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Flocking to Europe

Lidija Tomic, SuboticaJuly 1, 2015

Hungary's plans to build a border fence to stop migrants passing through have triggered a huge outcry. But as Lidija Tomic reports from the border with Serbia, the migrants remain undeterred.

Image: DW/L. Tomic/D. Milošević

"There is no wall that will stop us on our way to a better life. We passed mountains by foot, crossed the sea with an inflatable boat, and drove under the train wagon through two countries. If Hungary is going to build the fence, we will dig a tunnel, and go under it," Daniel, a 16-year-old Afghan boy from Iran, who traveled 40 days with a friend and his family to Serbia, tells DW.

As Hungary prepares to install a 4-meter-high and 175-kilometer-long fence on the border with Serbia, Daniel and his friends reside near an abandoned brick factory in the outskirts of Subotica, Serbia's most northern town. The old factory that lies between the rail road, a landfill and a cemetery is the last stop for migrants on their way through Hungary to the rest of Europe. Daniel and his fellow travellers, like thousands of people who fled from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, and Syria, rest in a makeshift camp in the fields that surround the factory.

Their new "home" is a circle around a fire, with old army blankets where they sit and sleep. Their belongings hang in bags from a tree, containing some food and clean clothes. Fire for cooking and for keeping everybody warm at night is made from the wood found around the factory. Migrants draw water for drinking and washing with ropes and buckets from an old well. The water is not clean, but they have no choice - and the hardship now is nothing compared to their traumatic experiences at home.

people getting water from a well Copyright: Lidija Tomic/Dejan Milošević,
Making do with what's availableImage: DW/L. Tomic/D. Milošević

"It's difficult for Afghans in Iran. We can't get citizenship nor jobs. If you get caught at the border, you got two options - to go to Syria and fight, or to be deported back to Afghanistan. That's how they forced my friend to go to war," says Daniel.

Next stop Hungary

Occasionally Daniel translates for his friend, a 35-year-old Afghan who took his wife and his 6-year-old daughter with him on this long trip. They walked for three days through harsh mountain terrain, hiding from Iranian snipers, illegally crossing the border with Turkey before heading to Athens by inflatable boat. Hiding on wooden planks under the train wagon, they passed Greece and Macedonia. On the border Macedonian police spotted them, but let them go to Serbia. Serbian police also caught them. The scenario was the same - they "advised" them to go to Hungary as fast as they could.

Daniel is surprised to find out that Hungary has decided to build the fence along the border. He looks more serious after he shares the information with his friend. Although they will probably have to move to their next destination a little sooner than expected, they remain upbeat. While we were saying our goodbyes, three young Hungarians came into the camp, bringing them water and some food. They oppose their country's migration policy, but stress that many locals support it, especially the ones that live near the border. "They are afraid, and want the fence to go up as soon as possible. But something that big can't be constructed in a few days, and I don't see any other changes on the border yet, like more police patrols," says Laszlo, who didn't want to reveal his full name.

On the streets in the center of Subotica there are few signs of any migrants, as they try to keep a low profile in public, but one group had gathered in a park. About 15 men, aged 16 to 25, all from Damascus, Syria, sat on the ground. Exhausted and hungry, they had been traveling for 20 days now, through Turkey, Greece and Bulgaria. They plan to reach Germany and seek asylum.

stop sign Copyright: Lidija Tomic/Dejan Milošević,
A fence won't stop them, the migrants sayImage: DW/L. Tomic/D. Milošević

"The war is raging in Syria. Our houses have been destroyed and we have nothing left other than a wish to search for a better life. People like us, they all left Syria, and only fighters remained behind. There is no life there," a young man from the group, who didn't want to be identified, tells DW.

Desperation and death

His friend interrupts as he reaches for a mobile to show a picture of his late sister, too dreadful to describe. "After the attack, the rest of his family fled to Turkey," says the first young man.

On their hazardous way to the EU, the migrants faced countless hardships and had to be on the lookout constantly. Locals, they said, had been nice to them, but they fear organized groups who are searching for them in the woods. And they have to contend with the police.

"When we arrived in Belgrade, we came to the police station to check in. They didn't give us any papers, but told us to buy train tickets to Subotica. On the train, a policeman came to us, asking for money. Since we didn't have the amount that he asked for, he forced us to leave the train at the next station. We didn't know where we were, and we were tired. We slept there for two hours and followed the tracks by foot to Subotica," says one of the Syrians.

Now they are waiting for the night to fall to be able to cross the border illegally. They're not worried about the Hungarian fence, but one of them was curious why the police would need their fingerprints. A phone rings, and they quickly say their goodbyes.

Multicultural and multinational

In the city's main square on a typical Saturday morning people sit in cafés and children play around the fountain. There are no migrants to be seen. One young local says he's willing to speak about the migrants.

"Migrants have been coming for five or six years, but lately we are witnessing a growing number of them. Subotica is a multinational and multicultural town. We don't mind the migrants, but we are worried about people who take advantage of them. I heard one story about smugglers taking money from migrants to drive them to Hungary, and leaving them at the pay toll near Novi Sad, around 100 kilometers south of Subotica," Siniša tells DW.

An older man, listening in to the conversation, says not all locals are nice to migrants. "We have also been through war, but now we fail to empathize with others. For us a hamburger is 200 Serbian Dinar (1.65 euros), for them it's 500. When they exchange their money, they give them lower exchange rates. That is not right. Those people have suffered enough," he said, adding that no migrants have been involved in violent crimes here.

Next stop is Tresetište Lake, which is less than 100 meters from the border. People are fishing and again there is no trace of any migrants. Security guards tell DW that they usually hide in the woods and try to cross the border during the night. On the other side of the lake, two fishermen from Romania, who are spending their vacation here, say they have seen migrants several times over the last few days.

Fence around a lake Copyright: Lidija Tomic/Dejan Milošević,
A new life is tantalizingly closeImage: DW/L. Tomic/D. Milošević

"This morning we saw two groups with young children. They were very nice, and just asked where the border is," one of the fisherman says. "The situation is the same in Romania. We are overcrowded with migrants, but they don't stay long in our country either. Serbia and Romania are only temporary stations on their way to the west."