Tears and confusion as Hungary tries 'criminal' migrants

A migrant gestures as he talks with his translator as he appears in front of a court in Szeged, Hungary.
A migrant gestures as he talks with his translator as he appears in front of a court in Szeged, Hungary.REUTERS

SZEGED, Hungary (AFP) - "You shouldn't enter a country through a hole in a fence," the judge tells Mustafa, a Syrian migrant charged with a new type of crime created in Hungary only last month - illegally entering the country by crossing the newly-built barrier on the border with Serbia.

"You should knock on a door when you want to come into a house," adds the judge, Gy Molnar Sandor, during the trial taking place in the southern Hungarian city of Szeged.

The government ordered the building of the razor wire barrier in August to stem the flow of migrants, with more than 320,000 crossing Hungary so far this year, most headed on via Austria to Germany.

But hundreds continued to climb over or crawl under the fence even after the new legislation came into force on Sept 15.

Since then, there have been more than 400 fast-track trials of migrants - mostly Syrians and Iraqis - charged with the crime.

Meanwhile, the fence has merely shifted the problem as people now mostly arrive in Hungary via its border with Croatia and are taken to Austria on trains provided by the authorities.

"No one told me I could go through Croatia," Mustafa said, his hand shaking as he holds a copy of his verdict, an expulsion order barring him from Hungary for two years, and ordering his removal to Serbia, deemed a "safe" country by Hungary.

His name will also be entered in an EU database, possibly preventing him from entering any country in the bloc's passport-free Schengen zone.


"They say they are brought to the fence by smugglers in Serbia, they really are victims," said Mohammed Kerro, a Kurdish-speaking interpreter who has been working at three or four trials every day for the last three weeks.

"The traffickers say it's no problem to get through the fence, some even tell them it's actually the Croatian border," the Syrian-born Kerro told AFP in the corridor outside the courtroom.

Among those waiting to be called before a different judge is 25-year-old Sara from the northern Syrian city of Kobani.

Tears are streaming down her face as she struggles to control her two-year-old daughter Ellah.

Wearing stained jeans, the woman slips a bandaged foot out of her trainers, which have no laces. She lost a toenail on her journey, mostly on foot, from Turkey through Bulgaria into Serbia in the hope of reaching Germany.

Once inside the courtroom, the judge told Sara she was spotted by heat cameras mounted on pylons along the border, as she and 11 other people scrambled through a hole in the fence on Oct 6 near the town of Morahalom.

The robed prosecutor said the young Syrian's crime was not coming to Hungary, but choosing a criminal mode of entry.

Sara explained she fled her hometown after Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militants occupied it.

"I saw beheadings, they killed both my parents-in-law," she said, weeping.

Ellah, oblivious to the drama, drew with a coloured pencil on a legal document on the floor.

"Are there fences around houses in Kobani?" asked the prosecutor.

The woman appears baffled by the question.

"Fences are not the custom where I am from," she replied. "I didn't think anything at all, I just followed the others, holding my child, I do it all for her."


The judge, although sympathetic, tells her that ignorance of the law cannot be a defence.

Although Sara's act does not warrant a jail term - a punishment reserved for people caught physically damaging the fence - she receives a one-year ban from Hungary.

Confused and relieved, the woman declined an offer to receive the verdict in her own language, nor will she appeal her sentence.

The summary trials have been condemned by both rights groups and the European Commission, though Budapest insist they comply with European norms.

"They just want it all over and done with as soon as possible," her interpreter told AFP after the trial, which lasted 72 minutes.

After their sentencing, the migrants are brought back to the detention centres, from where they will be returned to Serbia at some point.

Hungary's Immigration Office, which is tasked to carry out the expulsion order, has yet to answer AFP questions about how many people have been removed to Serbia, and how many are still waiting to be deported.