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For migrants, a fateful choice at Hungary’s border

Migrants walked into Hungary near Roszke after crossing the border with Serbia on Sunday.Bernadett Szabo/Reuters

ROSZKE, Hungary — On the edge of a Hungarian cornfield, the beam from a car’s headlights reflects in their eyes: Europe’s newest residents catching their breaths, fresh from evading police.

Emotions swing from forlorn to triumphant and back again on this frontier, as thousands of exhausted trekkers achieve one goal only to face another daunting challenge. Before arriving here, many have slipped through Syria’s border into Turkey lugging children or elderly parents, crossed the choppy seas to Greece, and navigated the Balkan nations of Macedonia and Serbia by foot, bus, or train.

No razor-wire fence is going to stop them from entering Hungary, the gateway to the 28-nation European Union, and beginning what could be a years-long legal battle to prove their right to refugee status.


A journalist walking alongside the migrants was surrounded and bombarded with questions. Most seek reassurance that their weeks of physical toil and financial sacrifice — many have paid smugglers $3,500 each along the way — have not been in vain.

‘‘Please, tell me, 100 percent, will Germania take me? They do not care if I come to Hungaria? No lie?’’ asks Mohammed Abdallah, a 35-year-old engineer from Baghdad.

‘‘If I report to police, if they fingerprint me, will I be allowed to go?’’ asks Mekdad Marey, 25, a graphic designer from Damascus.

Marey and the half-dozen Syrian friends he has made on their three-week journey from Turkey all have different final destinations in mind: Sweden, Norway, Belgium, Germany. All agree that economically struggling, anti-immigrant Hungary will not be home.

Over the past year Hungary, once a bastion against invasions by the 13th-century Mongols and the 16th-century Ottoman Turks, has become the most popular back door for Arabs, Asians, and Africans to reach the heart of the EU without facing further passport or visa checks. As ceaseless as the tides, thousands cross daily along Hungary’s 110-mile border with Serbia.


Those surging through the Balkans now are racing against Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s right-wing government, which has ordered engineers to erect a 13-foot fence at the border. The soldiers already have laid low-level fortifications of razor wire.

The migrants make short work of these defenses. Operating in teams, they turn off phones and extinguish cigarettes to avoid detection at night, navigating by the full moon. They take turns lifting the bottom razor coil high enough for a fellow migrant to crawl under. Knapsacks are pushed through or tossed over. Some emerge from the cornfields with bloody gashes.

Then it’s a flat-out sprint of 50 yards or so. Hungarian police gun their SUV engines on the dirt road beside the razor wire, trying to catch the migrants before they disappear into fields of corn and 10-foot high sunflowers.

For those evading the law, the goal is to get through Hungary without leaving a bureaucratic trace. Otherwise, they fear, any other EU nation can deport them back to Hungary, their EU entry point and the place where they are supposed to claim asylum.

Those seeking an officially recorded point of entry to Hungary need only follow the razor wire to the cross-border rail track near Roszke, a village of 3,000 beside the highway linking Belgrade and Budapest, the Serbian and Hungarian capitals. Here, because the train tracks cannot be blocked with fencing, police created a bottleneck entry for migrants.


Which path to take?

Many travelers, chiefly citizens of war-ravaged Syria, spend days camped out in Serbia debating whether to slip under the wire by night, then into the arms of paid smugglers for a final journey by vehicle to Western Europe — or to walk openly down the train track into the unwelcoming arms of Hungary’s police and immigration staff.

Bashar Botros, walking from Kanjiza, the migrants’ last camp site in Serbia before the Hungarian border, said his family had hoped to live in their beloved Syria for the rest of their lives ‘‘but the war didn’t let us live like normal people.’’ Now, as he walked along the rail line, Botros spoke about going to college in Germany and studying German on his smartphone.

‘‘I am very excited, actually, to study in Germany,’’ he said, praising its universities as ‘‘the best in the world.’’

For those walking along the tracks, fear of the unknown swells. Some pause and pitch tents just yards from two stones bearing Cyrillic letters marking their exit from Serbia.

Sometimes the choice comes down to logistics: If your smartphone has died, you cannot use satellite navigation to cross the border, nor can you connect with a smuggler. The lack of battery life can spark a decision that reverberates for a lifetime.

Those who report to Hungarian authorities face long, uncomfortable waits in the blazing sun because the police-commandeered buses come infrequently. The only facilities are six portable toilets.

The buses take them to a military-style compound to be fingerprinted, photographed and identified by name, hometown and birth date — an often inaccurate effort, given that most have chosen to dump their national IDs long ago. Within a few days, all those registered are supposed to report to large residential compounds deeper in Hungary.


Most will walk to the brawny police, the fetid toilets, and the crowded buses. Others, unconvinced, will turn back to Serbia, plotting an overnight dash under the wire and through the corn.