Marko Djurica / Reuters

Resentment of refugees builds on Serbian border

As tens of thousands flee conflict zones, Serbs complain asylum seekers are threatening their livelihoods

HORGOS, Serbia — In the poor borderland between Serbia and Hungary, the fall is a rare time of plenty, when people work their fields near the River Tisza to gather apples, plums and the grapes they turn into wine and strong brandy.

After long, hot days of toil, the evening cool brings thoughts of the frosty months ahead, when the berries, beets and cucumbers that locals harvest will reappear as the jams and pickles that are mainstays of their winter diet.

This year, however, at the end of a scorching summer that saw the region enveloped in Europe’s refugee crisis, the change of season brings only worry.

“Last fall I harvested 60 tons of apples, and this year I hoped for 50,” said Karoly Bajtai, who farms about seven acres of land in the village of Horgos, a few hundred yards from Serbia’s border with Hungary, a member of the European Union.

Karoly Bajtai, a farmer in Horgos, Serbia, near the border with Hungary. With thousands of refugees passing through on their way to the EU, small-scale farmers like him must cope with stripped orchards and damaged fields.
Dan McLaughlin

“Right now, I know that I’ve lost half my crop, and the apples are still a few weeks from being ready. By the time they’re ripe, they may all be gone. With 2,000 to 3,000 people moving through these fields every day, I expect to lose them all. For me, it could mean bankruptcy.”

As Europe’s leaders argue over how to tackle its worst refugee crisis since the Yugoslav conflicts of the 1990s and perhaps since World War II, Bajtai and his neighbors find themselves on what he calls the continent’s new front line, where, he said, the fields and orchards they rely on are being ravaged by the hungry travelers.

The rail track running through Horgos has become the main path to the EU for refugees — more than 150,000 so far this year — taking the Balkan route from the Middle East to what they hope will be a safe and prosperous future in Europe.

On the edge of the fields that surround the village and along its entire 109-mile border with Serbia, Hungary has unfurled three layers of razor wire and intends to construct a 13-foot-high steel security fence in the coming months.

But just as migration experts, aid agencies and human rights groups warned, the glittering, multimillion-euro coils of wire have done little to deter people fleeing war, persecution and unremitting poverty in some of the world’s most desperate countries — Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Eritrea and others.

For months now, the people of Horgos and other border villages have seen the numbers of people passing through grow ever larger and watched the rail line and country lanes become pedestrian highways for people from thousands of miles away.

In an insular rural area, where anyone from outside the county was until recently considered exotic, this summer has been bewildering. Now with their fields edged by razor wire and scattered with trash, clothes, shoes, countless plastic bottles and human excrement, there is fear and anger about what is happening and what is to come.

“We understand their problems. In Serbia we understand war and having to flee,” said the mayor of Horgos, Istvan Bacskulin, standing in a field near the border where groups of tired Afghans sat in the shade.

Refugees outside Horgos, hoping to cross into Hungary.
Marko Djurica / Reuters

“But this is our livelihood. They are destroying it and moving on. Thousands pass this way each day, and if each one takes a few grapes or a couple of peaches, then what will be left?”

Driving back to his office in the sleepy center of Horgos, Bacskulin noticed brightly colored freshly washed clothes drying on the gate of a house. “That place is empty,” he scowled. “There must be migrants in there.”

A little farther down the road, he shared his suspicion with two policemen chatting by their patrol car, and they followed him back to the house.

“People, this is the police. Come out of the building now!” one of the police officers blared through the loudspeaker of his squad car, the red lights on its roof turning slowly in the blazing sun.

After a few seconds a man emerged from the house, not looking particularly scared or surprised. “We are from Syria. We will go. Just let us keep going,” he said, as several similarly stoic faces appeared at a crack in the back door.

He explained in broken English that they were taken to Horgos by a man — “a VIP, a big man,” he called him, while mimicking the beefy physique of someone the police immediately suspected was a people trafficker. “The man says, ‘Go here. It is empty house. Shower, rest. Then go farther.”

As the police asked about the identity of the VIP and how much the group paid for his help, a young Syrian who spoke English well changed their story, saying someone directed them to the house from the railway line.

“What will the police do with us?” he asked — both men declined to give their names. “We have come all the way from Syria. Do you know what it’s like there? All we want is to be allowed into Europe. Will they let us go?”

In all likelihood, they would. Serbia, like Turkey, Greece, Macedonia and Hungary — the other states on the Balkan route — wants the refugees to move on as quickly as possible.

All the way, people profit from their desperation and exploit their fear, ignorance of local geography and laws and unclear legal status.

Refugees are repeatedly ripped off, and many die at the hands of smugglers. More than 2,500 people have drowned crossing the Mediterranean in rickety boats this year, and last week 71 people perished in the back of a Hungarian-registered truck that traffickers abandoned on an Austrian highway.

A recent morning found Mohammed, 44, a math teacher from Baghdad, sitting exhausted with his wife and young son in a field outside Roszke, the Hungarian village directly across the border from Horgos.

They finally reached the EU after three weeks on the road, but only after giving 4,200 euros to a man in Serbia to show them where to cross the border without being caught; they wanted to apply for asylum not in Hungary but in Belgium, where Mohammed’s parents live.

Now they were a little nearer to their goal but also closer to destitution.

“Police with dogs caught us straight away,” said Mohammed, who declined to give his surname because he feared legal problems for himself and relatives still in Iraq.

“The money is lost. I cannot go back to ask that man to return it. I sold our apartment to make this journey. Now they will fingerprint us here, and we will never get to Belgium.”

The refugees are an economic boon for a few locals and some recent arrivals in border villages like Horgos and Roszke — the people smugglers, the taxi drivers who fleece refugees for short journeys to the border and the police officers who are suspected of taking a cut to turn a blind eye to this lucrative new business.

Small-scale farmers like Bajtai, meanwhile, feel abandoned to a fate of stripped orchards, damaged fields and deepening poverty. “We are left alone with this problem,” he said. “There is no mention of compensation for our losses. For me, if I have no harvest this year, I will have no money to invest, so next year will be even worse.”

Serbia’s leaders — who are regularly accused of neglecting this border region’s mostly ethnic-Hungarian residents — have offered no help, he said.

“They say they feel sorry for the migrants and their plight, but they should come here and see Horgos. They should see what damage the migrants are doing to the livelihood of Serbia’s taxpayers.”

Resentment toward the refugees is building in places like Horgos and is fanned locally and nationally by far-right groups of growing influence. The ultranationalist Jobbik, for example, is the second-most-popular party in Hungary.

With large numbers of refugees and locals about to share the fields at harvest time, the border region could be a flashpoint. Hungary is considering deployment of the army to support more than 2,000 police officers it has sent to the frontier, including fast-reaction units that officials call hunting squads.

“It’s already dangerous,” said Bajtai, even though no refugee has committed a violent crime there. “The local economy and daily life are being turned upside down. There are only four policemen in Horgos, and people fear for their personal safety and their property.”

In the cool quiet of his office, its thick old walls shielding him from summer’s last blast of heat, Bacskulin is already thinking ahead, with trepidation, to the cold months and wondering what will happen after Hungary completes its towering steel barrier on the border.

“Within a week, we could have 10,000 to 15,000 people trapped here,” he said.

“They will probably try to move into the many empty houses in Horgos and burn furniture for heat. And having cleared the trees of fruit, they’ll cut them down for firewood, and then there’ll be no orchards and no income for us next year.”

He shook his head at the prospect and said the next fence built should be on the border between Turkey and Syria to keep refugees far from Central Europe. 

“People around here know there’s nothing I can do about this,” he muttered. “National leaders have to act, and the European Union has to get tough.”

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