Hiding in the woods looking for a gap and then, when one is spotted, running over the border, trying to avoid radar and dogs. Every night, hundreds of refugees wait at the wall of Europe, keeping an eye on the second fence that Hungary is building to join the 175 kilometer-long barrier that already separates the country from Serbia. They have tried to get across the two barriers dozens of times. Tonight is no different.
Those who manage to cross, if caught on Hungarian soil, are brutally beaten for hours, as we saw happen to a group of 75 migrants on Feb. 25 last year. Spray in their eyes, truncheons, blows to the ribs and feet, and attacked and bitten by dogs. “I had managed to travel at least 40 kilometers on Hungarian soil when the police arrested us. They destroyed our cell phones and took our shoes, they hit us and made us go back barefoot in the cold,” says Rehab, a Pakistani with a bloody black eye, at Subotica station, in Serbian Vojvodina. On the platforms, there are other injured people with broken limbs.
Many are children, because around 50 percent of migrants that arrive in Serbia via the Balkan route are minors, 20 percent of which are unaccompanied. But news of the abuse that they suffer never seems to reach Brussels. Ahsan, a 12-year-old child, escaped from the Indian state of Gujarat and has been living in a transit camp in Serbotica for the last three months, waiting to be added to the official list for Hungary, an absurd channel which only 10 asylum seekers pass through each day (while there have been around 7,000 refugees trapped in Serbia since last March). The night time, then, is the only hope; “border crossing” repeats Ahsan in the English he has picked up on the road. After crossing the border, last January, Hungarian police took his jacket and shoes away from him and made him lay on the ground for hours, in the freezing cold. Then, they forced him to walk back towards the border, barefoot. Temperature: below 20 degrees.
This torture in the cold is most certainly not an isolated incident, but a practice also put in place by Croatian police, as reported by observers of Welcome Initiative and Are you Syrious?
Shahid, a young Pakistani from Lahore, tells us that, in January, he was forced by Croation police officers to undress and, naked, get into the river that they had just crossed. He was with another 10 Pakistanis. “The police officers fired shots into the water to stop us from escaping,” he says. “We shouted, begging them to let us get out because we were dying of cold, but they made us stay, naked, in the freezing water for 30 minutes. In the end, they unloaded us on the other side of the border, in Serbia.”
In an abandoned brick factory in Subotica, Manzoor tells us about the treatment he endured after yet another attempt to cross the border to Shid, on the Croatian side. “After beating us, they loaded us into a van, made us get out one at a time in between two lines of police officers who started hitting us; they played football with our bodies and then, laughing, they took selfies.” Bombarded with racial slurs. “They shouted, ‘We don’t want you in our country, you’re terrorists, Taliban, you won’t get through here, you’re garbage,’” recalls Manzoor.
Planned, systematic violence. “It’s as though there is a ‘standard violence package’ to apply, a brutal ritual designed to ensure people don’t try and cross the European border again,” says Christopher Stokes, General Director of Doctors Without Borders, who has just returned from Serbia. “The European leaders should discuss if using this violence is how they plan to protect their borders.” Bites and broken limbs are illustrations of the method of deterrent being used. Stop migrants from walking, impair them, exhaust their bodies, wear them out and terrorize them.
This is why there is an Orwellian and high-tech border, made of razor wire but also with very modern sensors that can detect human bodily heat and sound an alarm; a border that, over loudspeakers, sends out a warning in every language (Arabic, Farsi, English): “This is the Hungarian border, turn back.”
The Budapest Parliament has just voted on a bill that allows asylum seekers in Hungary to be deported to the border with Serbia and, above all, to keep them in containers in special camps along the southern border of the country for as long as is necessary to assess their asylum request. Humans in shipping containers.
In reality, deportations from Hungary to Croatia and Serbia have been going on for months and this includes deportations of asylum seekers, as reported many times by UNHCR, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. On just one night, between Feb. 21 and 22, 240 people were deported from Hungary, 60 of which were asylum seekers. Even Syrian refugees were beaten and two were taken to hospital. Mohammed had escaped from the bombing in Aleppo and he cannot believe he was beaten black and blue in the middle of Europe.
From the clinic in Belgrade, Doctors Without Borders has tweeted photos of the bruises from the beatings, dog bites, swollen eyes caused by gas and pepper sprays, all the injuries suffered by refugees; intentional injuries, carried out by Hungarian patrols, that confirm the stories told by migrants.
They suffer mentally as well as physically. For some, closing the European borders can lead to serious forms of depression. After having spent all their savings on the journey, they find themselves stuck in Serbia, with no job opportunities and no way of going back or moving forward. And if you are a single Pakistani or Afghan man with no chance of crossing the border unless you wait two to three years, what hope do you have?
When faced with the Wall, the only alternative is to put yourself in the hands of traffickers. Manzoor, who speaks perfect English and has a master’s degree from the University of Lahore, tells us, “They are killing us mentally, they kill you every day.” He adds: “If you’re ridiculed when being beaten, something inside you dies. Every night, I have nightmares of the things the border guards shouted at me.”
As night falls, small groups of migrants on the platforms disappear into the jungle, a damp and freezing cold steppe, in which to find shelter for the night. “Every night, we change place, we’ll spend one night in the forest and another in the carriages,” says Bilal, an Algerian from Oran. “We’ll never stop.”