Subotica, Serbia, this side of Orbán’s wall
We are in Subotica, in northern Serbia, a small town only a few dozen kilometres away from the Hungarian border, with street signs in two languages and both Soviet-era buildings and Austro-Hungarian buildings rising up side by side. All around, the Pannonian Basin is an endless expanse of earth and dried up bushes. Up north the frontier is like a black line traced across European history. Orbán’s wall: a double-rowed metal fence topped with blades and barbed wire which is 4 metres high and hundreds of kilometres long, and protected by 50 officers with dogs, thermal detectors, and drones. Built in 2015 and quickly extended along the entire Croatian border, it was the first “anti-migrant” wall between two member states of the European Union. The first of many, as it would turn out.
Since then, many migrants transiting along the Balkan route have remained trapped in Serbia. Last winter, after several deaths due to hypothermia in the frigid temperatures which reached -20° C, the images of refugees trembling and barely clothed in the thick snow made international news. Though attention died down a short time thereafter, according to the latest UNHCR report, as of May 28 the number of migrants has remained stable at just under 7,000 and not all of them are finding shelter in the camps that have been set up.
What the volunteers are doing for migrants
Federica Maiucci, a 26-year-old from Rome and international civil service member who has been working with Fresh Response for the last three months, told us that this small NGO was founded in the summer of 2016 “by an international group of young volunteers who were on site, and horrified by the inhuman conditions facing the refugees.” As a completely independent organisation, Fresh Response “is funded by donations collected via online crowdfunding.”
“We try to meet the essential needs of the hundreds of migrants who are living or passing through Subotica, left out of the only official camp in the area, which is overflowing, mostly with Syrian families with children,” Federica explained. “Everybody else is sleeping where they can without the bare minimum services or running water.” The makeshift camps are located in three sites: the “train station”, an abandoned national railway building; the “brick factory”, a dilapidated building that is being progressively demolished every day by a group of workers; and the “jungle”, a vast wooded area behind the railway tracks. The camps are populated by young people between the ages of 16 and 30, mostly from Afghanistan and Pakistan, followed by Syria, Iraq, and Northern African countries. They are waiting for a chance, and have repeatedly tried to cross the final frontier, the cruellest one, which separates them from their European dream. “Last week, about 150 people managed to pass, protected by a fog so thick you could cut it with a knife,” Federica told me, “but a hundred more arrived from Belgrade soon after.”
Despite the heavy workload, Fresh Response’s activities seem very efficient. A warehouse in the city centre is packed full of essential goods such as clothes, sleeping bags, tents, blankets, and cooking pots. Another warehouse near the camp is used to store food and water supplies. Tasks are assigned every morning: one group remains at the warehouse to prepare the bags that will be distributed; other groups drive two vans to visit the camps, tent by tent, monitoring the situation and listening to the migrants’ needs, making specific lists of all the required items, which will be then delivered in the afternoon.
Food rations are distributed at lunchtime at a fixed location near the railway tracks. “We don’t want to serve the refugees ready-made dishes,” Federica pointed out, “we’d rather distribute the ingredients and leave them free to cook whatever they want, so that they can keep busy. And cooking can still be a shared ritual.” At about one o’clock the migrants begin to form small groups near the tracks. A few whistles announce the train that will soon pass by. As soon as the white Fresh Response van appears in the distance, the refugees quickly arrange themselves in a long line running parallel to the tracks. The ritual is well rehearsed: some people race for the spots up front, some try to sneak back into the queue for a second helping, there is even some pushing and shoving, but the atmosphere is decidedly one of playful camaraderie – something you wouldn’t expect in one of the circles of hell. Calling them by their first names, several young people try to catch the attention of the first volunteers to make small talk or to ask for small favours.
Among them is Shahid, a 22-year-old from Pakistan, which he left more than six months ago after paying 6,000 euros to a smuggler. His journey has been terrible. “When we left, there were more than 80 of us. We walked for two days to the Iranian border, and once we got there the police opened fire on us. They are instructed to shoot on sight.” He sighed, then resumed his tale: “We reached the Turkish border with those who survived and came to a river. The water was really deep and I can’t swim, I didn’t want to go but the smuggler just pushed me in. I was terrified, the water came up to my neck, but my friend kept telling me that we’d made it, that Turkey was close.” From there, marching every night, Shahid crossed into Bulgaria and then Serbia, where his journey was cut short in a never-ending winter. “First I went to the Obrenovac camp, outside Belgrade, where I got sick because of the cold.” He was hospitalised for two weeks with severe respiratory problems: “As soon as I got out, I came here up north. I’m exhausted, but I want to be reunited with my brother in Austria.”
“A ritual of brutality”
The following morning I went out with those volunteers who patrol the “jungle”. Each tree hides groups of two to three tents where about a dozen of migrants live. The first one we visit is the home of Ahmed, a 23-year-old Pakistani who wants to be reunited with his family in Frankfurt. “The only hope is to manage to cut the wire mesh without getting caught, run to the smuggler’s car as fast as you can, and hope that you don’t get stopped on the way to Austria. The police in Hungary are a nuisance…” Ahmed knows them well because he has already tried to cross the border three times. “If they catch you they’ll smash up your cell phone and steal your money. Or they’ll let their dogs loose on you and kick you with their boots. When they’re drunk they love spitting wine in people’s faces. They’ll take your clothes and your shoes. They’ll take the water bottles from your backpack and empty them all over you!” By all accounts, the Hungarian police’s behaviour is brutal and sadistic, and all the more appalling for targeting refugees: bruises, bites, and wounds inflicted on people already suffering from fatigue, scabies, and malnutrition.
“It’s like a ‘standard package of abuse,’ a ritual of brutality at the European Union’s own border, designed to stop people from trying to cross again,” said Christopher Stokes, general director of Doctors Without Borders. “It is just shocking that this is happening with European leaders turning a blind eye. During the European Union Council meeting, which will be held exactly one year after the official closure of the Balkan road, European leaders should discuss whether this kind of brutality is how they plan to continue to protect their borders.”
In this wretched limbo that official humanitarian channels cannot or will not reach, the only hope of survival comes from the strenuous efforts of small organisations like Fresh Response. As one realises very quickly, the volunteers’ work goes well beyond that material support which has saved so many lives. Looking at how frankly and directly they interact with migrants, it is obvious that they are trying to re-establish some genuine links of solidarity in the face of brutal marginalization.
Many young volunteers have come and gone, from all corners of Europe and even the United States. Some only stayed for a few weeks, others have been here for longer than a year; there were about fifteen of them when I arrived, between the ages of 20 and 30. A kaleidoscope of social commitment, nomadic trajectories challenging the Europe of walls and racism. Annika, a 30-year-old woman from Birmingham on a promising career path as a consultant, left everything to volunteer in Greece, then in Serbia. A daughter of Pakistani immigrants, she speaks Urdu and some Arabic, and she is the go-to person for all the migrants who don’t speak English. Rachel, a 20-year-old from Glasgow, has been travelling throughout Europe for a year in a van converted into a camper. “I came to Subotica just to deliver a donation of clothes,” she told me, “but immediately decided to stay. The work that is being done here is incredible, it’s so close to people. The media talk about migrants as if they were numbers; the word ‘refugee’ has replaced ‘foreigner’ as a new anti-identity. But here you can listen to their individual stories and can actually realise the horrors that they are going through, the insanity of their situation.”
And there seems to be no end in sight to such insanity, as shown by the bill passed by a large majority of the Hungarian parliament in early March, which introduces mandatory detention for all asylum seekers on national territory, including minors. “We are under siege. Immigration is a Trojan horse for terrorism,” Orbán said, claiming that the new measures would serve the entire EU since “they will make it impossible for immigrants to enter Europe illegally.” There have been only a few, unassertive reactions from European institutions to yet another serious infraction of international law and the very principles of the European Union. Migrants of any age and origin will be deprived of their freedom of movement and confined to containers located along the borders, in camps with a capacity of 200-300 people each, where they will be held indefinitely, until their asylum claims have been granted or denied.
Dinner at Ahmed’s
In the evening I rejoined Shahid near the “brick factory” where he was sitting around the fire with other young people. “Two of our friends just wrote that they were taken to prison in Hungary, and they will stay there for at least six months. They said that they’re hardly getting any food.” The new security measures are being used as a de facto legitimisation of police brutality and human rights violations, just as the UNCHR reports on Hungary feared.
Things are not much better on this side of the wall. “They say we Syrians have the right to cross, but we don’t. I’m also a minor, I’m 16, but my rights are not being recognised.” Bakr just arrived in Subotica; he speaks excellent English, I met him on my second day during the distribution of food rations. Almost a year ago he left Hama, in central Syria, one of the hotspots of the anti-Assad revolt and the scene of numerous massacres.
“On my way to school I had to be careful which path I took to avoid problems with Assad’s soldiers. If they catch you, they’ll bring you up north, give you weapons, and force you to fight for them. After that, you’ll never come home again.” The police in Serbia separated him from his brother after they had made the journey together. He was not accepted into the official camp even though he was underage, just like many other young people who are camping out near Subotica.
On our last evening, we dined at Ahmed’s tent in the jungle together with Federica and other volunteers. Chacha (Urdu for “uncle”), the eldest in the group, cannot be more than 45 years old. As we drink chai and make small talk, we learn that Serbian police officers burnt blankets and tents at the “train station” during a raid. “We’ve had raids like this before,” Annika explained. “They say they’re only doing it to send migrants into the official camps, but they’re lying – they know the camps are already bursting.” At each raid the earth is left scorched, several people are arrested, and deported south; then it all begins again in a never-ending spiral. We stood up quickly and thanked them for the delicious dinner: it was time to go and check the situation. Ahmed followed us along a path that cut through the jungle and led us to the tracks under a clear, starry sky. He told us that his brother’s wife, back in Germany, was expecting a child. “My brother told me the baby is waiting for my arrival to be born. I wonder if the baby will find a better world.”
Cover image: migrants queuing for food rations in Subotica. All photographs in the article by Marco Marchese.
Translation by Francesco Graziosi. Proofreading by Alexander Booth.