Iraqis face impossible dilemma in pursuit of German asylum dream
For hours a group of Iraqis has been debating the next step as they stand on an abandoned train track that runs from northern Serbia near Kanjiza into southern Hungary, where police wait to take new arrivals to camps for registration.
They face an impossible dilemma: either put their fate in the hands of dangerous smugglers or use the legal Hungarian crossing and get fingerprinted, which could ruin their dream of asylum in Germany or elsewhere in northern Europe.
Unlike Syrians for whom Berlin has eased asylum rules, the Iraqis fear that if they first register their claim in Hungary, other EU countries they aim to reach will send them back to Budapest -- in line with the bloc's so-called Dublin regulations.
Night falls and amid the hesitation another Iraqi rushes towards the group waving his smartphone in the air.
"Guys, there is a way," he says excitedly.
"There is a guy who will take us through the fields to a petrol station where we can all get taxis for just 150 euros ($170)."
The choice weighs heavily, particularly for a young Iraqi couple travelling with their four-month-old baby, Adam.
For them, it is safer to choose the legal crossing because they do not know what they might face if they follow a smuggler under Hungary's newly-built border fence aimed at keeping the migrants out.
"But if you go in that way, all your suffering up until now will become pointless," says Mustafa, another Iraqi and a friend of the young family, as the sun sets and the mosquitoes start biting.
Several times Adam's father Ahmad changes his mind. He fears for his family's wellbeing, but, he says, "we haven't come all this way to be refused asylum in Germany or Holland where we have family."
Other groups flow past on their trek along the Balkan migrant route that tens of thousands of refugees and migrants are taking this year. The Syrians among them, many of them mothers holding their exhausted children, walk confidently along the track towards Hungary.
An Iraqi man, 65-year-old former civil servant Ali Younes whom an AFP team has seen several times since setting out on the route from northern Greece on Saturday, walks towards the Hungarian border officials.
"What am I going to do, I have exhausted myself to the limit," he smiles as he waves goodbye.
There is something ominous about his farewell.
While Greece, also an EU member state, is allowing the migrants who reach its shores in inflatable dinghies from Turkey to continue on their journey, entering Hungary legally means obligatory registration.
- Fear, silence -
The Iraqi group starts walking towards the official border crossing. But shortly before they reach it, they slide down a stony pathway into a plantation whose tall crops shield them from sight.
Everyone walks quickly and in rows, staying close to each other. The men let the women walk in the middle of the group, the ultimate act of gallantry given the circumstances.
For Ahmad and his wife Alia, the exhaustion of the lightning journey from Turkey through Greece, Macedonia and Serbia wears off instantly with the sudden rush of adrenaline.
The smuggler appears, a green-eyed Iraqi Kurd wearing a violet T-shirt and holding a branch.
"This way," he smiles. "Don't make a sound."
Nobody knows how long the walk will be or what it will involve.
The group turn into an open field, when suddenly two men appear in what look like police uniforms.
Like a flock of migrating birds jolted by the sound of a hunter's gunshot, the group turn back in perfect synchronicity only to find two other men behind them.
"Stop!" shouts one of the men.
Alia weeps silently in fear and confusion as her husband carries their child.
"Don't run!" says an older Iraqi man. "They are very few, we are many. Are you afraid of them?"
As it turns out, they aren't policemen at all and they eventually vanish into the darkness again. "I think they were thieves," Ahmad says later.
Further along the way people claiming to be drivers turn up, offering the now illegal migrants rides to Budapest. The terrified group refuses. They can already see their destination on the horizon: the petrol station.
But the smuggler sees flashlights in the distance. Fearing the police may have detected them, he tells everyone to crouch down behind the reeds without a sound.
- More extortion -
Only when the coast is clear does the group start moving again.
They jump through a hole in a small fence -- not the barbed wire fence or wall they had expected -- and they feel safe.
A group of Hungarian smugglers appears at the petrol station demanding exorbitant prices. "Two hundred euros a person from here to Budapest," says one man whose offer the group accepts out of sheer desperation.
After a three-hour drive, the smuggler drops them off at a McDonalds on the outskirts of Budapest. "There is control in Budapest entry," he says, referring to police checkpoints.
The Iraqis don't know what will happen next on their journey to Germany.
"But be grateful, we made it this far. Thank God," says Ahmad, whose baby Adam slept like an angel all the way.
© 2015 AFP