“As you read this… you may be sure that the same ghastly, shambling procession of people driven from their homes is filing in unbroken line along the muddy road to Macedonia.” Ernest Hemingway wrote this in November 1922 from Sofia, Bulgaria. He had just witnessed part of the forced expulsion of Greek refugees from Turkey at the border crossing near Edirne. Thousands of refugees—many of their family members recently killed by Turks—were fleeing for their lives. With ragged, desperate faces, they were not welcomed anywhere.
Now, with thousands of Syrians and Iraqis making their way into Europe via Bulgaria, Serbia, and Macedonia, it’s Greece and Serbia that are now flooded with foreign immigrants who are stuck in no-man’s land—compelled to leave their war-torn countries yet blocked from crossing Hungarian and Macedonian borders en route to Western Europe. A few humanitarian aid groups have recently offered to help these poor immigrants, but the ‘shambling procession’ is far greater than any non-profit—or one country—can handle (up to 2,000 per day).
This past weekend I travelled by bus through Serbia on the way to Budapest and was shocked by the long wait at the Bulgarian-Serbian border, and the outrageous 4-kilometer line at the Hungarian border at 3am. When we hit the sea of red brake lights, it was as if the highway had turned into a parking lot. The lights and engines of cars eventually turned off and passengers pushed them forward to conserve gas. Outside the Serbian OMV petrol station, immigrants lingered and smoked cigarettes, waiting for who-knows-what signal to attempt to cross the new barbed wire border fence. Hungarian police were turning half the cars and people back. It took almost four hours for our small bus to cross, but only because we were lucky enough to be in the bus lane (and have Western passports). Others must have been waiting for days—literally. We finally passed into Hungary at sunrise, when the light made the disgusting amount of litter on the side of the road all too visible. The discarded human waste revealed two grave problems: the lack of options for the refugees and the uncertain consequences of blocking EU borders.
Once we made it into Hungary, our bus stopped at the first gas station to purchase a vignette (toll receipt) for the highway. At 6am, groups of mostly men huddled outside. The inside of the snack bar area was crowded too. With at least a hundred people out and about, this gas station seemed to be a meeting point for those who had crossed illegally and arranged rides. In the two minutes it took me to go to the bathroom, I saw quite a lot: Two guys were practically showering in the sinks of the public restroom. Three teenage boys sprinted through the parking lot as if being pursued. A destitute man slept face down on a cement parking space, covered with blankets. Dozens chain-smoked, in limbo—some seeming to cope with the situation better than others.
As our bus pulled away, I felt my frustration and annoyance—at being delayed for hours at the border, having sore limbs from 18 hours of idle sitting, and a looming non-refundable hotel room charge—quickly fade into something like guilt. When we made it to Budapest, our colleagues offered their sympathies after hearing of our long, exhausting bus ride. In retrospect, it was nothing. Tens of thousands are currently trekking from Turkey through the Balkans in search of a life where survival isn’t an all-consuming task. They have little or no support and everything to fear on the way. Indeed, there is a huge difference between travel inconvenience, and matters of life and death.