People smuggling is a booming business in the Balkans

It is easy for local criminals to fleece migrants along their route to Western Europe

 A youth carries a young boy in a makeshift sling as they walk towards waiting buses at the Hungarian border with Serbia. Photograph: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

A youth carries a young boy in a makeshift sling as they walk towards waiting buses at the Hungarian border with Serbia. Photograph: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

 

Now he was finally in Austria, Ahman Urabi realised how close he had been to doing something that would have left him penniless, and could have been deadly.

“I have passed the toughest point in my journey now,” he said, as he and thousands of other refugees and migrants rested at a vast, windblown customs area on Austria’s border with Hungary, awaiting buses to take them farther west.

“Yesterday, at the [train] station in Budapest, I was ready to pay the ‘mafia’ to take me to Austria,” he said, using the term most migrants use for people smugglers.

“The price was not fair – they wanted €750 in advance – but I was almost ready to do it. My family wired money to me in Budapest. But I changed my mind and now I am here,” he said, after Hungary had provided buses to take migrants to Austria.

Urabi, from Syria, said he gave a total of about €3,000 to different people smugglers to get him on a rickety boat from Turkey to Greece, and then to help him cross Macedonia, Serbia and Hungary to Budapest.

Migrants and refugees usually find men in Izmir or Istanbul who arrange the crossing to a Greek island for about €1,000 per person; would-be travellers are easy for the smugglers to spot, and migrants share contact details for such people on social media.

Greece then registers and transports migrants by ferry to the mainland, where they move on towards Macedonia by bus and on foot.

Until July, Macedonian police kept tight control over illegal migrants entering from Greece, with the result that mafia groups charged people €100 each to be guided through the woods and fields on the border.

It was a lucrative trade, with about 1,000 people crossing at the village of Idomeni each day; migrants who refused to pay say they were chased and beaten by the smugglers, and then forced to hand over the money.

Control

Those who could not pay found a cheaper alternative, which also proved to be a boon for local businessmen: migrants bought bicycles and cycled towards Serbia, where they abandoned them and continued on foot.

The bikes were collected, brought south and resold again and again to new arrivals.

Near Macedonia’s northern border, migrants were imprisoned by the smugglers in guarded houses near the town of Kumanovo, where they were held until they paid hundreds more euro to cross into Serbia.

Bus companies in Serbia made good money this summer ferrying thousands of migrants each day from the Macedonian border to Belgrade, or directly to villages on the border with Hungary.

Taxi drivers charge hundreds of euro for the trip, often promising to help migrants avoid police checks and to show them an unguarded spot at which to cross into Hungary.

It is fiendishly easy for unscrupulous locals to fleece migrants at any point, and especially in border areas, along their entire route to Hungary.

One morning recently, Mohammed (44), a maths teacher from Baghdad, found himself sitting with his wife and son in a field near the Hungarian border village of Roszke.

They had finally reached the EU, but only after giving €4,200 to a man in Serbia to show them where to cross the border without being caught.

They did not want to apply for asylum in Hungary but in Belgium, where Mohammed’s parents live.

“Police with dogs caught us straight away,” said Mohammed. “The money is lost. I cannot go back to ask that man to return it. I sold our apartment to make this journey. Now they will fingerprint us here, and we will never get to Belgium.”

Mark Kekesi, whose volunteer group helps migrants in Szeged, a town near Hungary’s border with Serbia, said people smuggling was now a major local business.

“Some are very professional, like a well-oiled machine. They have good connections with the police and are hard to spot.

Others are poor people, often from the Roma community, who can make thousands of euro driving migrants to Austria,” Kekesi said.

“Every evening now, in the country lanes around Roszke, you can see dozens of cars driving around, looking for business, like moths around a light bulb.”

Smugglers

The refugees claimed to have been taken to the house by a man who happened to meet them on the road, and who told them to rest and shower there.

The police thought people smugglers must have shown them to the property and asked what the Syrians paid them; the migrants denied paying anything.

Several days later another migrant, Hussein from Afghanistan, shed light on what may have been happening.

Hussein recounted how his group of 10 travellers had been stopped by a man in a Hungarian border village and shown to a house, where he let them sleep, shower and eat a little food for free.

A short while later, the man’s son arrived with several friends and told Hussein and companions that they must use their “taxi” service to travel through Hungary to Austria – and it would cost them €200 each; if they refused, the local police were a quick phone call away.

‘Travel services’

Urabi went to one such hotel three times to negotiate a price for transport to Austria, but eventually decided to stick to an earlier vow that he and his friend Heytam made not to use people smugglers.

“We changed our mind about using ‘mafia’ when we heard about the truck,” said Urabi, recalling the death of 71 migrants in a truck that was abandoned late last month on an Austrian highway, close to where he and Heytam now stood.

Heytam, from Homs in Syria, added: “The man who says he will help you for money, he could be your killer.”

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