this point, a large-scale clean-up and reorganisation of the camp took place.
The demographic of those crossing into Europe today is diverse. From what we saw, it is of an absolute majority Syrians who are escaping armed conflict. Also escaping conflict are Iraqis, Afghanis, and Somalis. Further, we met a number of Pakistanis on the road. We have chosen to use the term “aslyum-seeker”, as we cannot evaluate refugee status of any of these people, nor do wish to participate in the politicisation of the terms “refugee” and “migrant”. It is our understanding overwhelming numbers of these people plan to request asylum in Europe, making this, to us, the most appriate use of terminology.