Sun | Dec 11, 2016

Migrants take long, winding road to reach EU gateway Hungary

Published:Thursday | April 23, 2015 | 12:00 AM
Ivorian Jean Paul Apetey, 34, smokes a cigarette on top of Budapest’s Gellert Hill two days after arriving to Hungary after a gruelling monthlong journey across the Balkans.
One-year-old Kendra sits on the lap of her mother Sandrine Koffi, 31, at a bus stop after being reunited with her mother in an Asylum Seekers reception centre, Debrecen, Hungary. Hungary is the most popular back door for tens of thousands of migrants who annually want to breach the perimeter of the European Union without obvious risk of death.
Italian Premier Matteo Renzi (centre) and members of Italian Government stand for a moment of silence on the eve of an EU emergency summit on migrants at the Lower Chamber in Rome, yesterday. Renzi says the European Union must rapidly devise long-range, comprehensive policy to stop the flood of migrants setting out from Libya.
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From a Budapest hilltop overlooking a panorama of central Europe, Jean-Paul Apetey reflects on how far he has come, how improbable and unexpected his journey has been and yet how many miles he still must go.

The 34-year-old from Ivory Coast has spent years searching for a new life. He has piloted a migrant-packed boat from Turkey to Greece even though he'd never been at sea; lost his belongings evading police during a 200-kilometre (125-mile) trek through Macedonia; escaped from a band of Bangladeshi smugglers beating and raping his fellow travellers; stared down knife-wielding thugs in Serbia; and reached Hungary thanks only to an unlikely act of kindness from a Frenchwoman who fancied his dreadlocks.

Apetey and the dozens of other West Africans who have made it this far finally can take a breath of relief and hope that the worst of their odyssey is over.

Hungary will never be Apetey's home; as everyone in the jaded asylum system knows, those seeking refugee status in Hungary do not stay to pursue the paperwork. This country is merely the most popular back door for tens of thousands of migrants who annually want to breach the perimeter of the European Union without obvious risk of death. Their long journey through the Balkans, often on foot and at night, has proved to be full of disappointment and danger, but not the mortal peril of a North African sea crossing to Italy, a journey that has produced more than a thousand dead in the southern Mediterranean this month alone.

But not the right bit of Europe, not the part with large immigrant communities and work opportunities and greater freedom. By this time next week, he and most of the more than 2,000 migrants currently in Hungary's asylum shelters will be travelling to the wealthier west, their flea-bitten Hungarian beds taken by a new wave of Asians, Arabs and Africans.

To examine the peculiar situation in Hungary is to understand why the European Union is fighting a losing battle to control immigration. The 28-nation bloc is committed to human rights and free travel; it is far easier for Hungary to let the migrants head where they want to go, chiefly Germany and France, than to try to deport them by force in the other direction.

The country's three main asylum centres, funded in part by EU partners, include Soviet-era military barracks and are designed to hold perhaps 2,500 people, at current rates, less than 10 days' volume of human traffic.