Laszlo Balogh / Reuters

Refugees in Hungary hang back in tent city, fearing detention camps

As others continue journey north, many arrivals try to avoid registering with government amid threat of local internment

NEAR RÖSZKE, Hungary — Amid muddy farm fields, buses waiting for refugees and first aid centers were dozens of tents on the Hungary-Serbia border. One of them was Mohammed Shadi's home for the foreseeable future.

He arrived Thursday with his wife and two kids and did not know how to get away without being sent to one of the official camps set up by the Hungarian government, which have become a source of fear for many refugees who worry about getting stuck in poor conditions with little chance of moving on.

"I'm staying here until I find a way of leaving without having to leave my fingerprints," he said.

Like many refugees, he was afraid that if he registered as an asylum seeker in Hungary, he would be sent back there after entering another country. (He and many other refugees hope to settle in the more prosperous countries of Western and Northern Europe.) That meant he was stuck in what has become an tent city on the border, with other refugees who are trying to figure out a way of escaping registration or are waiting to be taken to a refugee camp.

The mix of informal tent cities and official camps at Röszke are becoming yet another symbol in the ongoing crisis of largely Syrian refugees moving across Europe as they flee war-torn homelands and seek countries where they believe they can find safe havens and build new lives. At Röszke, footage recently emerged of refugees being thrown bags of food, as Human Rights Watch described people being held like "cattle in pens."

Refugees in Röszke

Hungarian police feed refugees at a camp in Röszke. Human Rights Watch's comment about refugees being "kept in pens like animals” may not be an exaggeration.

Posted by AJ+ on Friday, September 11, 2015

Amid the scenes of chaos in Röszke and elsewhere are thousands of individual stories of escape from conflict — as well as a desperate desire to get out of Hungary, as the country’s right-wing government has desperately tried to keep the refugees moving through the country and officials have been accused of stoking fears and prejudice.

Shadi, 30, left Syria and wants to go to Sweden, where he hopes to open a tailor shop and see his children go to school.

But living in these bleak conditions has made him question if all that is possible. "All of my hopes and [goals] ... were broken," he said.

About a 10-minute walk from the tents, train tracks run through the border. In a steady flow, refugees walked on the tracks into Hungary, carrying the few belongings they still have. Children held on to the their parents' shoulders. Volunteers waited with raincoats. Along the tracks were discarded shoes and a broken-down tent, and farmers rode their tractors on the fields.

By next week, that journey might become a lot riskier. The Hungarian government plans to finish a fence along the border with Serbia, and people who climb over it could face incarceration.

For those who choose to get registered and take the buses to unclear destinations, the decision does not make their long journey any easier.

Abdalrahman Sayed, 23, was part of a group of 14 people from a suburb in Syria who walked through the border in the afternoon. "It was too hard. We had two children and very heavy bags," he said.

He asked if there was a doctor, because he had a sore throat, saying it felt as if there were a knife in it, and he started to cough. "Because I shouted in the boat, I [fell off] two times," he said. "The boat is filled by water. We had children in the boat."

Sayed was studying English literature in his third year at a university in Damascus but could not deal with the conflict anymore. "Living was difficult for us. So hard, so hard," he said.

He said he left Syria because the government forces young people like him into military service and he was afraid the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant will continue to take territory in the country.

Now he sat in a blue tent with aluminum foil spread on the ground and water dripping inside while he dreams of a new life in Sweden to continue his studies.

"We are searching for a good life," he said. "Our life in Syria is not good."

Unlike others there, Sayed was ready to take a bus that would likely send him to a formal refugee camp. "All my journey was horrible, so I won't be afraid of [another] camp ... It's all horrible here."

Before he could visit a doctor, a bus arrived, and he got into the crowd of people wanting to board. Chaos reigned about who would get on and when. One man yelled out, "Family, family," to the police to stress he was with children. One policeman asked another group how many children they had with them. Sayed waited with one backpack under his coat to shield it from the rain, with another bag slung over his right arm. The police told people to back up. Sayed missed the bus and had to wait for the next one.

Amid the steady flow of people crossing into Hungary was Naim Alkordi, 25, who was walking along the train tracks with his girlfriend, uncle, aunt and cousins. He said he was a rebel fighter near Damascus but fled after driving to Aleppo, then walking to Turkey.

"In Syria, I don't have house … The war is very [dangerous]," he said. "[I was] a sniper in Syria, but I don't love war." He worked as a cook for a year in Istanbul with his parents, but they stayed behind.

"I want to go to Germany. I want a new life," Alkordi said.

He was afraid of getting his fingerprints taken, but he waited for one of the buses. But amid confusion, he — along with the rest of the crowd — decided to start walking, believing that no bus would come.

By 8 in the evening, dozens of refugees were walking down a country road farther into Hungary, not knowing what city they were heading for. Dogs barked in driveways, drivers honked their horns as they sped by, and police in cars with flashing lights caught up to the refugees and warned them to stay on the side of the road so that they would not get hit.

After about four hours of walking, often in the freezing rain, they arrived on the outskirts of the town of Szeged. Men started to approach them, yelling "Taxi, taxi," saying they could get them to the capital, Budapest, or even Austria. One of the refugees turned to another and said, "Smuggler."

Fearful of going to the town's train station, where police often are, Alkordi and his family talked to a man who offered to drive them to Budapest for 200 euros ($227) each. They decided to walk on. By midnight they arrived at Szeged's train station. The group as a small fraction of its original size. Alkordi said many decided to pay to be driven.

After the remaining people got tea and sandwiches from volunteers, police started shouting for them to get into a waiting bus.

Alkordi said he did not want to get on the bus but resigned himself to his likely fate.

"To camp, right?" he said. "[At least] I will sleep." 

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