The game of hope – Asylum seekers at the Serbian-Hungarian border

Since Hungary has built the border fence, refugees have to wait for as long as a year to gain admission to the transit zone where they can file for asylum. Admission is hectic and slow and favours families and unaccompanied minors. Most of those who attempt crossing illegally are single males over 18. ➢ Read more in our Dossier on Hungary

Fence at the closed transit zone of Röszke, Hungary
Teaser Image Caption
Fnce at the closed transit zone of Röszke, Hungary

“Two days ago I went with some friends to play ‘the game’, but the Hungarian police caught us. They beat us, used pepper spray on us and pushed us back into Serbia.” This is how 19-year-old Ali N. from Afghanistan begins his story. “We tried again the same night, but the police caught us again. They released dogs on us, although the dogs had muzzles. The police beat us again, and again they pushed us back into Serbia. I was hit by a truncheon on my back and chest. They also punched me in the… that place between the legs. It still hurts.”

Demonstration in Hungary, Budapest

This article is part of our ongoing special "Focus on Hungary".

The Heinrich Böll Foundation has been compiling an online dossier containing articles on the situation in Hungary since the right-wing government came to power in April 2010. The dossier is understood as forum for critical voices from Hungary. Their contributions reflect the socio-political changes in Hungary referring to current trends as well as long-term developments.

“The game” that Ali is referring to is a term that refugees in Serbia began to use for illegal border crossings about a year ago. Ali made eight attempts at “the game” on the Serbian-Croatian border, but the Croatian police caught him every time. “The last time I tried, they confiscated my cell phone, beat us several times and pushed us back into Serbia. We usually try the game to cross into Croatia, not Hungary. We know that the Hungarians have dogs and they beat us much harder,” says Ali. “This time, we tried to cross into Hungary because we were desperate after so many attempts to enter Croatia. But I will never try to cross into Hungary again. My whole body aches and I can barely walk. My friend was in the other group. They were luckier. The Hungarian police just confiscated their phones and pushed them back into Serbia; they didn’t beat them. He said there were also German police there, who stood to the side watching and laughing. They had German flags on their uniforms.”

I spoke with Ali two weeks ago in an old brick factory on the outskirts of Subotica, a town close to the Serbian-Hungarian border. The old brick factory was abandoned long ago, but since 2011 – when the number of refugees travelling to Western Europe via Serbia increased sharply – it has been a gathering point for human smugglers and for refugees, who wait for days or weeks to illegally cross the Hungarian border[1].

These days, there are not as many refugees on the border as was the case several years ago. Like Ali and his friends, they usually try to leave in groups. They wait for nightfall so they can try “the game”. If they do not succeed, they return to the asylum centre or temporary reception centre where they live – until the next attempt.

The lists for Hungary

Serbia has 18 such centres all around the country, as well as three transit centres – in Subotica and Sombor near the Hungarian border, and in Kikinda near the Romanian border. Asylum-seekers arrive at the transit centres when it is their turn to enter Hungary, according to “the lists”.

Refugees in Serbia refer to “the lists” as often as “the game”. These lists are compiled by the Commissariat for Refugees of the Republic of Serbia (CRS) in all asylum centres and temporary reception centres in the country. The lists contain the names, dates of birth and countries of origin of all refugees who do not wish to stay in Serbia, but instead wish to legally continue their journey to the EU. CRS sends the lists to the Hungarian authorities, and then asylum-seekers wait for an invitation from Hungary.

The duration of the wait depends on the order of admission into Hungary, and it is the Hungarian officials who actually dictate this order. Currently, the waiting period is longer than last year due to a measure introduced by the Hungarian authorities in January 2017, under which the daily quota for admission has been reduced to only ten persons – five persons per day are admitted into the two transit zones where asylum-seekers can legally enter Hungary (next to the Horgoš 1 and Kelebija border crossings).

No one is admitted on weekends or holidays, which means that only ca. 200 people per month are able to enter Hungary legally. This has resulted in a significant backlog. For example, refugees who entered Serbia in November or December of last year are being admitted to Hungary only now. There are no strict rules, however; some families in Serbia have been waiting for their invitation for more than a year.

The majority of those who enter Hungary according to the lists are families and unaccompanied minors, who have priority. For single male adults like Ali, the waiting seems endless. They are aware of the sad truth that the lists are just another formality obscuring the real message – that they are not welcome. This is why most of those who make repeated attempts to illegally cross the border are single males over 18.

The list of violence

The Humanitarian Center for Integration and Tolerance (HCIT), a partner organisation of the UNHCR, has mobile teams at various locations in northern and western Serbia.

According to HCIT statistics, 95% of those who have been expelled from Hungary and Croatia after the summer of 2016 have been men from Pakistan and Afghanistan along with a few from Iran and Bangladesh, as well as many unaccompanied and separated children (UASC) – mostly boys from Afghanistan and Pakistan.[2]

This trend has continued in 2017, and the number of UASCs who have been expelled has increased to 15%, again mostly Afghan and Pakistani boys. According to many accounts collected and recorded by HCIT field protection teams who have interviewed victims and witnesses of the collective expulsions close to the Kelebija and Horgoš transit zones and along the border belt in the Subotica and Kanjiža municipality during 2016 and 2017, the use of violence has been constant and is typically followed by forceful expulsions of refugees from Hungary into Serbia. Violence has also been used against persons with special needs.

According to reports and based on information from the Belgrade Center for Human Rights, Hungarian border guards have used various violent methods such as having several officers beat a person lying on the ground at the same time with truncheons, kicking and punching; pepper-spraying asylum-seekers in the eyes either right after capture or before expulsion; and releasing police dogs trained to attack. In the winter months of early 2017, these methods also included confiscating blankets and clothing from asylum-seekers and throwing them away (in some cases asylum-seekers were even forced to strip down to their underwear and stand in the cold, or to stand barefoot in the snow for hours), as well as pouring water on asylum-seekers and making them stand in the cold for longer periods of time.

Nonviolent expulsions were documented as well, and returnees were “advised to go to the Transit gates in order to officially apply for regular admission to Hungary”.

In recent months, fewer people have been sleeping rough near the Serbian-Hungarian border than on the border with Croatia, where HCIT teams register between 150 and 200 mostly young males from Algeria and Afghanistan each day. HCIT also records attempts at illegal border crossings into Hungary on a daily basis.

According to HCIT records, as project assistant Ivana Vukašević told us, the situation has improved in the last couple of months with respect to violence committed by Hungarian border guards, so HCIT now mostly documents nonviolent expulsions of refugees.

Hungarian border guards expel refugees caught attempting irregular border crossings immediately, regardless of whether or not they are seeking asylum, even in cases of people with special needs. They are immediately sent to transit gates, sometimes to the transit gates at Horgoš and Kelebija, but also in the other parts of the border, through gates all over the long barbed wire fence that Hungary built across the whole length of its border with Serbia. There have even been cases of forceful expulsions of people who did not enter Hungary from Serbia and had never been to Serbia before. This is possible under an amendment to Hungarian legislation on asylum and migration passed in March 2017 which has expanded the 8 km border control zone to the entire country and thus makes it possible to detain and expel any refugees or foreigners residing in the country unlawfully.

An uncertain future

Under this legislation, asylum-seekers entering a transit zone are accommodated in camp trailers where they must remain until all the formalities of obtaining refugee status have been completed – which can take months. They are not allowed to leave the transit zone until the end of the process. If they give up or they are rejected, their only option is to return to Serbia.

Nikola Kovačević, a legal officer with the Belgrade Centre for Human Rights, a partner organisation of the UNHCR, believes that Germany and Austria officially suspended the practice of returning asylum-seekers to Hungary as a direct result of the Hungarian approach to refugees. While no other EU member countries have passed official suspensions, many are following a similar policy in practice.

The Hungarian government has designated Serbia as a “safe country” and rejects most asylum claims automatically referring to this status. Thereafter, Hungary expels asylum-seekers without any coordination with Serbian officials, and the process preceding expulsion lacks procedural safeguards against refoulement or chain-refoulement to Macedonia and Greece.[3]

Based on the experience of HCIT, it is impossible to predict how many people will be sent back to Serbia. Sometimes, Hungary does not expel anyone for weeks, but in August 2017 they expelled more than 20 people in a single day. The process involves Hungarian police opening the transit gates and the asylum-seekers entering Serbia on their own (the transit gates are installed a couple of metres into Hungarian territory). This is not a regular procedure such as readmission of foreigners to Serbia, since Serbian officials have never been informed that any of these people would be coming.

All of those expelled from Hungary are being sent to the transit centre in Subotica for urgent accommodation, but they remain there for only a short time. A few of them consider settling in Serbia, but most of them do not see a future there and say they will keep trying to get to the EU any way they can.

Autumn on the refugee road

The UNHCR recorded around 4,200 refugees, migrants and asylum-seekers in Serbia in the middle of September 2017, which is less than half the number in June of this year when this figure was around 9,000. Since Hungary admits only ten people per day, it is obvious that smugglers’ routes through Hungary, Croatia and especially Romania have become “more efficient” in recent months.

According to HCIT data for the last month, however, Serbia’s asylum centres and temporary reception centres are once again filling up with new arrivals. These are mostly families with children and, rarely, single males. Based on interviews that HCIT has conducted with some of the refugees, it seems they had very well-organised transport to Serbia, as it took them only a couple of days to arrive from Turkey and Greece.

There is also a psychological dimension to the situation of asylum-seekers in Serbia’s border regions. According to a study on the mental health of refugees in Serbia conducted by the Psychosocial Innovation Network (PIN)[4], a partner organisation of the UNHCR, 88% of refugees in Serbia are in need of immediate or continuous psychological support, while 61% suffer from significant mental health hardships. The predominant mental health diagnoses in Serbia’s refugee population are depression (48%), anxiety (37%), and post-traumatic stress disorder (28%).

“Now I am thinking about going back to Afghanistan,” says Ali. “I know what I ran away from and what I will face over there, but there’s nothing for me here."

[1] The interview was conducted in September 2017. Since then the brick factory has been demolished for its bricks and refugees do not gather there anymore. (editor)

[3]  Refoulement is the forcible return of refugees or asylum-seekers to a country where they are liable to be subjected to persecution or treatment contrary to Article 3 of the European Convention of Human Rights.

[4] Vukčević Marković M.,Gašić J., Bjekić J.,(2017. in press). Refugees’ mental health. Research report. Available on from Friday, 1st of December