Migrants prepare to cross Serbian ‘jungle’ to reach EU

Refugees use town in north of Balkan country as launch pad into Hungary

Hamid, Ali and Mohsen from Afghanistan.  “We’re going to the jungle together, 10 of us – it’s too dangerous alone.” Photograph: Dan Mclaughlin

Hamid, Ali and Mohsen from Afghanistan. “We’re going to the jungle together, 10 of us – it’s too dangerous alone.” Photograph: Dan Mclaughlin


On a hot afternoon in the courtyard of the Raichle Palace in Subotica, a group of Serbs smoke and chat idly in the shade of the fine art nouveau building, sip fresh lemonade and coffee, and show no obvious inclination to be anywhere else in the world.

Around the corner, in a park also dedicated to local architect Ferenc Raichle, people who have risked their lives to reach here from thousands of kilometres away can talk only about how best to move, hide, escape and survive.

For record numbers of migrants from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, this town in northern Serbia has become a launch pad into the European Union, where they believe a safer, happier, more prosperous life awaits.

They all want to reach Hungary, which lies just 20km away down the road or the rail tracks. Most have no documents and none have visas, however, so they must sneak into the EU across fields of towering corn or through thick woods that they call the “jungle”, while avoiding border guards and criminals who may rob them.

“We’re going to the jungle together, 10 of us – it’s too dangerous alone or in a small group,” said Mohsen, a young man from Ghazni in eastern Afghanistan, as he and his travelling companions rested in the park yesterday.

“I don’t quite know what day it is – I lost my phone in Macedonia – but I left home about two months ago. I’ve walked almost all the way, through Iran, Turkey, Greece. Macedonia. The police here told us to come to the park and not to hang around the streets. And they told us to leave town quickly, because things will change in a couple of days.”

Dramatic and permanent

Budapest has also revealed that it will send 20 police officers and four mobile thermal cameras to help Serbia monitor its southern border with Macedonia, to try to stop migrants making it to Subotica and the Hungarian border along a route that has brought more than 50,000 asylum seekers to Hungary this year; the vast majority have continued on to other EU states.

The EU has criticised the plan, and Serbia has said it will not be fenced in and forced to “live in Auschwitz”.

“The fence is a huge question,” said protestant pastor Tibor Varga, who helps feed and clothe migrants who shelter at a derelict brick factory on the edge of Subotica. “These people aren’t going to the EU because it’s so easy now, because there’s no fence. Most are fleeing conflict, and they’ll always find a way,” he said, as Afghans hauled water from a makeshift well outside the factory.

“You have to address the cause of the problem. When there’s a flood or earthquake, you don’t move everyone to another country – you fix the problem there, so people won’t leave . . . You can choose to walk around a guy who needs help but, sooner or later, he will come to you.”

The migrants are desperate to get to the EU, but not all are destitute. As Varga talked, a family of four walked towards the brick factory, crossing the rusting rail tracks that stretch away through the heat haze towards Hungary. They were clean and well-dressed, and their full rucksacks, bright clothes and the slightly bored and restless air of the two young children gave them the incongruous look of tourists heading for a holiday flight.

They declined to talk, and the man led them purposefully into the lush, overgrown fields behind the factory. A few minutes later they reappeared through the foliage, with about 10 other people, and made off in another direction.

“They know what they are doing. They must have a contact here,” said Varga. “Some have paid people-smugglers thousands of dollars to get them to the EU. They have a number to call at each stage of their journey. But most who end up here at the brick factory are poor and have no contacts. They wait around until a group forms, or someone comes up with a plan, and then they try to get across.”

Ragged camps

In small clearings in the dense woods behind the building, groups of Afghan men sat in ragged camps, discussing when next to try crossing the “jungle” into Europe.

In Raichle Park, Mohsen’s group suddenly jumped up to leave; one of them seemed to have received some signal, perhaps a call from a contact that it was a good time to make for the border.

“We want to be somewhere safe, to work and live in peace,” he said, grabbing a bag of his group’s rubbish and putting it in a litter bin. “We’ll try anything,” he said over his shoulder. “We can’t go back.”