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The long crossing to Hungary: refugees between borders and barbed wire

Written by Todor Gardos and Alice Wyss, Europe researchers at Amnesty International

"The journey has been so difficult, especially for my child," Noor*, a 27-year-old woman from Afghanistan tells us.

I have had to watch her be scared every day, dry her tears every day. – Noor

Noor is in Horgoš (Хоргош) on the Serbian-Hungarian border, a tented pre-transit camp beside a high barbed-wire fence. Each morning she joins hundreds of others, crowding around anxiously to look at a list, to see where their name is and how much longer they have to wait. It is a document which directs the fate of hundreds of people – some of them months into their journey, some of them years. This is the waiting list for refugees and asylum seekers trying to move on to Hungary and the European Union.

Noor asks to speak to us away from children who have, she says, already seen and heard too much.

"Life for us became very difficult…It was too dangerous for us to leave the house. We had to leave, we had no choice," she tells us.

My dream is to see my daughter happy. To watch her be able to go to school, to learn and to finally be safe. – Noor

Hers is an all-too-familiar story; they travelled over land from Afghanistan to Turkey, crossed by boat to Greece and became stuck in dreadful conditions there, before finally making their way northwards through Macedonia to Serbia.

Yet at the moment, they are merely names and numbers on an endless waiting list, surviving day-to-day. The camps are beside the border in Horgoš and Kelebia. These have become the ‘pre-transit zones’, where refugees who wish to apply for asylum in Hungary are forced to wait.

The only source of water is a couple of sinks and there is a line of portable toilets alongside the fence. There are no showers and no areas for children to play or adults to rest. Most of the families stay all day in their makeshift homes made around small tents in an attempt to escape the dirt and the baking sun. Some have carried their elderly mothers and fathers on their backs and in wheelchairs to reach Europe. We meet pregnant women on the brink of delivery, mothers with new-born babies, entire families who’ve left everything to escape the destruction of their hometowns by the armed group that calls itself Islamic State (IS) or the Taliban.

These camps, first ignored – then patrolled – by the Serbian border police are currently home to some 600 people. In Horgoš more than 400 people, who are mainly Farsi speakers, in Kelebia 200 people whose first language is Arabic or Kurdish. Most of them are families with small children.

Tents in the refugee camp made of blankets and sticks


Having a common language eases communication inside each of the camps and has contributed to a calmer atmosphere for all. But the weeks of waiting are no less excruciating.

Makeshift processing posts in shipping containers run by the Hungarian authorities open very briefly each morning, allowing 15 people into each of the two transit zones. The lucky few selected are based on a list submitted by camp leaders and ‘verified’ by the Hungarian migration office. Various organizations create lists and surveys of the camp population, but there is no official screening of vulnerabilities or special needs.

Any errors on the lists can carry devastating consequences. E., an unaccompanied minor aged 17 from Afghanistan, travelled to the border with a family that provided him protection. However his name was not on the list of family members so, after 45 days of waiting and with no questions asked, he was returned to the camp (and the bottom of the list). He should have been on another list, officials said as they pushed him out the door.

In Kelebia, we meet a Kurdish family of seven from north-east Syria. “Have you heard of the big explosions in our city?” they ask us. “We decided to leave because Daesh (IS) came to our city, killed our men and kidnapped our women.”

Earlier this year, they spent four months in the hell of the makeshift camp in Idomeni at the border between Greece and Macedonia.

The mother is about to give birth at any moment; whether in Serbia or Hungary, they do not know.

In Horgoš we meet a family of eight from Afghanistan. The youngest child is just three and swings on our arms as we talk, wanting to play. We hear that her mother is sick and in a lot of pain. She urgently needs treatment that she cannot get in the camp.

“We are so afraid,” her husband says, “we don’t know what to do”. They have been in Horgoš for almost a month and tell us they are number 127 on the list. With seemingly no way to cross any sooner to access medical treatment they are left waiting, scared and unsure about what the future holds.

Those refugees who finally manage to cross the border into Hungary and enter the European Union will find that they have not reached a promised land. Instead they will be faced with many more difficulties and many more tears to dry.

Refugees should not need to risk their lives and go through hell to find safety in Europe; they need safe and legal routes to protection and to be treated with dignity.

*Noor’s name has been changed.

This article first appeared on New Internationalist magazine.

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Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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