At Mercy of Smugglers, Syrian Refugees Don't Know What Lies Ahead

The flow of Syrians escaping the civil war is also joined by equally despondent migrants from Asia.

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
Hungary-Serbia border
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Migrants try to get to a bus in Nickelsdorf at the border between Hungary and Austria, Saturday, Sept. 5, 2015.
Migrants try to get to a bus in Nickelsdorf at the border between Hungary and Austria, Saturday, Sept. 5, 2015. Credit: AP
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
Hungary-Serbia border

“I am not willing to register for anyone until I get to Germany” says Alaa, who refused to give his last name. Until last week, he had been working as a chef in a Damascus hotel until he decided to leave because “I’m simply too afraid to walk down the street for fear Assad’s men will arrest me and make me disappear.”

Alaa traveled with his wife Maryam and their 8-month-old son Tayim, to Lebanon and from there to Turkey. Like almost all the Syrian migrants reaching Europe, he paid Turkish smugglers $3,000 for himself and his wife – he did not have to pay for Tayim. The boat capsized and the family floated for five hours, until they were rescued by the Greek Coast Guard, Alaa said.

The family lost almost everything except the clothes on their back when the boat overturned. Tayim has only his shorts, a shirt and one pair of socks to face the cold Hungarian autumn.

Tayim and his parents are now sitting by the roadside, a few hundred meters from the Hungarian-Serbian border, on the Hungarian side. Alaa is trying to hide from the Hungarian police patrols who are trying to pick up the thousands of refugees who every day try to walk across the old Belgrade-Budapest train tracks. The thousand Euros he managed to save from the sea he gave to a man who said he would drive them to Budapest. “He took us to the end of the road, threw us out and disappeared with the money,” Alaa said.

Refugees are easy prey. The fact that tens of thousands of them can find a smuggler so easily in the streets of Turkish cities to take them to Greece shows that the authorities are turning a blind eye to the operations. One refugee said: “If I, who have never been to Turkey, can find a smuggler so quickly in the street in Izmir, I imagine that they are bribing the police to continue their operations.”

Turkey has taken in two million Syrian refugees over the past four years. Smugglers have already been responsible for thousands of deaths.

Meanwhile, the Hungarian government seems unable to formulate a policy regarding the refugees. At one point, police look the other way, in another, they are welcoming and give out food collected by volunteers. But in many cases, they beat the refugees with their batons and use pepper spray to force them into registration camps. When the refugees who agree to go to the camps arrive there, they find installations too small to accommodate them and the police give no information as to what to expect.

On Saturday afternoon, dozens of police in riot gear deployed around the camp near the town of Roszke after about 20 young men escaped from the camp. They forced the refugees to come out of their tents and pushed them on to four buses, which were too few to hold them all, without telling them where they would be going. “They say these are Syrian refugees, but there are many Afghanis and Pakistanis who are only looking to immigrate to Europe,” a policeman said disparagingly.

There is no doubt that most of the refugees arriving in Hungary are refugees fleeing the war in Syria, but in some of the places that refugees are massing, there are also separate groups of people from poverty-stricken countries in Asia. The Hungarians now have to deal with the fact that they are a main pipeline for the stream of refugees to safe countries, Germany, Sweden and Denmark.

Some of the refugees report cases of police violence. Ibrahim, from Homs, Syria, who was wounded a few months ago when he was shot by police loyal to the Assad regime, shows his scars and a fresh, bleeding wound in his leg. He says that wound is from a violent arrest by Hungarian police in a town near Seged. In the makeshift camp to which he was taken, which grows every hour by about 200 migrants. There are also many foreign volunteers who hand out food and equipment, and also to ensure by their presence that the police do not abuse the refugees.

Not all the refugees fit the stereotype of the penniless refugee. Some have managed to get out with money, take taxis and even live in hotels. But that does not change the fact that now that they have fled Syria they have nowhere to go back to and are without status.

Migrants board a train after arriving at the border station between Hegyeshalom, Hungary, and Nickelsdorf, Austria, Saturday morning, Sept. 5, 2015. Credit: AP

Tareq, who until three years ago worked at the Syrian branch of Cisco Systems as a computer technician, says that he fled Syria for Egypt three years ago on a regularly schedule flight. But he was unable to find work in Egypt and now he hopes to go “to a happy country, to Denmark. There are more Syrians now in Germany and there shouldn’t be a burden,” he says. Tareq flew from Cairo to Istanbul, but from there to Greece, like the rest of the refugees, he had to go by boat.

With darkness, it begins to rain more heavily. The groups of refugees arriving every two minutes to the makeshift camp grows larger. Some are persuaded to go to the camp to register, but only one bus comes for hundreds of refugees. Among them, there are many lone young men, those whose families have managed to scrape together enough money only for one place on the smugglers’ boats. The rest remain behind, hoping that their son will find work in Germany and send money to buy more places on the boats. The huge wave of Syrian refugees to Europe seems to have only just begun.

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