From Monsters and Critics.com|
Roszke, Hungary - At dusk, Sergeant Levente Saja stands in the open countryside and scans the horizon through binoculars. A dirt road separates a field of maize from a wide expanse of scrub and grass.
'This corn makes our job a lot more difficult,' he says.
The cornfield is in Hungary, a member of the European Union and part of the Schengen Zone, which stretches west to Portugal and north to Scandinavia with no internal border checks or further passport scrutiny.
The other field is in war-scarred Serbia, which is not an EU member and where the Balkan ethnic conflicts of the 1990s left the economy and much of its infrastructure in ruins.
Serbia has become one of the main land routes into the European Union for those in search of a better life but lacking the documents to enter legally.
Day and night, men, women and children crawl, run, shuffle and crouch, inching their way across the fields towards Hungary. Saja and his colleagues in the Hungarian border police are tasked with stopping these illegal migrants.
'You never know when they might turn up,' he says.
The Hungary-Serbia border is just one more barrier on a very long journey. Many will have spent months travelling, often on foot, living in unimaginable conditions.
Saja recalls finding an Afghan man just inside the Hungarian border: 'He was lying in a field, exhausted, unconscious.'
After receiving medical treatment, the Afghan requested political asylum, making him the responsibility of the Interior Ministry's Office of Immigration and Nationality.
Most of those apprehended on the 'green border,' as it is known, are Roma, or gypsies, from Serbia, and Kosovo Albanians. Africans appear periodically and in recent months the number of Afghan refugees has noticeably increased, says border police officer Major Szabolcs Revesz.
'Hungary is still not a target country for illegal immigrants,' says Lieutenant Colonel Gabor Eberhardt in his office at police headquarters in the university town of Szeged, southern Hungary.
Last week, the EU border control agency Frontex said illegal border crossings into the European Union declined by 20 per cent in the first half of 2009, largely due to stronger border controls and the economic crisis.
However, the agency noted that illegal immigration into Hungary has climbed exponentially.
Eberhardt said: 'Most who cross the border illegally are heading for Germany, Switzerland or other wealthier countries.'
His department patrols 62 kilometres of Hungary's border with Serbia and its 68-kilometre border with Romania, containing five official border crossings.
Since joining the Schengen Zone in January 2008, Hungary has emerged as an attractive destination for migrants keen to get into Western Europe without the proper papers. This rising demand, coupled with the stepped-up security, is reflected in the prices charged by criminal gangs that provide false papers and transport.
'People traffickers in Kosovo used to charge 1,500 euros (2,200 dollars). Now they are demanding 3,000 euros,' says Eberhardt.
In practice, this fee will often only get the migrant as far as the border: 'Clients' are told to split up and make their own way into Hungary before regrouping. This is when they are usually picked up by border police and either sent back to Serbia or into the slow system for processing asylum claims.
Many, who might have already handed over every cent they had for transport to the West, are simply abandoned in Hungary, sometimes even told that they are already in Switzerland or Germany.
Others make their own way on foot, often following railway lines or the few roads that are the only landmarks in the remote, open countryside.
'As some illegal migrants are on the verge of death when we find them, the first thing we have to do is provide them with medical attention,' Eberhardt says.
Border guards insist that it seems impossible to know how many are making it into Hungary illegally, but Eberhardt is confident the number is low.
'I cannot say we are detecting 100 per cent of illegal border crossings, but somewhere very close to that,' he says.
The strip of border under Eberhardt's watch is just one of five stretches of Hungary's external Schengen borders with neighbouring Ukraine, Romania, Serbia and Croatia.
'Although 836 were officially caught in the green border in 2008, the real number of people is probably closer to 2,500,' he says.
The figures only tell part of the story: Children are not included in the official statistics on illegal immigration.
Eberhardt points to a room for mothers and children in the Szeged headquarters, where those apprehended are processed and either returned or sent into the asylum system. The grimness of the barred door and linoleum floor are eased only slightly by a few colourful posters on the wall, rubber play mats and a television.
Officially, more than 900 migrants had been picked up by the end of August, already more than last year's total. And these were just those caught on Hungary's part of the Schengen land border, which runs from the tip of Norway inside the Arctic Circle down to Slovenia on the Adriatic.
Saja, the genial sergeant, knows the 'green border' like the back of his hand, including which drainage ditches and rows of bushes migrants use for cover.
Despite thermal-imaging cameras and helicopter backup - the European Union has poured millions into tightening its expanded eastern border - he and his colleagues more often use simple hunters' tricks. Inadvertently moving a seemingly innocent branch can betray a migrant's passage to the guards.
Although they will sometimes try to evade capture by fleeing - into the cornfields, for example - once caught, the illegal migrants are usually passive and put up little resistance.
'They don't try to fight,' Saja says. 'They are usually pretty worn out anyway.'
© Copyright 2007 by monstersandcritics.com.
This notice cannot be removed without permission.