Last year, hundreds of thousands of refugees traveled north via the Balkan route. How are things now that the mass movement has subsided? Mariya Ilcheva retraces the trail through Greece, Bulgaria, Serbia and Hungary.
"We are only here temporarily," Abdulamir Hussein says, smiling at his wife as though he were trying to make her laugh. But she just stares silently at her hands. You can see how exhausted they both are. The 49-year-old Iraqi and his family have been fleeing for 10 years. Right now, they are in Thessaloniki. They are among the 7,000 refugees in Greece waiting for the EU relocation program to send them to one of the northern European states.
After the American invasion, war-like conditions prevailed in Iraq. In 2006, the Husseins finally fled to then-peaceful Syria. There, Abdulamir converted to Christianity. "Out of conviction," he emphasizes, rubbing his fingers on the cross on his chain. "We led a good life in Syria until war came there." Then they left for Turkey – four awful years. They were repeatedly victims of fanatic Muslims, he recounts. "We had to flee again."
Going on an odyssey
In January, he managed to send a son and his eldest daughter with her baby to Greece on one of those daunting crossings in a small, ramshackle boat with too many passengers, each of whom paid the smugglers 1,000 dollars. They all wanted to go to northern Europe, like the other estimated 750,000 migrants who traveled across the Balkan route between September and December 2015. The three of them made it to Germany. When Abdulamir and the rest of the family reached Greece a month later, the border to Macedonia had already been closed. "We were unlucky," he says, lovingly squeezing his wife. She tries in vain to hold back her tears.
The Husseins spent 110 days in Idomeni on the Macedonian border. "A nightmare," says Abdulamir. Since the camp was dismantled at the end of May, they have been in Thessaloniki, waiting to be relocated to the North to be with their child.
The fastest part was when they were on their own in Bulgaria. Refugees consider it to be a new transit country. But Abdulamir sadly shakes his head, saying: "The Macedonians are warning us about it." It is supposedly too dangerous for a family because of the so-called "refugee hunting." That is the term used to for the violent activities carried out by police and self-proclaimed civil defense groups. Apart from the hunters, the road is rocky, mountainous and has many valleys and forests. It is not suitable for tired families.
'Please deport, deport!'
The Husseins in Thessaloniki are about 500 kilometers away from the first refugee camp on the Bulgarian side. Mostly men from Pakistan and Afghanistan live in Pastrogor, a small village in the border triangle between Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey. There are barely any families here. When asked, the head of institution nods hesitantly. "We have two Mongolian families here," Spassimir Petrov says. "They are Chinese citizens."
Most of the young men prefer to spend their time in the small hall where they have wireless internet access. There are some chairs there but they prefer to sit on the floor. When they see Petrov, they stand up and say "hello." It sounds English to them. The 23-year-old Pakistani, Ali Raza, says his father paid 3,500 dollars for the trip to Bulgaria. If he wants to get to Germany, he has to shell out another 2,500 dollars. When asked why he is traveling, he responds like most of the people here: "Because everyone wants to go to Europe." Ali keeps looking at his cell phone. He is waiting for a message from his agent, he explains. But the situation at the Bulgarian-Serbian border has become more difficult. Border security has been boosted since it recently became known that Bulgarian police had been taking part in dubious smuggling operations. "Please deport, deport," three Afghans beg the head of the camp in Pastrogor. They do not have money to continue their journey, nor to return home.
Smuggling – a totally normal job for many
That is out of the question for Ali Raza. He wants to reach his destination, just like the 28-year-old Pakistani Wasim Ahmad. "Yesterday, the Serbs sent me back for the third time but I keep trying," he says defiantly. Ahmad is full of energy even though the he hasn't slept. "Many others have made it. I will make it too." The head of the camp, Spassimir Petrov, says: "Almost no one wants to stay here."
Almost none of the approximately 10,000 officially registered asylum seekers in Bulgaria have remained. Many locals see the refugees' dreams as a tempting means of earning money. In the neighboring town of Ljubimez, for example, the owner of a car repair shop complains that he hasn't been able to find a mechanic for months. "If you have a car, you can earn more money with a few trips with refugees than what I earn as a monthly wage," he says, wiping the sweat off his forehead.
The new destination: Italy
Whoever finally crosses the border - with or without the help of a smuggler - usually heads northwest. The next border, Hungary, is 900 kilometers away. Many migrants have been holding out in the Serbian-Hungarian border region. They have to apply for asylum in Hungary. However, the EU country has only been accepting a maximum of 30 refugees per day since July. When this limit is exceeded, Budapest detains all people who have entered the country illegally and those within the eight-kilometer border zone and sends them back to Serbia. Then they end up in transit zones or in the Serbian asylum center Subotica.
Again, there are mostly Pakistanis and Afghans here. "Almost everyone tries to illegally cross the Hungarian border. Some make it. Others don't," says Lazar Velic, the head of the reception center. Horam Shehzad is one of the unlucky ones. But the 30-year-old was not just sent back to Serbia. He was also brutally beaten by the Hungarian police. "Here, I still have wounds on my head," he says, pointing at his injuries. His new destination is Italy. "I heard that it is easier to get asylum there and that you can travel anywhere in Europe," he says with hope.
While migrants in Subotica are cared for halfway decently, terrible conditions prevail just 10 kilometers further to the northwest. At the Serbian-Hungarian border crossing of Kelebija, 200 people are waiting for their chance to apply for asylum in Hungary. Another 300 are waiting in nearby Horgos. Both transit zones are reminiscent of Idomeni. Nonetheless, the migrants feel reasonably welcome in the transit country Serbia.
'Aren't you scared of refugees?'
Meanwhile, the negative mood is readily apparent in neighboring Hungary. "There are no refugees in our town - and that is good," says a 60-year-old Hungarian woman from Gyor, a city of 130,000 near the Austrian border. She wants to remain anonymous. "We do not want the refugees. They only bring problems with them," she says while hanging up the laundry. She runs a camping ground and thinks people should have a look at Germany. "Are you not scared there?" she asks. The woman obviously no idea how many refugees actually reside in her town. Most of them only stay a night. It is a short break before they embark on the final leg of their journey to Austria and then, to Germany.