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Hungarian Border Police Are Playing Cat and Mouse With a Flood of Migrants From Kosovo

Hungarian police estimate that 1,000 migrants from Kosovo illegally cross the border every day, fleeing unemployment and corruption in their homeland.
Photo by Marko Djurica/Reuters

They come with stories of 55 percent unemployment, a corrupt government, and no prospects, hoping to find a new life. Some wait for the police to collect them in groups of 20 or 30, huddled around campfires by a snowy, desolate road lined with fir trees. Smaller groups evade capture and try to get to the nearest city.

They are migrants from Kosovo who have fled their homeland, traveling through the forests of Asotthalom, on Hungary's southern border. Waves of displaced people poured out of Kosovo in the 1940s and '90s, but the smartphones carried by this generation betray the fact that the latest exodus from the Balkans is unfolding in the present day.


Alban, a 28-year-old Kosovar, pleads with the driver of a private car to give him a ride. He has mistaken a tractor approaching on the road for one of the huge police vans that just rounded up 40 of his compatriots.

"If you are going to be human, do it for me!" he shouts, urging the driver to let him in.

After a minute's deliberation, the driver takes pity on Alban and his two friends, who squeeze into the back of his car for a 20 kilometer drive to nearby Szeged, where they plan to catch a taxi to Budapest.

Kosovo has never recovered from the war that ended in 1999. Alban said he applied for 200 jobs, but to no avail.

"A mafia government would be better than what they have now," Alban said. He described the Kosovo's leaders as being "like Robin Hood in reverse," taking from the poor for the benefit of the rich.

State corruption and soaring unemployment rates culminated in two mass demonstrations against the Kosovar government last month, triggered by an ethnic Serb minister calling Albanians "savages."

'A mafia government would be better than what they have now.'

Hungarian police estimate that 1,000 Kosovar migrants cross the border every day. One Kosovar told VICE News about a village that once had a population of 700 that is now completely empty. The town's mayor, he claimed, was the last to leave.

Ask any of the Kosovars about their preferred destination and the answer is invariably Germany. The most common route takes them from somewhere in Kosovo to the capital Prisitina, then on to Belgrade and Subotica in Serbia. They are then dropped at a bend in the highway near the Hungarian border. From there, it is an eight-hour trudge through forest and marshes, following the footsteps in the snow, to Asotthalom. Alban told VICE News this trek cost him 250 euros.


A February 8 memorandum issued by Kosovo's embassy in Berlin called for a "quick fix action" from Germany.

"Only news in the Kosovan media of significant numbers of returnees from Germany on charter planes can convince enough people to believe that illegal immigration to Germany does no work," the memo suggested.

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Kosovar refugees huddled around a fire in the forest near Asotthalom, Hungary. (Photo by Balázs Szalai)

Hungary's ultranationalist parties have seized on the influx of migrants as a political issue. László Toroczkai, the mayor of Asotthalom and a member of the far-right Jobbik party, recently called for building a fence along the border to keep the foreigners out.

Toroczkai has been mayor for around a year, but he is best known for leading a mob that stormed a state television building during anti-government riots in 2006. The incident coincided with a lurch to the right in Hungarian politics, which had until then been mainly ruled by the former state socialist party MSZP since 1989.

The savvier Kosovars know they must get to Western Europe to have a chance of permanent escape. It is safest to use taxis, and some arrange lifts in advance. The unlucky ones who get picked up by police spend six to eight weeks at a camp in Debrecen or Nyirbator before being sent back to Kosovo, where they are typically left with no livestock or valuables to sell in order to finance another attempt.

Genc, a 22-year-old who recently graduated from college after studying IT, stood waiting by the side of the road with his father and his 20-year-old sister. He told VICE News he left his homeland for better opportunities abroad.


"We lived in Germany for 11 years, but returned to Kosovo to live and work there, but now we are going back to somewhere there are some prospects for us," he said.

A car pulled up and a man who spoke both Hungarian and Serbian asked a one-word question: "Budapest?" The deal was apparently organized in advance. The family was gone in seconds.

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The local police in Asotthalom are massively outnumbered and inexperienced. In one forest clearing, VICE News saw two officers guarding a group of 80 Kosovars in hoodies and wooly hats. When one officer followed a migrant who left to collect firewood, only one guard was left to watch over the rest of the group.

On Saturday evening, one officer reminded his colleagues to be careful with the migrants. "They might have Ebola," he said, seemingly serious despite the ridiculousness of his words. He went on to explain that he had covered his car seats in plastic wrap out of an abundance of caution.

Even before the flood of Kosovars began to arrive, Hungary's emergency accommodation facilities were stretched to breaking point due to a spike in asylum seekers from Afghanistan and Syria last year. Some 30,000 refugees have been caught by Hungarian border police and applied for asylum since September, compared to 6,000 total in 2013.

Last weekend, police detained 940 people for illegally crossing the border, mainly at Asotthalom, according a spokesman for Csongrád county spokesman. The detainees included 880 Kosovars, 41 Afghans, eight Congolese nationals, and six Syrians, as well as one Nigerian and one Ghanaian.


The Hungarian police also target railway stations. They stopped 250 Kosovars at the railway station in Gyor, in western Hungary, on February 2. Another 183 people were apprehended at Budapest's Keleti station the following day, and 120 were caught on February 8. Undercover detectives operate around Keleti station, which runs international rail services to Vienna and Munich.

Antal Rogan, the caucus leader of Hungary's ruling Fidesz party, promised swift action against "economic migrants" at a press conference Tuesday at the station. Anti-government activists protested during his speech. One of their signs referred to 250,000 Hungarians who were displaced after the uprising against the Soviets, asking "Would you have closed the borders in 1956?"

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Some 30,000 refugees have been caught by Hungarian border police and applied for asylum since September, compared to 6,000 total in 2013. (Photo by Balázs Szalai)

Some 500,000 Hungarians, mainly young people, have left the country since Rogan's party regained power in 2010. The protesters reminded him of this fact, holding up banner that asked, "When will you hold a press conference about emigration from Hungary?"

Most Kosovars are seemingly unaware that, unlike in the 1990s, they can no longer claim asylum in the European Union as a whole. Many migrants end up in Nyirbator, a controversial facility that the Hungary's government ombudsman found inhumane in a 2012 report. The European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg has consistently ruled against extraditing people back to Hungary, saying it could result in their unlawful detention.


Officials from Hungary, Germany, Serbia, and Austria met Monday in Belgrade to discuss ways to stem illegal immigration. Serbian Interior Minister Nebojsa Stefanovic announced that his country would deploy a supplementary gendarmerie unit at its border crossings with Hungary and provide thermal imaging cameras to police in both countries. Stefanovic said migrants "will answer in court for committing criminal acts."

Károly Papp, chief commissioner of the Hungarian National Police, said the added security measures "will contribute to greater security of all our citizens."

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But despite the best efforts of Hungarian police, Kosovars like Alban, the young migrant who pleaded for a ride after mistaking a tractor for a police vehicle, still find a way to slip through the cracks. He and two friends ended up at a small hotel in Buda, the western part of the Hungarian capital.

"Big hotels mean trouble," he said. They planned to take a taxi to Vienna at 6pm that night, but the receptionist at their hotel became suspicious and called the police. They slipped away by saying they were going out for coffee, ending up instead in a nearby pub.

"I am lucky," Alban said repeatedly, like it was a mantra. Sure enough, he soon struck up a conversation with a fellow customer, who suggested they use a carpooling website for the next leg of their journey. By midnight Tuesday, they were en route to Vienna, one step ahead of the law once again.

Follow Daniel Nolan on Twitter: @nolan_dan