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Razor Wire, Soldiers, and Mud: Hungary Is Sealing Itself Off From Europe's Migrants

VICE News visited the Hungarian border with Slovenia and Croatia where soldiers are building a razor wire and steel fence to keep migrants out the country.
Photo by Harriet Salem

In woodland on the border between Hungary and Croatia, soldiers wearing heavy-duty gloves unspool coils of jagged razor wire.

"This phase is near complete," one officer explained, "but the expectation is that small groups will still try and break though the defenses, so army patrols will remain vigilant in these border areas to catch illegal entries."

The soldier, who did not give his name as he was not authorized to speak, continued: "The idea is to keep the crowds out and deal with individual violations as the country's laws demand… we'll do what we need to to prevent people passing."


Hungary, a gateway country to northern Europe, has adopted a radically different approach to its neighbors in tackling a mass influx of people from Africa and the Middle East this year.

Soldiers install razor wire through the wooded border between Hungary and Croatia. Photo by Harriet Salem

While Serbia and Croatia have opted for a "Balkan Express" strategy, laying on free buses and trains to transit migrants on as quickly as possible, Hungary has declared itself a regional fortress declaring a state of military emergency in border regions and passing legislation allowing the police and army to use non-lethal force against those people attempting to cross.

Alongside its bolstered border defenses the Hungarian government has also run an anti-migration billboard campaign with posters featuring slogans such as: "If you come to Hungary, don't take the jobs of Hungarians."

The authorities have also placed adverts in Arabic newspapers warning migrants to stay away from the country.

Related: In Photos: The People, Families — and a Cat — Who Battled to Reach Europe

The campaign has been spearheaded by the country's prime minister Viktor Orban who has cast migrants as a "threat" to the country. "They're not just banging on the door, they're breaking the doors down on top of us," Orban said, prior to declaring a military emergency earlier in September. "Our borders are under threat. Hungary is under threat and so is the whole of Europe."

Razor wire has been installed by the Hungarian authorities along its border with Slovenia. Both countries are part of the Schengen open-travel zone. Photo by Harriet Salem

The fence, a combination of four-meter high steel barricades and razor wire, will eventually span more than 250 miles and cover the entirety of the country's border with Slovenia and Croatia. In a test-run earlier this month the border between Hungary and Serbia was entirely sealed with rail carts festooned with barbed wire.


Damaging or attempting to cross the fortification illegally is punishable by a draconian three years in prison. Two weeks ago Hungarian police fired tear gas and water canons at crowds of migrants, including women and children, gathered on the Serbian side of the country's southwest border. Use of rubber bullets is also permitted under new laws.

"The idea is to keep the crowds out and deal with individual violations as the country's laws demand… we'll do what we need to to prevent people passing,"

In villages close to the country's southwest border, most locals applauded the fence initiative. "I don't see a problem with protecting your country, it's a normal response," said Gregori Dobosh, a pensioner taking a morning coffee in a small cafe.

"Nobody knows who these people are, no identification documents are checked. There could be criminals and terrorists just walking through the fields. We're quiet, simple people [here]… I want to be able to sleep, safe at night in my bed not to look out the window and be stressed about who could be outside," he added.

Hungary's border with Serbia was sealed two weeks ago. At this crossing in Roske police used tear gas and water cannons to drive back crowds. Photo by Pete Kiehart.

Others questioned the migrants' real motivations and blamed Germany for the crisis. "They say oh refugees, but many people have been living in Turkey for years… it's mainly young men, not women and children, so I think that the truth is that they come here looking for money for jobs," said Gabor, a 22-year-old unemployed mechanic.


"If Mrs. [Angela] Merkel wants to welcome these people that's fine for Germany, but Hungary is a Christian country, having these people here will not work."

Related: 'I'm Doing it to Survive': Crossing the Croatian Border With Hundreds of Migrants

But while Hungary's hardline approach to the crisis may have won a seal of approval here — and a recent survey found 82 percent of Hungarians approve of the tough border measures — other European countries have slammed the approach as failing to tackle the wider problem.

"Fences, dogs, cops, and guns: This looks like Europe in the 1930s. And did we solve the refugee problem with this? No, we didn't," Romania's Prime Minister Victor Ponta said in mid-September, alluding to the Nazi era in Europe. "Erecting a fence only throws the problem into Serbia, into Croatia, into Romania."

Spools of razor wire at the roadside by Slovenian-Hungarian border. Photo by Harriet Salem.

Other critics point out that the vast majority of migrants see Balkan and Central European countries as only a stepping stone in their journey to reach more western and northern European countries such as Germany, Austria, Sweden, and France.

For now, with small segments of the border still open, thousands of migrants continue to take the gamble of transiting through the country, largely through a lack of other options; despite Hungary's resistance to being a "corridor country," the Croatian authorities continue to dump thousands of people in the fields next to the border.


Standing in a muddy field near Zakany with his five-year-old daughter, Mohammed Al-Sawaad from Damascus said that they had heard Hungary was a "bad country" and wanted to avoid it, but Croatian police had bussed their group to a field and walked them two-by-two through a small six-foot gap in the razor-wire fence.

The new arrivals were greeted on the other side by police after being spotted approaching the border by soldiers using thermal image binoculars watching from the rooftop of the nearby train station.

Migrants are still arriving in Hungary with the help of Croatian police who guide them through a small gap in the razor wire fence. Photo by Harriet Salem.

"They [the Croatian police] said: 'Go, go, this way to Hungary. We are in fields with nowhere else to go, so there's no choice but to follow the instructions," he said.

"We got here and the [Hungarian] police started shouting at us not to move from here, we don't know where they will take us, nobody will tell us, the children are tired and scared of the soldiers and guns — we had enough of that in Syria."

At the moment, Hungary is still providing trains to move people on. But a policeman at the border said that they expected new orders soon. "The fence is nearly complete so the situation can change any minute," another officer said. "I hope they find some solution, but this doesn't work for anyone, nobody wins in this situation," he added.

"It's disappointing to see the response of some [Hungarian] people to this crisis," said Dorottya Török, a volunteer from Budapest who had traveled to Zakany to give out food parcels to migrants. "There's a lot of people that do want to help these people, but there's also a lot of people that really hate them, just hate them. It's about 50/50." she added.

Unlike in other countries where migrants are allowed pass through stations distributing aid — such as food, water, and clothes — in Hungary those wanting to distribute donations can only pass the goods to outstretched hands reaching down from the crammed train. "We are just here to do what we can and show not all Hungarians think like this," said Török.

Follow Harriet Salem on Twitter: @HarrietSalem