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With the millions fleeing Syria’s war zones overstretching neighbouring refugee camps, some are risking a perilous journey on foot into Western Europe. By Lauren Williams.

Syrian asylum seekers marching in Europe’s shadows

The border patrol guard, baton in hand, inspects each compartment of the train scrupulously, unscrewing light fittings and pulling back the couchette chairs to check behind and under them. It’s an hour-long midnight wait on the Bulgarian border with Serbia, while travel documents of what are mostly young German backpackers are examined. The guard shines his flashlight under the train, looking for stowaways. As the police disembark, they hand out heavy chains and padlocks with instructions to secure the doors to the couchette and windows for the remainder of the journey across the Serbian countryside. Bandits are active here.

Beyond the darkness, in the wilds of these woods, thousands of Syrian families are walking across Eastern Europe in the hope of leaving war behind. Over weeks they travel, taking a long and dangerous passage on foot, boat, train and bus, over 3200 kilometres from Turkey to Greece, Macedonia, Serbia and Hungary, aiming for Germany or Belgium. There are many risks – besides capture and beatings by border patrols, there are thieves and wild boar. But as the war intensifies and Greece and Eastern Europe struggle with their own economic crises, the passage has become increasingly popular. The number of migrants passing through Serbia to Hungary has more than quadrupled in the past six months, and since the war in Syria began the number taking this route has gone from just 6390 in 2012 to 43,360 last year.

Among them is Ammar, a 48-year-old former car dealer from the contested northern Syrian city of Aleppo, now a battleground between forces fighting for the regime of Bashar al-Assad and Islamist rebels fighting for his overthrow. The civil war has led to more than 200,000 people killed and nine million displaced. With few options in neighbouring Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon, which are struggling to cope with the influx of more than four million refugees, many now try their luck for asylum in Western Europe.

In the Serbian capital of Belgrade, Ammar rests for a night at a budget hostel with his contingent of 30, including his two young sons, three women, eight young children and three babies. The hostel is overwhelmed with Syrians; at least 50 check in each day. They mill around the communal showers, shaving, washing clothes in the sinks and planning the next leg of their journey. The exasperated hostel owner, Lydia, tells us she has been fully occupied for weeks. “The smell of them when they arrive,” she says. “Wow.”

Belgrade streets are littered with Syrian families without enough money for a hostel. They fill the parks, washing in fountains and sleeping on benches in familiar scenes that parallel those of the 1990s Balkan wars, when ethnic Serbs from Bosnia fled in the tens of thousands to Belgrade. The park opposite the central bus station swarms with Syrians. Arabic is shouted at unkempt children. Makeshift tents of cardboard and plastic bags provide shelter from the searing 40-degree heat.

Outside of the European Union, and economically depressed as it recovers from a decade of economic sanctions, civil war and the NATO air strikes of 1999, Serbia is an undesirable end point. The average salary is just $400 a month, youth unemployment is at 49 per cent, and there are high poverty rates, soaring crime, and hangover ethnic tensions from the civil war.

The worst part of the journey is yet to come, in Hungary, Ammar says. As he details the route until now, this beggars belief.

Once a wealthy father of seven boasting a villa in an upper-class neighbourhood of Aleppo, Ammar fled Syria in 2013, locking the doors of his home and hoping the Islamist rebels controlling the neighbourhood did not occupy it. Carrying what they could, he and his young family walked across the northern border to the southern Turkish camp of Kilis, now swollen with more than 200,000 refugees.

There he languished without work and surviving on UN rations for two years, before deciding to risk his life for a future in Germany. “I used to have a huge flat-screen TV,” he says. “Now I don’t have enough to eat and my kids haven’t been to school in two years. I couldn’t stand it anymore. There were simply no good choices. I don’t know what a life is anymore.”

Like the estimated 60,000 Syrians who have taken the sea route from Turkey to Greece in the first half of this year, Ammar paid a smuggler $US5000 each for he and his two sons, Ahmed, 10, and Mustafa, 16, to travel on board a rubber dinghy for the hour-and-a-half trip. His wife and five other children remain in Turkey; he couldn’t afford passage for all of them, he says. In a video filmed on his phone, the little vessel can be seen partially submerged under the weight of the 45 passengers, clinging to each other in orange life vests.

In Greece, Ammar and his group were herded into a camp where they were issued preliminary paperwork and given 72 hours to either make their way to an asylum centre or leave the country.

“The camps were disgusting,” he says, his friends nodding in agreement. “We were treated like cattle. There were no toilets, no food. It was so dirty. The women didn’t go to the toilet for three days. They say Greece is part of Europe, but you wouldn’t know it.”

An EU law known as the Dublin Regulation requires migrants’ claim for asylum be processed in the EU country where they first arrive, meaning if the migrants are caught and fingerprinted in an EU state, they can be deported back to that state to be processed in the camps in that country. But the rule, originally designed to prevent “asylum shopping”, was suspended in Greece which, reeling from its own economic crisis, saw appalling conditions and human rights abuses of migrants in camps.

Most refugees seek asylum in the wealthy Western European states of Germany and Austria, as opposed to Hungary, where the right-wing government, overwhelmed with the largest number of asylum seekers in the EU, also temporarily suspended the Dublin Regulation and has begun to build a fence along the Serbian border to keep out asylum seekers. Hungary has been criticised for harsh anti-immigration policies that have included a survey sent to all Hungarian citizens linking migrants to terrorism. Given the inhospitable unwelcome Hungary presents, Ammar and others intend to avoid detection and fingerprinting in Hungary to prevent being deported there from Germany. Cases of migrants burning off their fingerprints to prevent deportation back to terrible conditions in Hungary or Bulgaria have been recorded.

“We will live in the shadows in Hungary,” Ammar says.

From Greece, the group pressed on to the Macedonian border, walking single file under burning sun, following the rail lines for a solid 17 hours. Ammar rolled up his sleeves to reveal the remains of a deep and blistering sunburn. “There was just bushes. The Macedonian border patrol let us across 50 at a time, for a bribe.”

Once in Macedonia, they were transferred to yet another holding pen, where Ammar claimed police guards beat them and deprived them of food over a three-day wait to collect the requisite paperwork to be permitted to be in the country for the next 72 hours. “We were sleeping in a horse stable. There was still animal shit on the floor. We didn’t have the papers. We were stuck.”

On release, and with the permits in hand, the group caught a night train to the Serbian border, walking for hours from the last stop to cross the border into Preševo. Another camp and another 72 hours, during which they slept in the train station, in turns, after being warned against thieves preying on those carrying their life savings, before boarding the train to Belgrade.

The next stop will put the group inside the EU again. Amman’s eyes light up as he imagines his new life in Germany. But first, the group must walk through the Serbian woods to Hungary, where they must avoid public transport and the main roads that might expose them to detection by authorities and risk of deportation.

The group had planned to leave in the morning after several days’ rest, but it’s now 5pm and hostel checkout was at 12. Lydia, the owner arrives to tell the family they have to leave. Another group arrives, exhausted and wide-eyed. Loading small backpacks and plastic bags of clothes and food, they set off in the steamy Belgrade dusk for another night at the train station.

Three days later, the group sends a WhatsApp photo from Hungary. In it, one man holds a small baby close to his chest in a human trail through a shoulder-high wheat field. “We are in a forest,” it says.

Later the same evening there is another text. The group has been caught, and detained in a camp inside Hungarian territory.

“We are in prison in Hungary,” it says. “I will send you video of the conditions in the prison.”

There hasn’t been a message since.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 29, 2015 as "Europe’s shadows". Subscribe here.

Lauren Williams
is a freelance journalist.