SPECIAL REPORT

Border hide & seek game

A Kurdish woman and her family waiting at a military checkpoint in Suruc, Turkey, to cross back into Syria. Syrian, Iraqi, Iranian, Afghan and Bangladeshi migrants are trying to get into more prosperous European countries, especially Germany.
A Kurdish woman and her family waiting at a military checkpoint in Suruc, Turkey, to cross back into Syria. Syrian, Iraqi, Iranian, Afghan and Bangladeshi migrants are trying to get into more prosperous European countries, especially Germany. PHOTO: THE NEW YORK TIMES
Migrants on a watch tower at the Hungary-Serbia border village of Roszke on Sunday. The European Union is facing an unprecedented influx of people fleeing war, repression and poverty in what the bloc has described as its worst refugee crisis in 50 ye
Migrants on a watch tower at the Hungary-Serbia border village of Roszke on Sunday. The European Union is facing an unprecedented influx of people fleeing war, repression and poverty in what the bloc has described as its worst refugee crisis in 50 years. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
Austran police in Nickelsdorf, near the border with Hungary, searching a car carrying nine adults and two children on Sunday. Police activity on the border has increased since 71 migrants who were trying to reach Western Europe were found dead in a l
Austran police in Nickelsdorf, near the border with Hungary, searching a car carrying nine adults and two children on Sunday. Police activity on the border has increased since 71 migrants who were trying to reach Western Europe were found dead in a lorry on an Austrian motorway last week. PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY
Hungarian soldiers adjusting razor wire on a fence near the town of Asotthalom on Sunday. Analysts say tall fences will not keep out the migrants, who travel in groups, often guided by Google Maps and Facebook on the smartphones that are vital to thi
Hungarian soldiers adjusting razor wire on a fence near the town of Asotthalom on Sunday. Analysts say tall fences will not keep out the migrants, who travel in groups, often guided by Google Maps and Facebook on the smartphones that are vital to this modern migration. PHOTO: REUTERS
Migrants silhouetted against the sunset after crossing into Hungary from Serbia near the border village of Roszke on Sunday. Many have taken the Balkan route into Europe this year, heading via Serbia for Hungary, which lies within Europe's Schengen z
Migrants silhouetted against the sunset after crossing into Hungary from Serbia near the border village of Roszke on Sunday. Many have taken the Balkan route into Europe this year, heading via Serbia for Hungary, which lies within Europe's Schengen zone of passport-free travel. PHOTO: REUTERS

As soon as checks become more stringent, the people smugglers find another route

NICKELSDORF (Austria) • At this border town, where the Iron Curtain once divided Austria from Hungary, the authorities decided to step up efforts to detect international people smugglers, by randomly stopping cars and trucks to search for illicit human cargo.

But it seemed that the smugglers caught wind of the possible new traps, and they changed tactics too.

Red Cross volunteers, police and soldiers were bracing themselves on Sunday for a predicted wave of some 7,000 new arrivals. Yet, by evening that had not materialised. They had found other routes or they were just biding their time.

Normally traffic comes through old communist border posts and present-day truck-stops here without being stopped, the way it has been for 26 years since thousands of people from communist East Germany surged through.

These days the mass movement of people across Europe shows how globalisation and digital technology have lured migrants from much further afield - Afghans, Bangladeshis, Iraqis, Syrians and the occasional Iranian.

Many of them have paid hundreds or thousands of euros on a northward trek - first to Greece to begin the so-called Balkan Route: Into impoverished Macedonia, and through the train and bus stations of Serbia, towards Hungary. The Balkan Route has become the centre of Europe's migrant crisis.

Since Hungary is in Europe's visa-free Schengen zone, the migrants believe their onward travel will be relatively easier, as they seek asylum in more prosperous European countries, especially Germany.

However, Hungarian government spokesman Andras Giro-Szasz said yesterday that, under the Schengen rules, migrants can leave Hungary only with valid travel documents and a visa from their destination country. This, he said, has resulted in masses of migrants waiting in Budapest. Austrian Interior Minister Johanna Mikl-Leitner also rejected suggestions that the border checks constituted a violation of Europe's passport-free Schengen zone.

It became apparent during the weekend that 71 people, including four children, found dead in a truck in Austria last week were not alone in being smuggled, packed tightly inside trucks and vans, without adequate air flow or relief, in the middle of a heat wave.

Yesterday, Austrian authorities uncovered at least 200 asylum seekers and arrested at least five more people traffickers, as they began checking every truck and van on motorways near the border, causing traffic jams stretching 30km.

Mr Mahmoud Otri, 23, from Aleppo, Syria, said he learnt of the tragedy involving the 71 migrants only after a similar journey.

"We were close to being like them," he said.

Mr Otri, who trekked from Aleppo to Hungary via Turkey, Greece, Macedonia and Serbia, said he found himself in a small truck crammed with about 50 others, including at least four women and three children. Nearing Austria, they were gasping for air.

One of the Afghans on board had a knife, which Mr Otri said he had earlier used to intimidate some of the Arabs - Syrians, Iraqis and one Lebanese - on board. But the Afghan then used it to cut a hole in the roof of the truck. "We were close to death," Mr Otri said.

He paid 1,500 euros (S$2,380) for his passage, which took him to the northern Serbian border town of Subotica, then back to a Belgrade hotel and again to Subotica. From there, his group of about nine was taken into a forest, he said, where they waited for one night. The presence of Hungarian police forced their guide - provided by the smugglers - to move the group again for two more nights of waiting.

Hungary has received almost 150,000 migrants so far this year, 50,000 this month alone, mostly crossing from Serbia.

But Hungarian officials say they have a firm, if unwelcoming, answer to the tide - a fence.

It is as tall as 3.5m in some places, intended to send a message that the migrants should not expect to move freely. The fence is also a physical manifestation of the quandary of the migration crisis and the lack of cooperation among European Union (EU) nations.

Each nation along the path has every incentive to move them on, registered or issued temporary transit papers, but not entered as asylum applicants, ultimately passing the problem to someone else.

In one third to half of the cases, that place is Germany, which has received more migrants than any other EU nation, but where the welcome mat is wearing thin.

Paradoxically, far from deterring the migrants, Hungary's fence may have spurred them on. Many said that word of the fence had accelerated their race north before the whole Hungarian border with Serbia - 175km - was cordoned off.

Experienced analysts say the fence will not stop the migrants, who travel in groups, often guided by Google Maps and Facebook on the smartphones that are vital to this modern migration.

"It's just one more obstacle," said aid volunteer Tibor Varga in northern Serbia. "They will find out how to get around, above, under it."

THE NEW YORK TIMES, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 01, 2015, with the headline 'Border hide & seek game'. Print Edition | Subscribe