For the past two weeks I have been traveling the Balkan Route, which migrants take to get from the port of Athens to points north. I’ve been meeting refugees and the people who help them. In this post, I visit a “transit zone” camp between Serbia and Hungary.
A closed border, all razor wire and gloom. And, running through the heart of it, is a road where every now and then a car rolls through, full of luggage and kids with their feet on the back of dad’s head-rest, and maybe one of them slowly turns their head to interpret what they’re seeing: Ragged tents with the poles pierced through shredded nylon; an old man shaving over a puddle; two kids running circles around a Red Cross van.
I had thought the mood would lighten the further north I traveled. I was now at the top of Serbia in Subotica, the last town before Hungary, and Hungary was the last barrier to the wealthy West: Austria, Germany, Sweden!
But that assumption left out an important point: Hungary knows this. Viktor Orban, the prime minister, has said candidly that he doesn’t want more Muslims in his country, and Hungary’s policy toward migrants has reflected that: They’ve reduced the number of asylum centers, given border police more power to “push” migrants back into Serbia. Even when asylum-seekers enter the country legally, Hungary detains them, sometimes for several months.
So the Serbian border has become a kind of trench where people walk around biting their nails, making small talk, taking showers, preparing for the next step.
When I arrived, I had no contacts. I’d tried asking around in Belgrade for a phone number or even a name, but border volunteers shift from place to place and are difficult to get in touch with. Besides, the word among volunteers in Belgrade is that there’s nothing for the public to see. Neither journalists nor aid workers can get into the camps at the border without permission from some minister or other. At first I didn’t understand this. The Serbia-Hungary border has unofficial camps as well as official ones, and I couldn’t imagine who could stop civilians from getting into an unofficial camp. It’s just tents in a field, after all.
That’s because I didn’t understand the “transit zone.” People had tried to explain it to me. I knew what it was in theory, but I didn’t believe it until I saw it.
The transit zone is the space between the Serbian fence and the Hungarian fence. It doesn’t belong to either country. It’s not really a place in any sense of the term. Even with the best passport in the world you cannot visit a transit zone. You cannot stop in a transit zone. The only thing legally sanctioned in a transit zone is transit. So you have to keep moving toward the Hungarian passport control station.
But when you have a continent that can’t get its shit together to solve the refugee crisis, the transit zone changes. Refugees, remember, are allowed to leave any country they please. And they’re also allowed to enter Serbia, because Serbia’s borders aren’t closed, it’s just surrounded by closed borders. So when refugees reach the Serbia-Hungary border, they can pass through the first gate, but not the second. And now there is a camp between the two gates. Now the transit zone has become a place.
Waiting for deployment
I arrived in Sobotica in the afternoon. The guy who had picked me up hitchhiking dropped me off in the center of town and I walked down the main street, looking for someone to talk to. I saw a coffee shop that called itself a community center and I figured even if these guys don’t know anything about the refugee situation in their city (of 150,000) they will feel so guilty for their ignorance that they’ll help me. Turns out, they knew someone who knew someone. We called that person. “You can’t visit any of the camps,” he told me. “But there is a bus station where they get food and charge their phones.”
Much like the other cities I’d visited on my trip, the bus station had become an informal asylum center. Here they are more or less welcome. Here is where the city looks them in the eyes, sometimes knows their names. It is a point of contact. The official Subotica refugee camp (not the unofficial transit zone camp) is ten minutes down the road on foot, but since only the big aid organizations like the Red Cross and Medecins Sans Frontiers are allowed in, guys like Assad and Dalibor from HCIT (a Serbian aid organization) park their van here every day from 5 p.m. until midnight, giving out food and random aid items, like rain jackets and kids’ shoes.
Here I met K— and his two friends who had been traveling for over a month, mostly walking. They’d tried to cross into Hungary but were swiftly beaten back. Now they were broke, physically and financially, and were planning to head back to Belgrade for a while. They thought they could make some money there or just rest up again for another try for Hungary.
Most people hanging around the bus stop were slumped over with late-afternoon fatigue, but K— and his gang were a comedy troupe. Half the time I asked a question I had to wait through a series of quips before I got a straight answer.
Posted on one of the columns at the bus stop was a call-to-action in solidarity with the Roszke Eleven who are on trial this week in Hungary. Last September, when Hungary sealed its border, several thousand people who saw their plans for asylum guillotined in front of them protested against the police. In the scuffle, eleven people were arrested, one charged with terrorism because he may or may not have thrown a rock. These are the stories that Hungary’s government is proud of.
I came back to the bus stop later that evening because Assad and Dalibor said things would be more lively. It looked about the same to me, only dark. People sitting around planning, charging phones, drinking water, avoiding the dreariness of the official camp. I talked to a friend of the shop owner who had put out the power chord for phone chargers. He was enthusiastic about Serbia’s attitude toward refugees. “Ask anyone here — we’re a nice country!” he said. “We know what it’s like to be refugees.” The memory of the Yugoslav wars in the 90s is really fresh in this country.
I made my way over to Assad and Dalibor who were sitting in their van with the doors open. “Looks pretty quiet to me,” I said.
“Well there’s a bus coming from Belgrade in about ten minutes with 30 refugees.”
“How do you know that?”
Turns out, the people at Info Park, a tiny aid organization in Belgrade — which is also posted up at the central bus station — calls the Subotica people to tell them when and how many. Also if the people on board are Syrian or Afghani or otherwise.
As I was writing this all down in my little black notebook, someone grabbed my shoulder and swung me around. It was the comedy troupe, holding an imaginary camera and an imaginary microphone. “Hello. This is Channel 5 news. We want to talk to you about refugees!”
Then they ran away singing. “We’re going to sleep in a park!”
You can only be here if you’re leaving
Then next day I took city bus # 1 to the border crossing. The bus goes all the way there, past the last town, Kelebija. The bus let us off, turned around, and headed back toward Subotica. Behind the bus stop is farmland, and exactly opposite is a little fruit stand and convenience store, once a place for truckers who line up waiting for passport controls, now functioning kind of like the Subotica bus stop: a place to charge phones and to distribute food and other necessities. Because there are no necessities inside the camp. No showers, no running water. There are over 200 people living there by the latest count, and only around 100 tents.
Luckily, the transit zone at this crossing is not sealed off and people living there are free to come and go — as far as this little kiosk. Beyond that, they’re basically stuck. Hungary allows in 15 asylum-seekers every day (plus another 15 at the crossing at Horgos) and there is a list somewhere that transit zone residents put their name on. Some wait three days, some wait months. So when they leave through an unofficial hole in the fence guarded by police they can’t go too far or they may miss their chance to get into Hungary.
The protocol is absurd and no one understands it. There are ten different illogics intersecting and the only logical solution — open the border — is out of the question.
I bypassed the fruit stand and headed straight for the transit zone. I knew I wasn’t allowed to visit the camp — sometimes even people who work for the UN Refugee Agency are turned away if they don’t have the proper papers. Refugees can come and go, but aid and media are blocked. And I definitely wasn’t going to sneak in and risk losing my passport. My plan was just to see how far they’d let me get.
First of all, even from the public side, it’s the shabbiest border crossing I’ve seen. It looks like a deserted fairgrounds. I got in line behind a car and waited my turn.
“Passport,” said the officer, dryly.
He inspected the document.
“Where are you going?”
“I just wanted to talk to some people here.”
“This way,” he said, indicating another window further down.
I walked further.
He flipped to the photo page.
“Where are you going?”
“I just wanted to talk to some people here.”
“Okay,” he stamped my passport with an exit stamp and I walked into the transit zone.
On my left I could see the tents, torn, leaning, trash on the ground. This was by far the saddest camp I’d seen during my trip. During my life, perhaps. All of it was behind a short rusty fence with several kid-sized holes in it. But there was a sort of official entrance with a military truck, a police car, and a couple of aid worker vans parked together.
Two police officers and a military guy in camouflage were chatting.
“Hi,” I said. “Can I go in?”
“Passport,” said one of the cops.
“Where are you from?” asked another.
“The US,” I said.
“America!” he exclaimed.
The guy holding my passport laughed. “What are you doing here?”
“I just want to see the place, talk to some people.”
The military guy was about to let me in.
“Are you a journalist?” asked the one still holding my pass.
“Yes,” I said.
The military guy looked confused.
“Why can’t I go in?” I asked. “Why can I stand here and not there?”
“Out!” he said again, more sternly.
“Okay, but can I talk to people through the fence?”
“You cannot be in this place, only if you’re passing. Only go to Hungary or back to Serbia.”
On my way out I walked along the fence, and a boy, about eight years old, followed along. “Hello!” he said in English.
“Hi!” I said.
“Come!” he walked over to a hole in the fence and put his head through. “Come, come!”
“I can’t. I can’t come in.”
“Yes, come,” he said impatiently.