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Flawed fence

Lidija Tomic, Hungarian-Serbian borderJuly 31, 2015

As Hungary continues work on a border fence, its neighbor Serbia is struggling to cope with an influx of refugees. Can a 21-million-euro fence stop these desperate people? Lidija Tomic visited the border to find out.

Image: DW/D. Milosevic

Amid dense shrubs and bushes, the first 150-meter "sample section" of the planned 175-kilometer-long fence has been built on the outskirts of the southern town of Morahalom.

You would think that at 4 meters high it's difficult to miss, however the fence is still relatively well hidden. Looking from the Serbian side, the border is covered by thick greenery. For hungry and exhausted migrants walking through the sandy orchards and vineyards in 40C-degree heat, it might seem like an oasis. The whole area is overgrown with weeds, bushes and trees, and is an ideal place to rest while preparing for the next move - much like Omar and his friends did. They were following the hose that had irrigated the nearby field, looking for some water to drink and cool down from the burning sun.

"We have been traveling from Syria for three weeks now. My home was destroyed by an army rocket, and I didn't know what to do but to join my friends in their search for a better life. We won't stay long here, we are looking for the border," said Omar, 17-year-old boy from Aleppo, not realizing he was only 5 meters away from the Hungarian fence.

people standing on field photo: Dejan Milosevic
A chance to recuperateImage: DW/D. Milosevic

Our conversation is cut short by a mysterious sound. Omar and his fellow travelers quickly pick up their bags and decide to move on. As they leave, the sound became clearer, emanating from a bulldozer and other heavy machinery Hungarian soldiers were using to flatten the ground.

Flaws in the fence

The galvanized fence with NATO razor wire on top rises up from the shrubs and bushes. It looks threatening, just like its creators intended. But it has one flaw. The fence is erected 2.5 meters from the border, and every migrant who arrives at its base or climbs on top would technically be on Hungarian territory and therefore under its jurisdiction. Legally speaking, this fence cannot stop these people from Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan or any other country from requesting asylum.

"This is true, since the fence will be erected on Hungarian soil. Once the fence is built border crossing points will clearly not disappear, since the everyday border traffic needs to be secured. Migrants arriving or stopped at border crossings cannot be prevented from applying for asylum, if they wish to do so. Police or other authorized officers are not allowed to ignore or to pretend not to understand their request, neither at the fence, nor at the border crossing," Aniko Bakonyi, project manager at the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, an NGO for human rights, told DW.

Since March 2015, 60-80 percent of the asylum-seekers from countries like Syria, Iraq or Afghanistan have come to Hungary, which has created new types of problems for authorities dealing with capacity issues. But, as Bakonyi tells DW, institutions and organizations working with them don't receive sufficient support from the government. On the contrary, it intends to close all the shelters operating within city boundaries and to move migrants to tent camps outside inhabited settlements.

"A fraction of the new iron curtain development plan's wasted resources could significantly alleviate the asylum capacity shortage. These problems will not be solved by a fence, because the object itself will not be able to restrain migration, nor to change our country's geographical position," she says

Growing influx

The influx has significantly increased since the government announced its plans to build a fence. Thousands of refugees are arriving in Serbia, trying to take advantage of a favorable situation as long as it lasts. The border fence will indeed make irregular migration more difficult, but at the same time it will benefit smugglers and will increase corruption practices.

The Hungarian government expects up to 300,000 migrants to reach the country this year, around twice its earlier estimate. So far, more than 80,000 illegal border-crossers have been caught by the police. Meanwhile, parliament has passed new legislation tightening asylum rules, allowing the detention of migrants in temporary camps, speeding up asylum assessments, and limiting the possibility for appeal.

"Our main concern is that over 99 percent of claims by asylum-seekers who came through Serbia will be automatically rejected, without any examination. The authorities have eight days to decide, and migrants only three days to appeal. Deportation is possible while the review is ongoing, without a hearing," Bakonyi says.

Hungary indefinitely suspended the the European Dublin III regulation a month ago, fearing that refugees, who requested asylum first in Hungary and then moved on, would be sent back by Western states. "Hungary will become a refugee camp," Prime Minister Viktor Orban warned. But currently that is not the case. Of the 40-50,000 migrants who left Hungary in 2013-2014, 1,350 were deported. For the almost 3,000 people who entered Germany after applying for asylum in Hungary in the first quarter of 2015, only 42 were sent back.

Needless waste of money

There are currently 3,000-4,000 asylum-seekers in Hungary. In neighboring Serbia, 55,000 migrants have expressed their intention to seek refugee status. Red Cross records show that some 1,000 people come to Serbia every day. Although they stay for a short while in order to get basic aid and rest from their long journey, most of them want to reach Germany, Switzerland or Scandinavian countries as their final destination.

people standing next to a bus photo: Lidija Tomic,
Serbia is struggling to cope with the influx of refugees passing throughImage: DW/L. Tomic

"The police take effective steps for preventing the illegal flow of migrants along the Serbian-Hungarian border. Almost all people who cross the border are caught. But Hungary cannot send them back to Serbia immediately because these people apply for asylum, and therefore Hungary is obligated to conduct the procedure, and to decide whether to approve them asylum," Rados Djurovic, executive director of the Serbian Asylum Protection Center, tells DW.

He explains that refugees have the right to seek asylum, regardless of whether they entered the country legally or illegally, and regardless of whether they have a visa, passport or other documents. "Refugees are freed from the criminal offense for illegal border crossing," he says and adds that Hungary shouldn't needlessly waste money on fence construction, but spends it more effectively on humanitarian aid, such as building new refugee centers and providing better assistance to asylum-seekers.

Djurovic stresses that Hungary is playing a dangerous game by transferring its problems to Serbia which has its own agenda as it pushes for EU accession. "The wall is not the solution, and its building is contrary to the UN Refugee convention, the European asylum acquis, and the Schengen Agreement," Djurovic concluded.