From Subotica to Subotica: the refugees crisis two years later

Last week, during the Routes Festival, I participated in a discussion panel about the refugees crisis and its coverage by the media. It’s an opportunity for me to re-publish that article I had written on my Medium last year. 

This was two years ago, in April 2015. I remember the travel from Belgrade to Subotica, the last Serbian city before the Hungarian border. The bus is full. Apart from the usual travellers, mainly Serbian students going back home for the weekend, a third of the passengers comes from much further away: Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan,etc. Most of them are asylum seekers heading to Hungary after having travelled from the Greek coast to Serbia, using what will be soon called the Balkans route.

Once arrived in Subotica bus station, most of the refugees directly go to the taxi queue nearby, and quickly disappear as the cars are fading in the night, in the direction of the border.

Kelebija, right on the border, the next day : a feeling of being at the ends of the world. The area is flat, and as I leave the last houses of the village, I am just surrounded by fewer and fewer trees, and more and more dust and ruins of houses from a hundred years ago, when the border was not there. A few hundred meters away, a Serbian watchtower is guarding the area since the Cold War era.

Serbian watchtower on the Serbian-Hungarian border, Kelebija, April 2015

Suddenly, I hear a sound: some hundred meters away from me, I see a group of six to eight refugees about to enter Hungary, far away from the legal border crossing. I observe the watchtower and the Serbian policemen: not a single reaction, and the refugees quickly fade in the Hungarian forest, they are now far away.

Refugees about to cross the Serbian-Hungarian border in Kelebija, April 2015

April 2016, I am back to Subotica. Officially, the Hungarian border is now closed (since September 2015), and the Balkans route is now cut (since February 2016). However, the 7.45pm bus I want to take from Belgrade is full. I manage then to get one of the last tickets for the next bus. The passengers look familiar: again these tired brown faces of men, women and children who have travels hundreds, thousands of kilometres, now heading to Hungary. As we arrive in the bus station, the same taxis are here to take them into the night, while some others walk out of the city . Very quickly, the refugees become black shadows, and then disappear in the darkness.

Refugees walking next to the bus station in Subotica, March 2015
Refugees in a bus between Subotica and Horgos, March 2016

Kelebija, the next day. One year later, the atmosphere is the same: the trees, the ruins and the sand are still here. This time, however, it is an actual dead end, as the Hungarian government has now built a fence to prevent the refugees from entering. No more policemen on the Serbian side, but I can see Hungarian policemen following me on the other side of the wall.

The border zone (materialized by the wooden stick and the white boundary marker) on the Serbian-Hungarian border in Kelebija, April 2015
The same place, one year later, with a fence on it! March 2016

One year later, from Subotica to Subotica, the silence is back. During a few months, the refugees crisis was on the head of the news. But since then, Europe has resolved the issue: the borders are closed, and the refugees are now pushed back to Turkey

The border zone seen from the last houses of Kelebija, April 2015
The same area one year later, and one more fence added

And yet, there are still asylum seekers around the border. While some are trying again and again to cross the border, some do head to Hungary, and succeed. The Hungarians allow very little people every day to legally enter Hungary, as reported by Human Rights Watch. The other ones find ways to cut the border… illegally.

Iraqi refugees waiting in Subotica bus station, March 2016

The borders are closed, but people do cross. The Balkans route is cut, but people take it. Europe has found a solution, but the situation has not changed. This energy, this fear, this hate against the refugees, but they are still travelling. Behind all of this, the European illusion is collapsing: no border will stop the crisis.

Hungarian police observing me from the other side of the Serbian Hungarian border in Kelebija, March 2016

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