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Friday , January 22 2021

Tears and confusion as Hungary tries migrants; Greece hit by refugee surge

SZEGED, Hungary, Oct 10, (AFP): “You shouldn’t enter a country through a hole in a fence,” the judge tells Mustafa, a Syrian migrant charged with a new type of crime created in Hungary only last month — illegally entering the country by crossing the newly-built barrier on the border with Serbia. “You should knock on a door when you want to come into a house,” adds the judge, Gy. Molnar Sandor, during the trial taking place in the southern Hungarian city of Szeged.

The government ordered the building of the razor wire barrier in August to stem the flow of migrants, with more than 320,000 crossing Hungary so far this year, most headed on via Austria to Germany. But hundreds continued to climb over or crawl under the fence even after the new legislation came into force on September 15. Since then, there have been more than 400 fast-track trials of migrants — mostly Syrians and Iraqis — charged with the crime.

Meanwhile, the fence has merely shifted the problem as people now mostly arrive in Hungary via its border with Croatia and are taken to Austria on trains provided by the authorities. “No one told me I could go through Croatia,” Mustafa said, his hand shaking as he holds a copy of his verdict, an expulsion order barring him from Hungary for two years, and ordering his removal to Serbia, deemed a “safe” country by Hungary. His name will also be entered in an EU database, possibly preventing him from entering any country in the bloc’s passport- free Schengen zone. “They say they are brought to the fence by smugglers in Serbia, they really are victims,” said Mohammed Kerro, a Kurdish-speaking interpreter who has been working at three or four trials every day for the last three weeks. “The traffickers say it’s no problem to get through the fence, some even tell them it’s actually the Croatian border,” the Syrian-born Kerro told AFP in the corridor outside the courtroom. Among those waiting to be called before a different judge is 25-year-old Sara from the northern Syrian city of Kobani. Tears are streaming down her face as she struggles to control her two-year-old daughter Ellah.

Wearing stained jeans, the woman slips a bandaged foot out of her trainers, which have no laces. She lost a toenail on her journey, mostly on foot, from Turkey through Bulgaria into Serbia in the hope of reaching Germany. Once inside the courtroom, the judge told Sara she was spotted by heat cameras mounted on pylons along the border, as she and 11 other people scrambled through a hole in the fence on October 6 near the town of Morahalom.

The robed prosecutor said the young Syrian’s crime was not coming to Hungary, but choosing a criminal mode of entry. Sara explained she fled her hometown after IS jihadists occupied it. “I saw beheadings, they killed both my parentsin- law,” she weeped. Ellah, oblivious to the drama, drew with a coloured pencil on a legal document on the floor. “Are there fences around houses in Kobani?” asked the prosecutor. The woman appears baffled by the question. “Fences are not the custom where I am from,” she replied. “I didn’t think anything at all, I just followed the others, holding my child, I do it all for her.” The judge, although sympathetic, tells her that ignorance of the law cannot be a defence. Although Sara’s act does not warrant a jail term — a punishment reserved for people caught physically damaging the fence — she receives a one-year ban from Hungary. Confused and relieved, the woman declined an offer to receive the verdict in her own language, nor will she appeal her sentence.

The summary trials have been condemned by both rights groups and the European Commission, though Budapest insist they comply with European norms. “They just want it all over and done with as soon as possible,” her interpreter told AFP after the trial, which lasted 72 minutes. After their sentencing, the migrants are brought back to the detention centres, from where they will be returned to Serbia at some point. Hungary’s Immigration Office, which is tasked to carry out the expulsion order, has yet to answer AFP questions about how many people have been removed to Serbia, and how many are still waiting to be deported.

Meanwhile, Greece was hit by a huge new surge in migrants as the United Nations Friday approved a European seize-and-destroy military operation against people smugglers in the Mediterranean. The backing for EU navies to take action against traffickers in international waters came as the first asylum seekers were flown from Italy to Sweden under a hotly disputed relocation scheme to share the burden of Europe’s migrant crisis. As the 19 Eritreans made their trip, new data emerged showing a massive surge in the number of migrants arriving in Greece to 7,000 from 4,500 a day at the end of September.

With 570,000 people having already arrived in the EU so far this year, the figures from the International Organization for Migration (IOM) underlined the limited scope of the relocation scheme, which seeks to move 160,000 refugees from Italy and Greece over the next two years. Sweden alone expects to process 150,000 asylum applications this year, Prime Minister Stefan Loven said Friday, adding it may have to house some of them in heated tents. The IOM said the surge in numbers arriving in Greece “may be due to expected worsening weather conditions”.

And the head of the UN’s refugee agency warned of a humanitarian disaster this winter unless Greece was given much more help to house the new arrivals. “We know how to organise a camp, a tent or buildings for the winter but what we are not able to cope with is a massive wave of people moving every day. It is impossible. And with the (severe) winter weather in the Balkans there could be a tragedy at any moment,” UNHCR chief Antonio Guterres said.

Grinning shyly before the media, the young Eritreans waved and blew kisses as they boarded a small propeller plane at Rome’s Ciampino airport after hugging members of the Red Cross and UNHCR. Nearly seven hours after leaving balmy Rome, they touched down in temperatures of two degrees Celsius roughly 100 kilometres (60 miles) south of the Arctic Circle in northern Sweden before boarding a bus bound for an asylum seeker’s centre in Ostersund. Another of their countrymen was not so lucky: a 17-year-old was seriously injured after he apparently jumped on a Eurotunnel shuttle from France to Britain. “Today is an important day for the European Union, it is a day of victory… for those who believe in Europe, for those who believed in saving human lives,” Italian Interior Minister Angelino Alfano had earlier told journalists in Rome.

The scheme launched on Friday was pushed through against the objections of several eastern European countries after France and Germany threw their weight behind it. EU migration commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos said: “This is a tangible example of what we can do when we work together. We are nations of immigrants and we’ve made an important step forward.” Alfano said Italy was ready to send 100 more asylum seekers to Germany and the Netherlands, and UNHCR said further relocations would take place at the beginning of next week.

UNHCR southern Europe spokeswoman, Carlotta Sami, told AFP that Friday’s first flight was a significant moment. “But we know more must be done.” Perilous boat crossings in the Mediterranean have cost over 3,000 people their lives this year. A baby thought to be about a year old was the latest victim, drowning off the Greek island of Lesbos when a dinghy carrying about 55 Syrians from Turkey sank in the dark, Greece’s ministry of shipping said Friday.

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