By Patrick Strickland
A sotthalom, Hungary – A group of five police officers chopped wood and tossed it in a small fire pit as the brisk wind rattled their makeshift tent, hastily constructed with plastic tarps and tree branches to shield them from the cold on a morning in early March near the Hungarian border village of Asotthalom.
On the Serbian side of the Hungarian border fence that lines the 175-kilometre border between the two countries, abandoned Yugoslav army barracks and watchtowers testified to wars that had concluded 15 years earlier.
Today, however, the Hungarian army has launched a war of its own – one to stem the flow of refugees and migrants into Central Europe.
An army jeep bounced along the dirt road that hugs the barbed wire-crowned fence. A unit of officers from the village patrol sauntered along the trail, while a pair of army soldiers repaired a hole made by refugees who had crossed the border the night before.
Last year, more than a million refugees and migrants arrived on European shores by boat, according to the UNHCR, the United Nations’ refugee agency. Fleeing war and economic devastation, more than 3,750 drowned when their dinghies went under and were swallowed by the sea.
Built in September, the fence was a response to the hundreds of thousands of refugees and migrants who in 2015 crossed through Hungary in hopes of reaching Western Europe and obtaining asylum after leaving their countries in the Middle East , Southeast Asia and many parts of Africa.
A village patrol officer, who declined to provide his name, drove a pickup truck up and down the border, stopping occasionally to try to spot refugees in the forest of mostly dead trees that starts some 50 metres beyond the Hungarian side of the fence.
“They cross before dawn and hide there,” he said, motioning in the direction of the trees. “In the morning, they try to move. We usually catch them. The fence is not 100 percent effective, but it’s pretty good.”
He added: “They aren’t real refugees. If they were, they wouldn’t have to enter illegally. They are just coming for a better life.”
Down the road, Frank, a police officer who did not provide his full name, smoked a cigarette, shielding it as the wind picked up.
Wearing a thick police jacket and sunglasses despite the dim day, Frank said that he and his colleagues were warned to expect three times the number of people attempting to enter the country since Slovenia and Croatia sealed off their doors to refugees in early March.
He paced to keep warm, complaining of the assignment. “Don’t take a picture of the tent. It is embarrassing. It’s like we have World War II equipment in 2016,” he joked.
A few hundred metres down the road, a rifle hung from the tree branch outside a portable bathroom behind another police tent.
Amid the woods, sleeping bags, blankets and the still simmering embers of campfires were the sole remnants of the people who crossed the night before.
‘We want to live our lives’
In early March, the Hungarian government extended a state of emergency to the entire country, citing the ongoing refugee crisis. The interior ministry announced the deployment of an additional 1,500 soldiers and police officers to the Serbian frontier.
In September 2015, Hungary introduced legislation making it a felony to climb, breach or damage the fence.
According to Hungarian police statistics, authorities arrested at least 2,230 people on the border between March 1 and March 22, filling up refugee camps and closed detention centres across the country.
Meanwhile, the number of those who dodge Hungarian authorities and make it into the country undetected remains unknown.
Nearly five months ago, police arrested Ahmed, a 43-year-old man from Somalia , after he cut the fence near Asotthalom. Earlier this month, he was transferred from a detention centre to the Bicske refugee camp near Budapest.
Ahmed said he would rather be arrested in Hungary than go on fearing attacks by al-Qaeda-linked armed group Al-Shabab because he worked with the local government in his hometown.
“We don’t have a civil war. It’s an Al-Shabab war, a slaughter,” he said as he stood outside the camp’s entrance, using his hands to make a throat-slitting motion. “We want to live our lives.”
Initially hoping to reach Germany or Sweden, Ahmed said he has now applied for asylum in Hungary. “This is Europe. I am happy to stay here. I want to bring my wife and kids.”
Like most of those arrested on the Hungarian border, Ahmed was informed that he would be sent back to Serbia – a country that does not accept deportations from Hungary.
Stuck in a state of legal limbo, Ahmed and many others like him are not allowed to stay in the country, while Hungarian authorities are unable to deport him.
According to rights groups, Hungary’s record of accepting a tiny fraction of asylum applicants has rendered it virtually impossible to enter the country through designated border crossings. Only 146 of the 177,135 applicants were granted asylum in Hungary in 2015, according to the government statistics. Many of those started the asylum process and continued to Western Europe.
Welcome to Hungary (WHO), a group of volunteers who campaign for refugee and migrant solidarity, warned that the hyper-militarised borders have made it dangerous for refugees and migrants hoping to pass through Hungary.
Veronika Kozma, a member of WHO, argued that the border barrier “is dangerous to [asylum seekers’]health and that of their families”.
“The fence has not and will not stop desperate people from entering, but it can cause injuries,” she said. “This was all predicted before its construction, so in reality it serves a very cruel and inhumane purpose only.”
Kozma accused the government of employing a campaign of “hate propaganda” against refugees and migrants since the crisis escalated in early 2015.
The Hungarian government is dominated by Orban’s right-wing Fidesz party, and the largest opposition group is Jobbik, an ultra-nationalist party that sits to the right of Fidesz and describes itself as “principled, conservative and radically patriotic Christian” in its platform.
Though opponents on many domestic issues, Fidesz and Jobbik have found common ground in their shared stance against the presence of refugees and migrants.
In an op-ed in the German Frankfurter Allgemeine newspaper in September 2015, Orban fashioned himself as a defender of Europe’s supposed Christian character.
“Everything which is now taking place before our eyes threatens to have explosive consequences for the whole of Europe,” he wrote.
“We shouldn’t forget that the people who are coming here grew up in a different religion and represent a completely different culture. Most are not Christian, but Muslim … That is an important question, because Europe and European culture have Christian roots.”
WHO’s Kozma argued that Orban’s government has used the refugee issue as a means of shoring up support among the general electorate.
“Unfortunately, many Hungarians have fallen for this propaganda now and express hate and fear towards refugees and migrants,” she said. According to a recent study , more than 80 percent of Hungarians who were polled oppose Hungary’s participation in a programme that will distribute asylum seekers throughout the European Union.
“Every day the idea of ‘Europe’ as a place based on human rights is becoming less and less true,” Kozma concluded. ” Viktor Orban likes to play his new role as a policeman at the southeast gates of Europe.”
Follow Patrick Strickland on Twitter: @P_Strickland_
Source: Al Jazeera