Hungary plans a 4 metre-high fence along 110-mile border with Serbia to stop migrants on Balkan land route, making an already perilous journey even harderCrouched in the darkness, 500 metres from the Hungarian border, 15 Syrian refugees whisper about how they should cross into the EU. A few miles back, they switched off their phones. Then they picked up sticks to protect them from local gangsters. Now they’re organising into pairs: going two-by-two means they might not trigger the heat sensors on the border. And it is at this moment that a 23-year-old pharmacist, Mohamed Hussein, absent-mindedly decides to light a cigarette.
“Put it out!” comes the collective hiss, betraying a rising sense of fear. Several in this group have previously been jailed for a fortnight by the Hungarian police after crossing the border, before being returned to Serbia. Now they’re trying again.
“The border between Greece and Macedonia was very easy,” whispers Selim, a 36-year-old Syrian sales manager, whose home in old Aleppo was destroyed by an army rocket. “But this is the most difficult bit, the Hungarian border.”
And it is about to get a lot harder. Last week, Hungary’s illiberal government began drawing up plans to stop people like Selim and Hussein – by building a four-metre high fence along its 110-mile (177km) border with Serbia.
“This is a necessary step,” the government’s spokesman, Zoltán Kovács, told the Guardian by phone from Budapest. “We need to stop the flood.”
Rights groups see the move as the obvious conclusion of a wave of government-led xenophobia. In recent months, Kovács’s colleagues have conflated immigrants with extremists, announced a national consultation on the twin themes of migration and terrorism, and floated the idea of placing all migrants in what would be some of Europe’s first internment camps since the second world war.
But Kovács argues that a fence is a legitimate response to a huge spike in migration that has this year turned Hungary into a hidden frontline of Europe’s migration crisis. Most of the media coverage centres on Italy and Greece, which have borne the brunt of the maritime arrivals. But Kovács claims that the onward movement of mainly Syrian, Afghan and Iraqi migrants from Greece through the Balkan land route has quietly made Hungary “the most affected EU country in absolute terms. Over 50,000 have entered Hungary illegally since January. Italy and Greece are lagging behind by a couple of 2,000.”
With hundreds arriving in all three countries every day, Kovács’s figures cannot be confirmed. But certainly Hungary must contend with a migrant influx that is comparable to that faced by Mediterranean countries. And this forest, lining a river that leads to the Danube, is one of the main secret thoroughfares into the country from Serbia – particularly for Syrians. “People start gathering here around four or five in the afternoon,” says Abu Khalil, a Syrian doctor waiting in the last town before the border. “And then they walk through the night.”
As the sun sets, huddle after huddle of Syrian refugees, travelling together for protection, edge north along the bends of the river. At other points along the border, migrants pay smugglers to get them across. But here, everyone guides themselves, using tips passed on by those who passed through in previous weeks. There are doctors and businessmen walking, as well as children and old men. Every so often, in the distant darkness, you can hear a baby cry.
They say that not even a wall will put them off. “We are Syrians,” says Mohamed Hussein, a fortnight after he spoke to ITN as his boat landed on the Greek island of Lesvos. “We can solve anything. We made the first written language, so we can break the wall. If they use electricity, we will take gloves and cut it.”
Hussein’s perseverance is a case in point. On his left wrist he has a tattoo that honours Pink Floyd – “I love progressive rock!” – and on his right wrist, an image of a ship. It’s to remind him of the boat he tried to take from Turkey to Europe last December. He says it ran into trouble on New Year’s Eve, and coastguards took him back to Turkey.
So the Hungarians, Hussein concludes, are “not going to solve migration like this. They need to solve the real problem and get rid of Bashar al-Assad and Isis.”
But right now these particular Syrians face a more pressing concern. On the dyke above the river, still a couple of miles from the border, they can make out two mysterious cars. Are those the local thieves they’ve heard about – or the police? “Man, I’m so stressed,” says Nizam, a young computer scientist who left Syriaafter his father died in a bombing last year. “Keep your voices down,” Selim interrupts. “And hide in the woods.”
Twenty miles to the west, another group of refugees are arguably in even more desperate straits. The Syrians usually stay in a couple of cheap hotels. But many Afghans, who largely enter Hungary by a more westerly route, hide out in the overgrown grounds of a disused brick factory.
“This is a famous place,” says Rahman Niazi, an 18-year-old Afghan student. “Every Afghan goes through here, because here there’s always people who speak their language – and then they walk to Hungary.”
Migrants first started trickling here in 2011, when the annual number of arrivals to Hungary was around 4% of what it is now. Four years on, around 200 migrants now gather here every day, estimates Tibor Varga, a local priest who hands out food at the factory several times a week.
The casual visitor would find it hard to find them. The refugees hide in a vast stretch of overgrown sweetcorn fields nestling between a sewage works and a rubbish tip, where the crops have long knotted with nettles and grass flowers. Migrants call the space the jungle, and it is not hard to see why. It’s very easy to get lost.Weaving through the tall and thick foliage, to a soundtrack of crackling crickets, you can hear the voices of different clusters of refugees, and step across the detritus of migrants past. But finding them happens almost by chance. A small hollow will suddenly open up in the undergrowth to reveal a huddle of a dozen Afghans – often waiting till nightfall before making for Hungary.
Here they camp in the open air and hoist their water from an old well – but still try to create some kind of normality. “Please at least take this,” Yama Nayab, an Afghan surgeon, says to a passing stranger, holding out a cup of dirty well-water. “In Afghanistan, it would be our duty to offer you food as our guest.”Today, the irony of Nayab’s ingrained hospitality could not be starker. Stabbed four times in the chest by the Taliban earlier this year, he recovered and fled the country with his wife and two toddlers. Since then, they have walked and bussed through Pakistan, Iran, Turkey, Bulgaria and Serbia to find somewhere that will offer them a future.
“Wherever I find a safe place,” Nayab says, “a country that accepts me and gives me a chance, I will start my life there.” Today, he’s just discovered that Hungary wants to build a wall to stop him doing that.
Not that a wall will deter him. “In Afghanistan, life is not safe, and every human who wants a safe life will make a hole in that wall, or find another way,” he explains, and uses his own story to illustrate his point. A surgeon with the Afghan army, he says he was approached by a Taliban fighter as he returned home one day near the start of this year.
“Why are you working for the government?” the man said to him. “Here in Afghanistan. the Americans and the pagans made a government – and you are working for that government.”Then the man got out a knife. “And then he did this,” says Nayab, pulling up his shirt to reveal four pink scars circling his heart.
It’s tense in the jungle. Many of the people here are waiting for instructions from the men they call their chief. These are the smugglers to whom they pay around €10,000 (£7,170) before they depart from Afghanistan. At every stage of their odyssey to Europe, they call this man, who then gives them a set of new directions. Sometimes it’s a GPS coordinate for the next place they should walk to. Sometimes it’s a bus route. Occasionally, the chief will send them a car. Once, as they prepared to walk to Iran, his men gave Niazi the first western clothes he’d ever worn. “He has a deputy in every country,” the student explains.
While they wait for his call, everyone fears an attack from the police. Attempting to walk from Iran to Turkey, two of Niazi’s companions were shot by Iranian border guards. In Bulgaria, he says he was beaten and robbed by the local police.
In a nearby thicket, an Afghan kickboxer says the constant tension has made him take up smoking. “Usually I don’t smoke,” says Ajmir, 21, who fled Afghanistan after he says a fellow kickboxer was killed for playing a sport deemed to be too western. “But here it’s so dangerous, I’m so nervous. We don’t have any papers. I don’t want to be fingerprinted. So now I am smoking.”
Back on the border with Hungary, Syrian Mohamed Hussein hurriedly puts out his own cigarette as his friends take their last breather before crossing the border. They whisper encouragement to each other, to gee themselves up.
“If we stick together, we can do this,” Hussein tells Nizam, with whom he’s travelled since Turkey. Then the group rises, and walks towards the invisible line where Hungary’s wall will shortly stand.
“This wall, we will not accept it,” says Hussein, and bounds over the border.