Annastiina Kallius and Aiski Ryökäs
The “Closure” of the Balkan Route and Hungary After the Summer of Migration
Despite harsh anti-refugee policy and rhetoric, in the spring of 2016 undocumented migrants continue to pass west, through the “closed” Balkan route and the Hungarian border fence.
Entering the country through Bulgaria and Serbia, being forced into systematic detention, suffering from poor quality of asylum process, facing structural homelessness but consequently deciding to travel onwards towards a life in the informal economies of Germany, Austria or Sweden, ultimately joining the much needed pool of exploitable labor for Western economies. This snapshot is a common trajectory faced by migrants and refugees in Hungary, not only from 2016, but also from 2012. Indeed, although much has happened in the last few years, there is a sad irony around the situation of refugees and asylum seekers in Hungary remaining very similar to some years ago, and in that sense, a pervasive feeling that things have returned to “normal”.
Keleti in the Media and Outrage over the Border Fence
When Hungary and the demonstrations by people on the move at Keleti station in Budapest became global headlines for a few short weeks in summer 2015, we felt relieved, hoping that finally the international community would take seriously the multiple human rights violations happening in the country. At the same time, the moral outrage over the Hungarian government’s decision to build a fence on its entire border with Serbia felt hypocritical, considering the silence with which the construction of previous fences on the Spanish-Moroccan, Greek-Turkish and the Bulgarian-Turkish borders were met (not to mention the international silence over a dubious border agreement between Finland and Russia that prevents anyone but Finnish, Russian and Belarusian nationals to cross the northern part of the Finnish-Russian border).
Physical and equally serious legal fences against people seeking protection were set up in Hungary in September and October 2015, after which the number of people entering the country decreased to very few. The Hungarian-Serbian border fence is not an anomaly, but a very logical outcome of European asylum policy that follows previous patterns in Ceuta and Melilla on the Spanish-Moroccan border, as well as in Evros on the Greek-Turkish border. This is also reflected in the way in which Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s harsh rhetoric has set at least a symbolic precedent for a tightening European border regime and a rising level of official islamophobia.
During the last months of 2015 and early 2016, the global media followed how the Balkan route that asylum-seekers followed from Greece towards Western and Northern Europe operated as an ecosystem, with one border closure affecting another, like a giant machine directed from Vienna. The absurdity of the Dublin Regulation, which lays out the principle that asylum seekers need to apply for asylum in the first EU state they enter and upon being granted refugee status, also need to stay there, became crystal clear when hundreds of thousands of people accessed the European Union through Hungary, Croatia and Slovenia during the latter half of 2015. The attempt to maintain the regulation desperately failed in the case of Hungary, and later nobody asked Croatia and Slovenia to take the regulation seriously. Rewinding back to 2015, this ignorance beautifully exposes the confusion and chaos of European Union asylum policy: unlike Croatia and Slovenia later in the autumn, Hungary was asked to follow the Dublin regulation in the summer of 2015 and make sure that asylum-seekers entering the country registered their asylum claims in Hungary. This resulted in a quickly escalating humanitarian catastrophe in the public places of Budapest in the summer months, a deadlock by September, protests in Budapest and finally a self-organised march to Austria that led to the opening of the Austrian-Hungarian border to refugees on September 4. The attempted closure of the Hungarian-Serbian border on September 15, 2015, simply redirected the route, and when Austria placed a cap on the number of people who could cross to its territory and built a border barrier in December 2015, Slovenia was quick to follow, having an immediate effect on Croatia and consequently on Serbia.
The Balkan route is not closed
The “closure” of the Balkan route in March 2016 was celebrated by policy makers, and bemoaned by activists and humanitarian volunteers who are faced with the everyday suffering it causes. Indeed, according to our sources who frequently work in the field, many of those people who happened to be on the route during the time of closure were subjected to chain refoulement down the route, deported from Slovenia to Croatia, Croatia to Serbia, from Serbia to Greece, and possibly, according to the deal that the European Commission struck with Turkey, to Turkey.
During all this time, the Hungarian border fence was, according to the propaganda of the Fidesz government, proudly standing and protecting Hungarian territory from people seeking protection, who according to Viktor Orbán “look like an army”. In reality, however, the fence is a sad failure. Hundreds of people cross into Hungary every day, especially since the border between Serbia and Croatia has been effectively closed. People climb over, go under, or seek asylum at the official transit zone-crossings in Tompa or Röszke. Since the Brussels terrorist attacks in March 2016, the number of people who are allowed to officially seek asylum in these transit zones has been reduced to 20 per day, resulting in a quickly escalating humanitarian catastrophe along the fence.
Once in Hungary, people are either detained or sent to open camps. At the time of writing, at the end of April, the detention centers are full, and the government is preparing a law that will reduce detainees’ space by half, resulting in even more severe overcrowding of prisons. As a consequence, people are placed in the likewise overcrowded open camps in Bicske, close to Budapest and Vámosszabadi, in northwestern Hungary.
In 90% of cases, Hungarian authorities turn a blind eye to people who move onwards to Austria, Germany, Denmark, Sweden and Finland to seek asylum. In 10% of the cases, people are caught, charged with illegal border crossing and detained, and it is this 10% that allows the Hungarian authorities to claim that they are respecting EU regulations. Meanwhile, in practice, the Balkan route has been all but closed, and people are entering Serbia through both Albania and Bulgaria. This, however, is not something we hear about: just like Viktor Orbán needs to claim that the Hungarian border fence has “closed” the border, the EU needs to claim that the the Balkan route has been “closed” in order to preserve the legitimacy of the Turkey deal and to distract attention from the autonomy and agency of people on the move, as well as the dire humanitarian situation in Greece, Macedonia, Serbia and at the Hungarian border.
The Hungarian policy always was, and still is, premised on the assumption that people who enter Hungary will not stay in Hungary, and in its war against the poor, the government is now also including refugees. The recent suggested changes to the asylum legislation will ensure that practically no one will stay in Hungary: all integration support for refugees will be abolished, further cementing that homelessness is the only possible fate for people granted protection (homelessness is one of the top social issues facing Hungarian society, and the Fidesz government has also criminalised it in the Hungarian constitution). There will still be no Hungarian language education, all people recognised as refugees or granted subsidiary protection will have their asylum claims re-evaluated every three years, and travel documents for refugees may be denied for reasons of national security or “public order.”
While Hungary is not the only European Union member state to pass draconian legislation with regards to integration, it should be remembered that free movement within the EU for purposes of employment or education is denied from those recognised as refugees—an issue that is less acute in Western Europe, but of extreme importance for those receiving a status in Eastern Europe. As a result, the situation has, indeed, returned to normal, and Hungary has resumed its position as a factory producing people who have no other opportunity that to disappear, sans papiers, in the informal economies of Western Europe.
Annastiina Kallius is an anthropologist who got stuck in Hungary a decade ago. As a Migszol activist, she writes blog posts, reports, analysis, social media updates and toilet scribbles, and regularly comments to the national and international media.
Aiski Ryökäs is cultural producer and activist who has lived in Budapest for four years. She organises and coordinates campaigns and public events at Migszol, and has developed a love-hate relationship with Hungarian verb conjugation.
Migszol (Migrant Solidarity Group) is a grassroots activist group, composed of Hungarians, refugees and immigrants. Since 2012, the group conducts monitoring visits to refugee camps, produces information material about the situation in Hungary, organises campaigns and public events, and works towards advancing the social and political rights of refugees and migrants in Hungary. Their latest updates and commentaries (in Hungarian and English) are available on the Migszol website (www.migszol.com) and on social media (Migszol Csoport on Facebook and Twitter)
Letter from a detainee
Sent from Kiskunhalas detention centre, Southern Hungary, in April 2016.
I don’t know where to start the story from but I will be brief. Why are we imprisoned here? Didn’t we run away from our countries because the West destroyed them? When we came to ask for refuge here, what we are faced with is just humiliation and discrimination. Isn’t the West the one that destroyed our countries?
We are refugees here, and they are asking us for guarantee money to let us out from this prison. How can we pay when we are the ones who left our countries just to find a decent life here? Why does the West deny us? These are some questions I am seeking your answers to.
We don’t want to persecute anybody, and we don’t have hatred towards anyone here. We just want freedom. We want a secure life. We received the people from the West in our countries as guests: wouldn’t it have been better if they had received us in their countries the same way we received them? Why does the West employ two-faced policies towards us? I ask you to look into our conditions in this prison.
We left our families behind us who no longer have homes. We left our children who are feeling lost. We are the only financial supporters for them. I talk on their behalf. I am the only one supporting my family, I am the only financial source for them. My imprisonment here will increase their suffering and their pain. I wish that you can help me, and I have hope and trust in you.