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'Refugees Will Break the Wall': On the Frontlines of Hungary’s Immigration Fence

VICE News visited the latest fence around Fortress Europe — between Hungary and Serbia. Right-wing politicians argue that it is vital to keep out migrants, but for now it can also just be walked around.
August 18, 2015, 11:30am
Photo by Hugo Aymar

Mounir pulls out his phone to consult a map and send his WhatsApp location to a friend monitoring his stealth journey through Europe. He is one of over 60 Syrians and Iraqis huddled together taking a brief rest by dense woodland on the outskirts of the Serbian village of Kanjiza, mere kilometers from the Hungarian border.

Suddenly one of the group leaders runs down the line, ordering everyone to extinguish cigarettes and turn off cell phones, to avoid detection by border police and roaming bandits. Men, women, and children stand up, their raised protective sticks silhouetted in the moonlight, and descend into the darkness.

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Mounir and his fellow travelers represent a tiny contingent of what the United Nations has called the largest movement of forcibly displaced people since World War II, with refugees currently numbering over 60 million worldwide.

'Now we have reached the point of no return, my friend.'

Most are fleeing war and tyranny in Syria and Afghanistan, with other sizeable groups from Iran, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. The cheapest route to Europe is from Turkey through the Balkans.

Hungary is the first European Union (EU) state that migrants reach which is part of the passport-free Schengen scheme, hence it has become the second largest recipient of asylum seekers per capita after Sweden with the government logging over 110,000 asylum applications since the beginning of 2015.

Related: What We Witnessed at a French Migrant Camp Allegedly Controlled by People Smugglers

A group of Syrians illegally cross the Hungarian-Serbian border at night. Photo by Hugo Aymar

Less than 1 percent of migrants wish to settle in Hungary and instead merely transit across — hoping to reach Austria, Germany, and other wealthier European nations. Despite this, the right-wing Hungarian government led by Prime Minister Viktor Orban has responded to the humanitarian crisis by constructing a 109-mile (175-kilometer) fence across its southern border with Serbia in hope to stem the flow.

VICE News told Mounir about Hungary's immigration solution. He laughed and replied: "Oh? Nice. How much did this fence cost them? We will find a way to cross this, I'm telling you. Don't worry, just let the border be completed and we will find a way. We have a saying in my country: 'The metal will be discovered by the fire.' The European Union entered the fire, they discovered the metal, and it is strong."

Is the Hungarian government seriously proposing building borders between EU states?

Earlier in the day outside the Serbian border town of Subotica, Hassan, a printer from Baghdad and his friend Abbas sit under the shade of a tree, perspiring in the 104 degree Fahrenheit (45 degree Celsius) heat.

They are temporarily camped in the scrubland area outside an abandoned brick factory that has become an improvised resting point with charities visiting to donate food and water and conduct medical check-ups. A group of 10 Pakistani men appear from a field of crops, asking VICE News the direction to Hungary, before walking off into the distance.

At the abandoned brick factory where migrants stay before crossing the border. Photo by Hugo Aymar

Hassan fled Iraq after he was threatened by a militia when unable to pay a ransom for his kidnapped brother. Now he is making his way to Belgium where he hopes to claim asylum and bring his family across to build a new life.

He told VICE News: "I never left my country, even during the war with car bombings. I had a good job and a good salary, but now it's enough, there is danger in front of me. Sometimes when I walk in the street with my family, my kids see corpses on the street. I don't want them to grow up with that."

At the abandoned brick factory where migrants stay before crossing the border. Photo by Hugo Aymar

Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic recently expressed "shock" at Hungary's decision to build a fence across its border and it has sparked fears that Serbia will become a bottleneck of refugees unable to enter its northern neighbor.

Yet the fence's porosity was already demonstrated last week when 18 migrants were found in the Hungarian village of Assothalom after breaking through using wire-cutters. Assothalom, with a population of just 4,000, has only one police officer so unarmed civilian rangers are employed to monitor the border.

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Related: 'Everyone Will Make It One Day': Meeting the Calais Migrants Who Dream of England

Driving slowly along in a tiny Lada patrol vehicle, Barnabas Heredi shepherds a collection of apprehended migrants along a country road towards a police checkpoint. Some kind elderly villagers hand out bottles of water from across their gate to the tired masses.

Heredi told VICE News that he started working one year ago, thinking it would be a quiet job: "I understand why these migrants had to leave but I don't really feel sorry for them. They get treated well here and we still have many poor families in Hungary, why would you help them and not Hungarians?"

The fence abruptly stops here, with miles of open land surrounding it, affording anyone the possibility to simply walk around the edge.

On Saturday morning, more than 200 migrants had been apprehended in the fields of Assothalom in the space of one hour, awaiting transportation to immigration camps across Hungary for asylum processing.

Ali, a wedding photographer from northern Afghanistan trying to reach Finland, walked all night from Serbia to Hungary. He told VICE News: "We should be one land, no border. Refugees will break the wall."

The Hungarian government has recently begun construction of a 109-mile-long barrier to guard against irregular immigration along its border with Serbia. Photo by Hugo Aymar

In Budapest, Hungarian government spokesman Zoltan Kovacs told VICE News: "If necessary we are going to build a fence on other sections of the border. You have to halt, you have to stop this happening on the borders of Europe. That's it."

Hungary shares its eastern border with Romania. Is the Hungarian government seriously proposing building borders between EU states? Kovacs replied: "You cannot rule that option out. You have to stop this flood of illegal migration. Austria and Germany is full. Sweden is full. And they have started to send back people to the entry point, and that's Hungary. And that's a problem."

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In villages on the frontier, some officials hold a different view. In Kubekhaza, the site where the fence construction first started, mayor Robert Molnar told VICE News: "This is not about immigration, it's all internal politics. This fence is just an obscene gesture to the far-right and it's causing damage to Hungary's international reputation. It shows the world that we don't care about their problems."

Migrants detained after crossing the border. They will be transported to an immigration centre elsewhere in the country to process their asylum claims and get their fingerprints taken. Photo by Hugo Aymar

Won't the fence help to stem some of the immigration into Hungary? Molnar replied: "The possible consequence will be that migrants will follow the fence all the way to Kubekhaza and walk around it."

Molnar took VICE News to inspect the fence construction across a windswept field. A few meters away, a watchtower stands in Serbia and a church's steeple pokes out of a tree in Romania. A white triangular monument sits on the corner where all three borders meet, symbolizing peace and co-operation between the countries.

The fence abruptly stops here, with miles of open land surrounding it, affording anyone the possibility to simply walk around the edge. Three rows of coiled razor wire wobble in the wind and the individual sharp edges can be bent by applying pressure with the fingers.

Related: 'This Is the Jungle': Calais Migrant Camp Now Includes a Church, a School, and a Nightclub

Back in the woods, Mounir and his group have made it across into Hungary but a baby has begun to cry loudly. The whole group stands frozen still as his distressed wails float out into the still night and in the distance dogs begin to bark. Suddenly ahead a police light flashes and it is time for everybody to disperse.

"Now we have reached the point of no return, my friend. I don't know the destination, maybe straight, maybe not, let's see. No retreat, no surrender."

Follow Andrew Connelly on Twitter: @connellyandrew

Watch the VICE News documentary, Trapped In Bulgaria: Europe Or Die (Episode 3):