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Europe

Migrants trying to cross legally, stranded at Hungarian border

Refugees who reach Hungary via Serbia can only request asylum in transit zones at the border. They wait for weeks without shelter, adequate food or hygienic conditions to be let in. Balint Bardi reports from Röszke.

Ahmed and his friends are boiling water in a metal mug. Their campfire is on Serbian soil, just a few steps away from the Hungarian border, represented by a single metal stick and a three-meter tall barbed-wire fence five meters away from the actual borderline. Ahmed, a one-time law student from Damascus, has already spent two months in Serbia and has been waiting to pass through the transit zone for 20 days now. He sleeps in a tent made from blankets, eats UNHCR biscuits and juice and uses the bushes as a toilet.

Since September 15, migrants have been faced with two options if they want to enter Hungary from Serbia. Firstly, they can cross illegally by cutting the fence, facing the threat of arrest and possible expulsion if they do so. Around 150 people are caught by police every day trying to enter the country in this way. Typically these people are sentenced by a court to return back across the border as well as to a one-year ban from re-entering Hungary. However, as Serbia will not accept migrants expelled from Hungary, these people have little choice but to try to reach a further country.

Young asylum-seekers sit in front of a burnt-out campfire outside the transit zone

Single males often wait more than two weeks outside the gates of the transit zone to submit asylum applications

The second option is to use the transit zones along the fenced southern border of Hungary. There are four such zones - two on the Serbian and two on the Croatian border. They are closed spaces with mobile housing and office areas. The transit zones are legally neutral spaces, which allow Hungarian authorities to easily send asylum-seekers back to Serbia without processing their claims. Those who enter a transit zone may ask for asylum and wait for an official response, and in some cases, the Hungarian authorities can demand a return to the Serbian side. The zones are guarded by police and the army, but formally run by the Office of Immigration and Nationality (OIN).

Inside the zone

Single males are obliged to wait for the result of their asylum requests inside the transit zone where they applied. After 28 days OIN is required to bring them to a Hungarian-run camp. Women and children must wait only one day in the zone, after which they are moved to a camp. The transit zone itself has the capacity to house up to 50 people and can only accommodate new people as free spaces open up.

That is why Ahmed and other asylum-seekers have had to wait weeks for the opportunity to enter. The Hungarian authorities apparently open the gate two to three times almost every day, but they favor vulnerable groups: Families, children, women and disabled people have priority.

Around 40 people, all single males, were waiting outside the gate when DW visited the transit zone near the Hungarian village Röszke. But the numbers were in constant flux. A farmer who works near the transit zone on the Serbian side said he sees groups of 8-10 people arriving every day.

A Hungarian map shows the four transit zones

The Hungarians have set up transit zones at four locations on the borders to Croatia and Serbia

Adris, an 18-year-old Afghan, had come from the other transit zone on the Serbian border, Tompa, where he had waited for 12 days. He saw little chance of being selected to pass at Tompa, he said, because there were so many families waiting, so he decided to come to Röszke.

He saw a further disadvantage in being a Farsi speaker. "They always say that they don't have Farsi interpreters, only Arabic," said Adris of the OIN officials, suggesting the selection process was also dependant on interpreters.

According to Ernö Simon, spokesman for the Hungarian office of the UN refugee agency, the authorities let people enter in an ad-hoc fashion, sometimes opening the gates and choosing people at random. He said the situation often leads to chaos.

Poor conditions

While OIN allows personnel from the UNHCR inside the transit zones to help supply people waiting there, the situation of those stranded outside awaiting their turn is more critical. Simon of the UNHCR said recently that more than 100 people gathered at the gates to transit zones had to sleep under the stars each night.

Half of the nearly 20 tents DW saw at the Röszke site were flimsy holiday camping tents, while the other half were made of blankets and plastic foil. Migrants had access to running water from a single tap coming from the transit zone. There were no toilet facilities, nor were there shops or other places to get food for kilometers.

"The situation outside the transit zones is unacceptable and not in line with Hungary's obligations under international law," Lydia Gall, a Human Rights Watch researcher who monitored the transit zones in early April, told DW.

Containers topped with barbed wire

The transit zones have housing and office containers

Gall said so many migrants were stuck waiting in front of the transit zones because OIN was not processing asylum claims fast enough, with unnecessary bureaucracy creating major backlogs. She blamed the current rate of processing applications for creating misery on the border - to the point where people were considering turning to illegal means to cross the border.

In a statement to DW, OIN said: "There are no applicable legal requirements for Hungarian authorities to accommodate and supply foreign people waiting to enter. However, the officials of the OIN provide food packets every day to the people waiting outside the transit zones."

It went on: "Admission has slowed down as we need to interview, not just register, everybody who we deport to open reception centers - mainly due to the Brussels attacks."