Hungary completed the 109-mile border fence earlier this week and introduced tough criminal sentences for anyone caught breaching or damaging the barrier, as part of what Budapest has attempted to frame as a defense of Europe’s security and traditional Christian identity.
On Wednesday, tension at the fence erupted into violence, when refugees hurled rocks and bottles at Hungarian riot police who replied with tear gas and water cannon, as anti-terrorist special forces stood watch beside armored vehicles.
Dozens of people were hurt in the clashes and Hungarian officials said 29 people had been arrested, including a man they called an “identified terrorist”.
“We have to leave here now,” said Ali on Thursday. Surrounded by travelling companions from Syria, he added: “If we cannot go, there will be much bigger trouble here.”
Uncertainty, hunger and tiredness, exacerbated by the intense heat rippling off the highway, stretched nerves and patience to a breaking point: a small scuffle broke out in the crowd over missing money, as the wait for more buses stretched on.
After more than one hour standing in the blazing sun, and wondering if they had missed their chance to leave, half a dozen buses arrived and the refugees filed on in orderly fashion. Each adult paid the Serbian bus company the equivalent of $35 for the three-hour journey to the Croatian border.
“Little kids go free, if they can sit on someone’s knee,” the ticket-seller said, seemingly proud of his firm’s generosity.
As the highway started to empty, and refugees camping in surrounding fields and on a nearby road gathered in the hope that more buses would appear, as military and then police helicopters hovered low over the border.
Authorities in Hungary have defended the measures employed to keep refugees out. Janos Lazar, chief of staff for Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, declared that the “assertive, uncompromising defense of the border has visibly held back human trafficking, and forces them to change direction. That was the aim of the entire action.”