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A Year Later: Fence Between Serbia And Hungary Slows Migrant Traffic


Now let's check in on a European country that has been resisting the flow of refugees and migrants from the Middle East and Europe. Hungary has not been the final destination for very many refugees, but it has been a stop on the road farther north. And it has now slowed the flow through a border with Serbia using a long fence and patrols. NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson visited before the fence was in place and went back again recently. She found fewer crossings but some people left in the cold.

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: When I first came here in August 2015, the 110-mile-long Hungarian border with Serbia was made up of fields and forests. Back then, hundreds of asylum seekers crossed the open border into Hungary each day into the village of Asotthalom. I saw them everywhere - in the village park, outside stores, walking on the main road and waiting at the bus stops. Residents frequently complained about the migrants trespassing and local police tried to round them up. But as soon as some migrants were removed, scores more would arrive and take their place. Those I talked to expressed relief at having reached the European Union. They told me how they spent their life savings on smugglers and rickety boats that ferried them across the Mediterranean.

So where are you from?


NELSON: Burma and...


NELSON: ...Baghdad?



NELSON: Oh, Pakistan. OK. Where are you going?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: Going to German.

NELSON: Germany? You, too?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #6: Hungary, Spain and other countries.

NELSON: None of them wanted to stay in the village of Asotthalom, nor did residents want them here. But now 14 months later, I hardly recognize this place. It's raining and the village looks deserted. There isn't an asylum seeker in sight. The nearby border is now off limits, demarcated by a nearly 12-foot-high razor-wire fence. Police and soldiers and vehicles patrol the barrier. Asotthalom mayor Laszlo Toroczkai says he's thrilled. He is allied with the far-right Jobbik party, which takes a hard line against migrants.

LASZLO TOROCZKAI: (Foreign language spoken).

NELSON: The mayor says his village patrols still catch a few dozen of them sneaking into Hungary each week. He lives on a farm that borders the fence and says with a wife and three young daughters at home, the barrier gives him peace of mind. And it's dramatically reduced the number of crossings. While in 2015, as many as 3,000 migrants crossed daily. Now, Timea Kovacs says, only 30 asylum seekers a day have been officially allowed to enter Hungary. Kovacs is a lawyer who works with asylum seekers. She says those who do get to come are kept in two small transit zones or camps on the Hungarian side of the fence where they are processed. Kovacs adds her clients, who've escaped wars and come to the border on foot, are upset about being held when all they want to do is pass through Hungary like asylum seekers were allowed to do last year.

TIMEA KOVACS: I understand them. I really understand because they don't see any prospective in Hungary. So they also want to use Hungary just to came through the country and then to go to Germany or to Austria, to Sweden, to Denmark or whatever they want.

NELSON: Even worse off are the many hundreds of migrants stuck on the Serbian side of the border in squalid camps. On the Serbian side, I meet two drenched Afghan migrants who snuck away from their camp in the cold rain to find a place to charge their cellphones. They've been in Serbia three months waiting for permission to cross into Hungary. Eighteen-year-old Ahmad Rahimi has bruises on his face.

AHMAD RAHIMI: (Foreign language spoken).

NELSON: He says he and his friend gave up paying smugglers to help them sneak past the fence after they were repeatedly caught and beaten by Hungarian police who returned them to Serbia.

RAHIMI: (Foreign language spoken).

NELSON: Rahimi says he dreads being stuck in Serbia this winter, but says going home isn't an option because of the war in Afghanistan. He adds, I don't even have money to go back if I could. Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Special correspondent Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson is based in Berlin. Her reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and read at From 2012 until 2018 Nelson was NPR's bureau chief in Berlin. She won the ICFJ 2017 Excellence in International Reporting Award for her work in Central and Eastern Europe, North Africa, the Middle East and Afghanistan.