Thousands of migrants still taking Balkan route to EU

Pablo Gorondi
Associated Press

Budapest, Hungary — Thousands of migrants have continued to travel through Hungary on their way toward western Europe, despite fences, border closures and the European Union’s deal with Turkey to stop sea crossings to Greece.

Hungarian authorities have briefly detained nearly 11,000 people this year for breaching the razor-wire barriers on its borders with Serbia and Croatia and most of them have later continued their journeys to Austria, Germany and other favored destinations in the EU, the government and aid groups say.

Instead of crossing the sea from Turkey to Greece, some of the new arrivals have come by the dangerous route from Turkey through Bulgaria and then to Serbia, where about 100 people have been arriving daily.

While the overall numbers of those reaching Hungary are now a fraction of those flooding into the country at the height of the migrant crisis last year, the continued flow has forced Austria to re-introduce controls on its border with Hungary.

“Putting up a fence in the way of a refugee population is not going to be the answer, it has not solved the problem itself,” said Babar Baloch, Central Europe spokesman for the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR. “Whatever the approach the Hungarian government is taking, it is not helping itself, the refugees or the EU.”

However, the Hungarian government still says the fence has been a success.

“The temporary security border seal — commonly called the fence — has lived up to expectations, since after its construction the number of illicit border crossings fell drastically,” government spokesman Zoltan Kovacs said.

Police data showed that while nearly 47,000 migrants and refugees were detained entering Hungary in January-April 2015, the number dropped to 10,309 in the same period this year.

The top countries of origin of asylum seekers were Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq, followed by Morocco, Iran, Syria and Algeria. Last year, Syria topped the list, followed by Afghanistan and Kosovo.

At a reception center in the town of Bicske, 27 miles west of Budapest, some of the new arrivals were pondering their next steps.

Matiullah, a high schooler from the eastern Afghan city of Jalalabad, said he was trying to reach Germany to continue his studies. He did not give his last name, concerned about his family back home, including three younger siblings and his father, a policeman.

“I left with my father’s approval because Daesh wanted to kidnap me,” Matiullah said, using an Arabic acronym for the Islamic State group. “If I stay in Hungary, I am afraid I will be sent back.”

The Urdu-speaking teenager said it took just over a month to reach Hungary as smugglers relayed him on a route through Iran, Turkey, Bulgaria and Serbia.

Bulgaria is considered a more treacherous route than Greece, because it also has a border fence and there have been reports of vigilante “migrant hunters” and police harassment.

The government acknowledged that most of those who apply for asylum in Hungary do not want to stay here. Though the country has received nearly 13,400 asylum requests so far this year, less than 2,300 of the applicants were still in reception centers on May 4.

“While more and more wait until their cases are resolved, a significant number of asylum seekers continue to view Hungary as a transit country,” Kovacs said.

That does not surprise aid agencies and refugee advocates.

“Refugees do not believe they have much chance of being granted asylum in Hungary,” said Marta Pardavi, co-chair of the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, a human rights group.

Hungary had granted asylum or other kinds of international protection to 154 people by the end of March, according to the latest data available, compared with 508 approvals in all of 2015.

“It is clear Hungary does not want refugees to come here,” said Baloch of the UNHCR. “It is trying to shift responsibility rather than sharing it when Europe is still going through a refugee crisis.”

Hungary has justified the fence with the need to defend its external borders, while Prime Minister Viktor Orban has characterized the migrant influx as an “invasion” threatening Europe’s security and Christian culture.

Orban last year described the migrants as mostly young men who “look more like an army than asylum seekers … young men from the Arab world who look like warriors.”

When the Balkan route abruptly closed in early March, thousands of migrants got stuck in Macedonia and Serbia. And when the EU-Turkey migrant deal came into effect on March 20 many others were stranded in Greece.

The overcrowding at Bicske and other locations made Hungary reopen a reception center last week in the eastern town of Kormend, next to the border with Austria, to accommodate up to 300 people in large tents.

Austria, meanwhile, which re-imposed controls on its border with Hungary in late April, extended patrols to the area, wary of the possible migrant influx.

If the Austrian measures prove effective, the number of asylum seekers stuck in Hungary will rise.

“While Hungarian facilities are full beyond capacity, the situation remains manageable,” Pardavi said. “This trend could change if Austria no longer tolerates the irregular entry of the refugees who made their applications in Hungary. There simply will not be any place to put everyone.”

Sitting on a bench outside a supermarket in Bicske, Ali Husseini, 22, said he and several friends had left Pakistan three months ago, often relying on smugglers. They had been taken to the Bicske center within three days of being caught at the border with Serbia and were planning to stay in the camp for two weeks to recuperate from their three-month trek.

“We have little money left, so we will probably walk the rest of the way,” said Husseini, who hopes to join friends and find work in Italy.