BELGRADE, Serbia — When they set off from violence-plagued Afghanistan nearly two years ago, 17-year-old Hamad Ahmadi and his family believed Europe would give them a chance for a new life. They didn’t expect to be penned in a Hungarian migrant center sealed with razor wire, where security was so tight that police felt the need to escort Ahmadi’s sister-in-law to the hospital to give birth.
Ahmadi’s family is among the hundreds of migrants this year whose hopes of a new life were dashed by Hungary’s draconian anti-immigration rules, which have reduced the once-overflowing eastern migration route into Europe — which saw hundreds of thousands of migrants landing in Hungary to enter the European Union in 2015 — from a trickle to a drip.
Still, Hungary’s anti-migrant rules remain tougher than ever, and its border is now a sealed fortress with two rows of razor-wired fencing, border transit zones for migrants, and heavy security.
Ahmadi says the family had been optimistic despite having traveled for thousands of miles, waited ten months in a Serbian border camp, and endured the hardships that came with having two babies born in migrant centers in Serbia and Hungary this summer. They even kept their spirits up when Hungary held them in a heavily-guarded migrant barracks that the United Nations have described as “in effect detention centers.”
But in the end, it all came to nothing. Hungarian authorities rejected their asylum applications and told them they must leave the country. They have no idea where they could go.
“The (Hungarian) court said Afghanistan has problem, but you must go back,” Ahmadi said from neighboring Serbia, where his family is mulling their options. “After one year, they tell us you must go back?”
“Where is that humanity of Europe?” he asked. “We don’t know.”
Inside the transit zone on the border with Serbia, Ahmadi and other migrants could move only within a confined area and had to file a request should they want to visit a friend in another barrack — even for a short while.
“There were too much police, night and day, 24 hours,” Ahmadi said.
Hungary has faced strong international criticism for its treatment of asylum seekers. The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, recently said Hungary is displaying “a very clear intention” to curtail the access refugees have to protection in the country. He criticized the small number of refugees allowed to file asylum claims — five a day at each of two transit zones — as well as the “very low rate” of approvals.
“Children, in particular, should not be confined in detention,” he warned. “Seeking asylum is not a crime.”
Official data suggest Hungary’s harsh measures have succeeded in discouraging most of the migrants from seeking protection in the country, even as tens of thousands do arrive to Europe via the more dangerous Mediterranean Sea route or illegally through some other European country, such as Croatia or Romania.
The massive flow of migrants also subsided after nations along the Balkan route closed their borders in March 2016 and the EU agreed with Turkey to stem the influx over the Aegean Sea toward Greece.
This year, just 2,217 people sought asylum in Hungary, official data show, less than 10 percent of the 24,357 in 2016. Out of them, only 61 people were acknowledged as refugees, while 383 received the status of a subsidiary protected person.
Germany took in the bulk of over a million asylum-seekers from 2015 to 2016, while countries like Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic or Slovakia have refused to accept them fueling east-west divisions in the bloc.
Hungary’s right-wing Prime Minister Viktor Orban has repeatedly claimed he wants to protect Europe from the influx of mostly Muslim migrants. He told lawmakers on Monday that recent migrant flows were “merely a warmup,” and warned of “dramatic” dangers to Europe’s security and identity.
Ahmadi said his family’s case was first rejected after just one month in Hungary but they were allowed to appeal. A government-appointed lawyer did not show up for the final court ruling which was delivered via Skype, he said.
But he said that despite the lack of freedom, the family had been happy as long as there was hope.
“We were happy when we were in that closed camp,” he said. “We were waiting … but after that we (thought) will have something, we will have something.”
Now, Ahmadi said, their faith in European solidarity has been shaken. Hungarian guards, he said, dislike migrants so much that they even wouldn’t let them play volleyball during the long summer days in the camp.
“Most of the time they were taking our ball, our net,” he said. “They didn’t want us to be happy there.”
Pablo Gorondi contributed to this report from Hungary.