Travelling in Europe’s river of migrants

‘We felt so scared, we thought the driver had lied to us. Thank God we are here.’

Tens of thousands of migrants and refugees, mostly fleeing unrest in the Middle East and Afghanistan, are desperately pushing their way through the Balkans as they try to reach Hungary before it seals its border. A team of New York Times journalists has met up with some of these migrants to document their journey.

A dilemma at the Serbian border

"Is it okay to travel without a stamped paper?" asks Ahmed Hamed (24) a refugee from Latakia, Syria. That is the question on many lips tonight here in the Serbian border town of Presevo. The migrant processing office here, run by the Serbian Commissariat for Refugees and Migration, has a sign declaring it a "one stop centre." However, for many migrants this seems far from true. They say that getting their transit papers requires at least two stops. First, they are given a preliminary application. It is handwritten and shows their names. But it has no official stamp on it, and in Balkan countries, stamps are an all-important mark of authenticity.

The migrants say they are told to go back and get the stamped version. But the lines are long, and some applicants have had to wait for days. Many feel as if it is a race to get to Hungary before it seals its border, and they do not want to waste precious time waiting.

Workers with various nongovernmental organisations, and at least one from the United Nations refugee agency, have been heard telling the migrants to get on the buses to Belgrade, the Serbian capital, with only the preliminary paper. "You will not be stopped," the UN official said. But to the migrants, the suggestion feels like a gamble. Should they go and risk getting in trouble, or stay and risk not making it into Hungary? They do not know what to do.


A technology-minded Iraqi, guided by passion

Hussein Raad worked in a fitness centre to make money for the trip to Europe, and it shows. He is muscular, with an elaborate tattoo on his bulging left bicep. He wears a T-shirt that says, in English, "Do it with passion or not at all." Raad is 26, and he is making this trip with passion. I met him on the railroad tracks in Idomeni, Greece, waiting to cross the border into Macedonia.

Unencumbered by family, he moved fast. He is from the Iraqi capital, Baghdad. He had been planning and saving for this trip for two years. The young men are in the best position to move fast and smart. They know how to use the essential technology toolkit for a 21st-century migrant – Viber, WhatsApp, cellphone. Raad is particularly able, because he has a degree in computer science.

The advantage of WhatsApp is that as long as the migrants have an Internet connection, they can communicate with friends and family back home and in other countries. Raad is not particular about his destination. He wants to go “anywhere safe,” he says.

Designer sunglasses, red nails and a miserable journey

The train heading across Macedonia to the Serbian border is a battered old blue one with graffiti scrawled across it. The migrants stuff their backpacks into the overhead racks along with their sleeping bags and ground sheets. Families with children squeeze into the open space between cars. Men prop open windows with water bottles to relieve the sweltering heat. The babies fuss and cry.

Inside the train, a group of Pakistani women with young children have piled up in the well of a door that was closed when the train left Gevgelija, a sleepy Macedonian town just across the border from Greece. About 40 minutes into the ride, the door unexpectedly opens. The women screech. They grab their packages and their children.

Fortunately, they are so jammed in that nothing – and no one – falls out. Many of the migrant women do not look like they have been traveling for days, weeks or even months, across land and sea. One wears designer sunglasses, her hair in a suave topknot. Another has red polished nails. Even women in head scarves show a hint of eyeliner. Their eyebrows are neatly plucked.

These women have managed to maintain their dignity, even though they are incomprehensibly far from home, both physically and psychologically. They have walked and taken overloaded dinghies across dangerous Aegean waters; sometimes they have slept on the street for days at a time. They have cared for small children. Some are nursing mothers.

Hard not to wonder how they manage.

Long wait, and a scramble, to catch the train to Serbia

Hundreds of migrants have massed on the Macedonian side of the Greek border, waiting for the train that will take them to the border with Serbia. There is no space left, and yet thousands continue to pour in. Armed men and women in army camouflage stand by, hands clasped behind their backs, watchful but at ease. We are in a transit camp that only began operating on Sunday. It is not even fully operational. Bulldozers are still building roads. A makeshift wooden platform has been built to receive the passengers. The real station is an old building with peeling mustard yellow paint some 500 yards away.

The train schedule has been beefed up to handle the influx of migrants since June. There are now five trains a day, but they do not always come when expected. These migrants have been waiting all day for the 3 pm train to arrive. Here it comes. The crowd can hear the rumbling and starts to shout and jostle.

At the Macedonian border, the news from Hungary – gathered through YouTube clips and word of mouth – is bad: Hungary is cracking down on refugees and migrants. The news spreads like wildfire among the migrants here. They begin to panic. What will they do when they reach Hungary? "Before four days, my friend, the police catch him and make him do fingerprints," said Wadih Saloumy (25). "If they take our fingerprints we can't go to Germany or Sweden. "

Saloumy speaks good English because he was a receptionist at a four-star hotel in Damascus before he fled Syria. The migrants must submit their application for asylum in the first country they entered, according to European Union regulations. They fear that if they are fingerprinted in Hungary, they will have to stay there.

“I have an uncle in Sweden,” Saloumy says, explaining why he wants to go there. They could look for a smuggler, but that is risky too, as smugglers sometimes rob the people they are trafficking. A YouTube video is circulating among the refugees, Saloumy said, that shows the Hungarian police taking fingerprints by force. They ask anyone in sight for advice, from their fellow migrants to the reporters prowling the transit camp. They may have a point. Hungary is building a fence to keep out refugees. Reuters reported on Wednesday that Hungary had plans to reinforce its southern border with helicopters, mounted police and dogs, and is also considering using the army to control the flow of migrants. The Hungarian chief police commissioner said there was no order to shoot.

To get into Macedonia, the migrants follow the tracks to a gap between some shrubbery, with a vineyard visible on the other side. The crossing is illegal, and just a few days ago, the police were stopping migrants who tried to use it. The legal crossing is some miles away, and it looks more like the crossing between, say, the United States and Canada – a series of booths where cars must stop and agents ask to see passports, how much money you are carrying and whether you have anything to declare.

The migrants had been crossing illegally at the railroad tracks for a long time. But, at some point, the Macedonian authorities tried to stop them. Thousands of migrants backed up, and others tried to sneak through. As the situation became overwhelming, authorities relented, adopting a policy that it was better to move them on than to have them in Macedonia.

After the men leave the bus, they shuffle down the tracks and sit on the rails in two rows, like schoolboys, waiting for the police to give them the signal. A Turkish volunteer hands out sandwiches. When the police give the sign, they stand up at once, step across the tracks and walk single file through the gap in the shrubs. Within 10 feet, they are in Macedonia, as armed border guards in camouflage gear turn a blind eye. A reporter tries to walk across with them but is immediately stopped. "It is illegal to cross here," a police officer said, as if in a scene from Alice in Wonderland.

Mother travels with toddler in her arms in search of a doctor

Aieh is blond and scrappy, with an elfin face and a heart condition. She is 2½ years old, but looks more like six months. Her mother, Samar Joukhadar, has carried her from Syria in a pouch hanging on her chest. Her goal is to get her to a doctor who can operate on her heart.

For now, they sit at the railroad track in Idomeni, Greece, waiting to cross the border to the Gevgelija transit camp in Macedonia. Aieh's father is a doctor, but the officials at the Syrian government-owned hospital where he worked hassled him until he fled to Yemen, leaving his family behind, Joukhadar said. He is working in a hospital there. But, she said, that hospital is not capable of doing the operation her daughter needs.

Besides, she says: "I want to find somewhere where there are no Arabs. Europeans are better people. The Arabs hurt us a lot." Europe was not their first choice, Joukhadar said. She tried to find a doctor in Saudi Arabia who would do the operation, but she could not. Joukhadar left Syria with her three children and her brother and his two children. They went to Turkey and tried to leave from Mersin, a city on the Mediterranean coast, by boat in December 2014. But the smugglers stole her money – $12,000 (€10,600). She went to the police and gave them names and photographs, but nothing happened, she said.

Finally, they were able to leave from Izmir by dinghy, paying $1,200 per person. They landed on Lesbos, a Greek island in the Aegean Sea that has seen a surge in refugees and migrants since the beginning of the year. As she spoke, Aieh fidgeted and then started to cry. A cousin, Sidra (15) took her into her arms and fed her a bottle, quieting her down. Once they reached Athens, they slept on the streets for five days, Joukhadar said. She made a budget of €50 a day for herself, her brother and the five children between them. With that, they were able to eat one meal a day, usually a chicken and potato sandwich.

She had not spoken to her husband in four or five months, she said.

Businesses sprout up along migrants’ route

Bob Hatzopoulos has found a business niche, selling nectarines and apples out of his car to the migrants, a small measure of the little economies that have sprouted up around the migrants’ travels. “One euro a kilo,” he calls, as they hurry by. A group of Afghans stop, examine the merchandise and buy three or four kilograms of nectarines. It is a fair price, Hatzopoulos said. He is not gouging them. “It is fresh fruit, healthy,” he said. “We are doing social work. A few dollars and social work.”

He has been at the border for about 20 days, he said, adding that with the economic crisis in Greece, one must find an angle where one can. “I lost a lot of money in business, so I’m in trouble,” he said. Four decades ago, Hatzopoulos left the Greek border town of Florina to seek his fortune in Canada. When he got there, he was surprised to find that he knew almost everyone, because they, too, were from the same place. So he can empathise with the migrants.

“I feel pity,” he says. “Because they leave their countries, and they don’t know where they are going, what they are going to do there. They don’t know anything about their future. But I think Europe is going to protect them – I hope. But I hear Europe is not very satisfied with this situation.”

Gentle border police, despite the Glock 19s

The border police are gentle with the migrants, despite their ominous appearance. They wear blue uniforms and combat boots. They carry Glock 19s, SIG Pros and truncheons, or extendable batons. But today they do not use them. Still, communication is hard. The police speak English and Greek. The migrants – most of whom have come from Syria, Afghanistan and some African countries – do not speak Greek.

Some speak a bit of English. Therefore when freight trains come barrelling down the tracks, the police struggle to get the migrants out of the path of the train. “Erchetai to traino,” they say in Greek. Then they try English: “The train is coming.” Many of the migrants remain sitting on the tracks, exhausted, hot and anxious.

The train blasts its horn and keeps coming, at a steady pace. It has no intention of stopping. Slowly, laboriously, the men, women, some pregnant, and children, stand up and move away.

Deserted, except for a white ice cream truck

At first, this field by a set of dusty railroad tracks near the town of Idomeni, where many of the migrants traveling from Greece start their journey into Macedonia as they head farther into Europe, seems a deserted place. Except for the clean, white ice cream truck.

It idles and waits. Then, a bus drives up, straight from Athens, and disgorges nearly 200 men, and the place is suddenly alive. Most of them jog toward the railroad tracks and start walking down them briskly, as if they know what to do. Ayman Sleem, a tall, well-dressed Syrian, goes to the truck, which advertises ice cream on one side and hot dogs on the other, and asks for directions in English. Sleem has an MBA and once owned two pharmacies in Syria. “But now I have nothing because of the war,” he said.

He arrived at the Greek port of Piraeus by ship from the island of Rhodes on Tuesday morning and took the bus directly from Athens to the border, he said. There was a moment of panic a little more than a mile before the border when the police stopped the bus, he said, but then it was allowed to go on. "Honestly, we felt so scared, we thought the driver had lied to us," Sleem said. "Thank God we are here."

New York Times