Migrants lose in futile game on Hungary-Serbia frontier

1 / 3
A member of Hungarian police closes a razor wired fence at a migrant transit center near Roszke, at the border crossing with Serbia on October 29, 2019. (AFP / OLIVER BUNIC)
2 / 3
Afghan migrant Asurma Arab and her family spent more than two years waiting in Serbia for their chance to cross the steel fence that Hungary erected along the border to keep out migrants, only to find out that their asylum plea was already a lost cause. (AFP / OLIVER BUNIC)
3 / 3
Asurma Arab, a 36-year-old migrant from Afghanistan, and her family spent more than two years waiting in Serbia for their chance to cross the steel fence that Hungary erected along the border to keep out migrants, only to find their asylum plea was already a lost cause. (AFP / OLIVER BUNIC)
Updated 09 November 2019

Migrants lose in futile game on Hungary-Serbia frontier

  • Hungary slowed the march of migrants to Europe by building a 175-km border fence, fortifying the EU’s edge
  • Now it is automatically rejecting applications of those who have passed through a “safe transit country”

SUBOTICA, Serbia: Asurma Arab and her family spent more than two years waiting in Serbia for their chance to cross the steel fence that Hungary erected along its border to keep out migrants.
Little did the Afghan family know, their asylum plea was already a lost cause.
Under amendments passed in 2018, Hungary has been automatically rejecting applications of those who have passed through a “safe transit country,” in this case Serbia, in what rights groups say has turned the asylum process into a cruel charade.
“They did not ask what problems brought us there, they only asked us how we had come,” the 36-year-old mother, trembling with tears, said from the migrant camp in Serbia where her family is regrouping.
After their long wait, their experience of Hungary was bleak and brief.
They were shut into a transit camp made of blue shipping containers and surrounded by a razor-wire fence, just next to the border barrier.
Four months later, their application was rejected and they were kicked back to Serbia in the middle of the night.
“They brought us to the other side of the fence and left us in the forest,” Asurma said.
During the 2015 migrant crisis, the border etched across northern Serbia’s fertile flatlands became a vital crossing point into the European Union for migrants from the Middle East, Asia and Africa.
But Hungary slowed their march by building the 175-kilometer (110-mile) border fence four years ago, fortifying the EU’s edge.
Since then, Budapest has continued to pass laws hostile to migrants, alarming EU officials who have struggled to rein in right-wing Prime Minister Viktor Orban and his anti-immigration crusade.
The “safe transit country” idea is a “novel concept that has been introduced by Hungarian officials” over the last year, said John Young from the UNHCR mission in Serbia.
“It’s not the way an asylum system is supposed to work,” he said.

"Psychological torture"
The number of migrants allowed to enter Hungary from Serbia has also been systematically reduced to a trickle, from 20 people a day down to the current quota of around two families per week.
One official at a Serbian migrant camp described it as a form of “psychological torture” for those like Asurma who spend years waiting on a list.
Hungary’s two “transit zone” camps have also been roundly criticized by rights groups as inhumane.
“Detaining people, including children, indefinitely behind barbed wires and fences in shipping containers is not simply unlawful but causes unacceptable suffering to asylum seekers,” said the Hungarian Helsinki Committee rights group.
A new battle has been brewing since migrants reported being refused food while being forced to choose between returning to Serbia or deportation to their home country.
The Hungarian Helsinki Committee has documented 15 cases of food deprivation affecting nearly 30 people since August 2018.
Asurma, who was pregnant at the time, says her husband was also denied food for three days after their application was rejected.
In July the European Commission warned that detention conditions in Hungarian transit zones, in particular the withholding of food, violated the bloc’s rights legislation.
On October 10, Brussels gave Budapest one month to respond, threatening to refer the case to the European Court of Justice.
When asked to comment by AFP, the government’s press office said that all asylum seekers are provided for, but if their bid is “refused, he or she must leave the transit zone.”
Although the European Court of Human Rights ruled in early October that Hungary must allow journalists into the transit camps, AFP reporters were refused entry at the scene several weeks later and have also had an official request denied on grounds of “privacy rights and keeping the peace” of those detained.

"Violent pushbacks"
After years of pinning their hopes on Hungary, Asurma and her family are now joining many other migrants in swerving westwards toward Croatia, carving a new route through the Balkans.
That path usually involves crossing mountains in Bosnia, a country with a shortage of migrant facilities, leaving many to sleep rough or in tent cities with deplorable sanitary conditions.
The next hurdle is circumventing Croatian border police, who are regularly accused of violent pushbacks.
Many migrants have reported beatings and thefts at their hands, though Zagreb denies all accusations.
In their latest attempt to leave Serbia, Asurma and her younger children were stopped by Croatian police, while her oldest daughter and husband managed to slip through.
They made it to Germany, where they are waiting for word on a new asylum application.
Asurma, however, remains in Serbia, trying to plot her next move with two teenagers and a newborn baby who has Down Syndrome and needs treatment for troubled breathing, which comes out in choked gasps.
After years of a life put on hold, her spirit is weakened.
“It is like my body has been torn into pieces from sadness and misery. Yes I am 36 years old, but I feel like I am 200,” she said.


India sends 36 ministers to restive Kashmir on charm offensive

Updated 26 min 45 sec ago

India sends 36 ministers to restive Kashmir on charm offensive

  • Ministers are on a five-day outreach mission to connect with people in the valley
  • The ministers’ visit follows a New Delhi-sponsored trip of 15 foreign ambassadors

NEW DELHI: India has dispatched dozens of ministers to its portion of the Kashmir region to promote government projects and development following months of unrest in the area.

Last August New Delhi revoked the special status of Jammu and Kashmir, imposing a security crackdown and a communications blackout. It is India’s only Muslim-majority state and scrapping its semi-independence was the central government’s bid to integrate it fully with India and rein in militancy.

Prepaid mobile and Internet services have been restored although most of the valley remains without the Internet. Landline and post-paid mobile services were restored last month. 

The 36 ministers are on a five-day outreach mission to connect with people in the valley, with media reports saying Prime Minister Narendra Modi told the delegation “to spread the message of development among the people, not only in the urban areas but also in the villages of the valley.”

He was also reported as asking them to tell people about central government schemes that will have grassroot benefits.

The ministers’ visit follows a New Delhi-sponsored trip of 15 foreign ambassadors to the region.

Jammu-based ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader Ashwani Kumar Chrungoo said the ministerial trip tied in with New Delhi’s development agenda.

“The ministers will interact with local-level representatives and stakeholders, and discuss the plan for the development of Jammu and Kashmir,” he told Arab News. “Kashmir cannot go back to the old ways. There are no political issues that remain here, all have been sorted out by parliament by abolishing Article 370, division of the state and neutralization of separatist elements.”

But India’s opposition Congress party said the visit was an attempt to “mislead and misguide” the people of Jammu and Kashmir.

“This is a third attempt to mislead and misguide the people of the world, Jammu and Kashmir and India. They are coming here for a third time to tell lies,” Congress leader and the former chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir Ghulam, Nabi Azad, said.

Dr. Radha Kumar, from the Delhi Policy Group, said that a development agenda would not work without addressing the political issue.

“With all the unilateral decisions to abrogate the special status of the state, arresting all the mainstream leaders and putting the state in a lockdown, how are the government’s actions so far going to establish credibility and legitimacy in the eyes of the people of Jammu and Kashmir?” Kumar told Arab News. “I think this visit is more for international consumption than anything else.”

Dr. Siddiq Wahid, a Kashmiri intellectual and academic, called the visit a “clear sign” that New Delhi had no idea what to do.

“No matter how many ministers you send to Jammu and Kashmir it’s not going to alter the ground situation, it’s not going to address the issue of alienation,” he told Arab News. “What issues will they talk about with people? The government lost the people’s trust long ago.”

The Himalayan region has experienced turmoil and violence for decades. It is claimed in full by both India and Pakistan, which have gone to war twice over it, and both rule parts of it. India’s portion has been plagued by separatist violence since the late 1980s.

Jammu-based Zafar Choudhary, a senior journalist and editor of The Dispatch newspaper, said Modi’s government was full of surprises. “There have never been so many surprises in Jammu and Kashmir as have come in the last two years,” he told Arab News. “There is no instance in the past when so many central ministers have visited a state in one go.”

Related