Rush hour comes late to the bus station in Subotica, a sleepy Serbian town barely 10km from Hungary.
It is well after 9pm when a fleet of taxis pulls up at the empty terminal. A dozen burly drivers huddle together to agree their price for the short run to the border; other cars park nearby, laden with food, water, warm clothes and basic medicines for the cabbies’ intended customers.
The groan of an approaching bus turns every head and, as it rumbles into the station, the taxi drivers and aid workers try to count the faces that peer out.
The bus from Belgrade, like three others from the Serbian capital that will arrive within the hour, leaves dozens of migrants tantalisingly close to what they see as the last major obstacle to a new life in the European Union.
“Hungary is next,” says Suhail (32), a teacher from Iraq, after receiving a food parcel from United Nations refugee agency workers. “We know there’s a fence on the border. But we have to get across somehow. If we can’t do it legally, we will try another way.”
Last autumn Hungary sealed security fences along its borders with
to stop hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers crossing its territory as they followed the “Balkan route” from
to western Europe.
The barriers forced most refugees and migrants to bypass Hungary, and a controversial EU-Turkey deal to tackle the crisis has now sharply reduced the numbers crossing the Mediterranean to Greece.
Thousands of migrants still reach Europe each month, however, and more than 50,000 remain stuck in Greece.
Migrants now follow two main routes to Serbia – through Turkey and Bulgaria or via Greece and Macedonia. Both routes converge in Belgrade.
Now that all the region's borders are officially shut to migrants, the shortest route to Austria and Germany is again the most desirable, making the next move from Belgrade obvious: a straight shot north 200km to Hungary, fence or no fence.
“I paid €2,400 to smugglers,” says Suhail, his face illuminated by the glow of Google Maps as his friend studies Subotica and the border on a mobile phone.
“We have a ‘guide’ in our group,” Suhail says. “He’s a refugee too, but he’s working for the smugglers. He has a number to call in each place. He will arrange things and tell us what to do next.”
More than 100 migrants, including babies and toddlers, sit or stand on the pavement outside the bus station eating food from the UNHCR and local volunteers. A few try to sleep; others seek help from a Médecins Sans Frontières team that works here every night.
A Serbian police car crawls by several times. Officers survey the scene and trundle on, apparently having seen nothing of concern.
The taxi drivers, meanwhile, wait until every cab has a full allocation of passengers and a price is agreed; they were overheard agreeing on €20 per migrant, which would bring in €80-€100 for each quick trip to the border.
“The migrants are coming continuously,” says Istvan Bacskulin, the outgoing mayor of the border village of Horgos.
“The numbers are nothing like last summer,” he says, “but every night taxis drop them in Horgos or Kelebija [another border village] and they look for a way through the fence. It’s been cut open in lots of places.”
Truly, the double-layer, razor-wire-clad barrier, which Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán has depicted as Christian Europe’s bulwark against hordes of Muslim migrants, is proving anything but impregnable.
Hungarian police have caught some 11,000 migrants crossing the fence this year. The vast majority were subsequently allowed to continue their journey to Austria and beyond.
According to Marta Pardavi, co-chair of the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, more than 14,000 people have requested asylum in Hungary this year, but only about 2,000 are still in the state’s reception centres. The rest appear to have quietly left a country that claims to have “zero tolerance” for illegal migration.
In response, Austria is building a fence on part of its border with Hungary and tightening vehicle checks near the frontier.
Some people smugglers now travel from Hungary to Austria via Slovakia, where this week customs officers shot at a car that refused to stop, injuring a Syrian passenger.
The only way for an asylum seeker to enter Hungary from Serbia legally is through two so-called transit zones, made up of metal containers built into the border fence facing Horgos and Kelebija.
In what Human Rights Watch calls a “legal fiction”, Orbán’s government insists the zones are not in Hungary, blurring the lines on Budapest’s obligations to people inside, and on whether sending them back to Serbia constitutes deportation.
Hungary admits about 60 people to the zones each day, mostly family groups with children, leaving dozens of men to live in tents and makeshift shelters beside the fence, without even a toilet or place to wash, sometimes for weeks on end.
“I tried twice to cross the fence illegally but police blocked me,” says Saeed (27) from Daraa, the Syrian city where anti-government protests in 2011 sparked an uprising that led to war.
“They won’t allow men in on their own, so I will try to go with my friend and his family,” he says. “It’s my only chance.”
Hungary granted asylum to only 508 people last year. It continues to reduce benefits for refugees and services to help them integrate while allowing thousands of migrants to keep moving west.
“There is a clear intent not to improve anything . . . because it would draw more people to Hungary,” says Pardavi. “The worse it is, the fewer people will come and others will be deterred.”
The Balkan route has returned to the shadows and its numbers have been slashed, but there is no sign of it closing completely.
Ahmed Hussein, from Lahore, Pakistan, has been living beside Hungary's border fence for a fortnight. "I left my home last May," he says. "I am 56 years old. Who wants to leave their country at my age? Only those who are desperate and in danger .
“Every night people go with smugglers and don’t come back. They pay €100 or €200 to go through the fence,” he says as a crowd of other men, most from Afghanistan and Pakistan, gather around.
“We want to get to a safe place where we can work in peace. And we want to get there legally – but Europe is not giving us a chance.”