When Borders are Sealed

By Kathryn Metz

In February 2017, I had the opportunity to travel to Szeged, Hungary and participate in a job shadowing exchange program that involved participants from Spain, Italy, Hungary and the U.S. The purpose of the program was to exchange information on best practices to integrate migrant and minority youths into the society of their host countries. Because of my research interest in the refugee crisis, I was permitted to expand the scope of the project and conduct research on the situation for refugees in Serbia.

My research question was the following: “What is the effect of a closed border on the living conditions for refugees and migrants and how do aid societies provide assistance to this vulnerable population in the face of fear and hatred?” My host organization, EuroTender Egyesulet, has close ties to the MigSzol (Migrant Solidarity), which is Szeged’s leading grassroots initiative to provide humanitarian aid to refugees. While in Hungary and Serbia, I worked closely with MigSzol’s spokesperson, Mark Kekesi, who has served the refugee and migrant populations since the summer of 2015.

Hungary completed a border fence along its southern border in September 2015. The fortification drastically reduced the number of entrants from breaching the border of the Schengen zone. Currently, Hungary is reviewing only five asylum applications per day at each of its two transit zones. They are prioritizing women, children, families and elderly. However, most of the 8,000 refugees in Serbia are young Afghan and Pakistani men. The wait time for their asylum applications to be reviewed is up to three years. As such, many of them refuse to follow the official means of immigration, instead choosing to rely on smugglers to sneak them across the Hungarian border.

To understand the effects of a closed border, I interviewed many different people and organizations in both Serbia and Hungary. The first stop was an abandoned brick factory, known as Ceglana, in Subotica, Serbia. The factory is home to approximately 60 Afghan and Pakistani men who live rough while they wait for an opportunity to cross the fence undetected. I interviewed six men there and they all reported multiple failed attempts to enter Hungary, resulting in beatings and push-backs into Serbia.

Next I traveled to Belgrade, which is home to thousands of refugees, mostly from Afghanistan and Pakistan. I spent most of my time conducting interviews with homeless refugees who live in ‘barracks,’ abandoned buildings behind the central bus station. The place is full of garbage and rats, without toilets or running water. To make conditions even more unbearable, to keep warm, men burn fires inside the building using railroad wood that is coated in chemicals and releases toxic smoke into the air. The men I met in the barracks all told similar stories of leaving Afghanistan and Pakistan because  of persecution from the Taliban. It took them an average of six months to pass through Iran, Turkey, Bulgaria and Serbia. All border crossings were risky, but most reported that Iran and Bulgaria were the most dangerous; with Iranian guards shooting to kill and Bulgarian police brutally beating them if they got caught. They claimed they had paid $8,000-$10,000 to smugglers to transport them to Western Europe, and all that stood in their way was the Hungarian border fence.

Hungary is currently constructing a second ‘smart fence,’ equipped with thermal cameras, motion detectors and a multi-lingual announcement warning trespassers to stay away. The new barrier will restrict entry into Hungary even beyond what the first fence was able to do. As such, the refugee population in Serbia is increasing in size and non-governmental organizations and inter-governmental agencies have had to quickly build capacity to provide services to what was previously just a transient population prior to the construction of Hungary’s border fence.

I visited several organizations in Belgrade, including Save the Children, Refugee Aid Miksaliste and InfoPark. I conducted interviews with staff members to understand how they are coping with the huge number of semi-permanent refugees in Belgrade and throughout Serbia, and what kinds of services and resources they provide to the refugees. Staff reported that the biggest need was for informal education opportunities for the refugees, as many are young men who discontinued their education, or never had formal education in their countries of origin. They provide a number of activities to stimulate the minds of the people, such as English, German and French lessons, games, art projects and city tours. All three organizations also provide psycho-social services for the refugees they serve, as they have often faced traumatic experiences in their home countries and along the migration route. Furthermore, because of Hungary’s sealed border, after each failed attempt to enter the country these refugees become more desperate and depressed, with some even becoming suicidal.

While in Hungary, I interviewed a representative from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). He provided insight into how they are working within the confines of government regulations to observe the treatment of refugees in the transit zones and detention camps along the border. The Hungarian government has severely restricted the work of UNHCR since the summer of 2015. At one point they prohibited UNHCR from distributing aid to refugees inside the transit zones, which were far away from any services and only had one toilet and one tap for water. Luckily, UNHCR was able to work with MigSzol and they provided meals to the refugees each day.

Interviewing refugees and aid societies helped me understand the gravity of the situation for people who remain stuck in the Balkans, unable to enter ‘Fortress Europe.’ It put a human face on the millions of people around the world who are forced to leave their home country due to persecution and flee toward safety. It also helped me understand the limited power of humanitarian aid organizations, which are restricted by governmental policies in terms of how they can serve the refugee populations.

The situation in Hungary is dynamic, with the parliament regularly passing new legislation that affects migration. The situation is bound to change, but it does not look like there will be an advancement of human rights’ norms on the Hungarian border in the near future.