Asotthalom, Hungary: Hungary’s Border War on Refugees


A village patrol officer driving along the border fence [Sorin Furcoi/Al Jazeera]

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.

Fences won’t solve the refugee crisis in Europe, say observers. It will just push people to neighbouring borders [Sorin Furcoi/Al Jazeera]

“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.

Sleeping bags, blankets and embers of campfires are all refugees leave behind as they move forward on their journey  [Sorin Furcoi/Al Jazeera]

‘We want to live our lives’

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.

Continue reading here. (Original posted on Al Jazeera)