Refugees race through a maze of European borders as doors close and rules change

At a cafe in the small town of Sid, on the Serbia-Croatia border, a group of Syrian refugees watch chaotic scenes more than 100 miles away unfold on a small television attached to the wall.
Richard Hall

SID, Serbia — Khaldom and the other Syrians he was traveling with heard shortly after they arrived in Athens on Monday.

They had made the dangerous crossing from Turkey by boat, paying smugglers more than $1,000 each to reach mainland Europe. They thought the hard part was over. They had a plan.

Then the news came that Hungary was closing its borders to refugees. They had 24 hours to get there before it did.

“We thought we could make it. We took the bus just hoping,” says Khaldom. “We missed it by 30 minutes.”

Khaldom’s story is becoming a familiar one for migrants and refugees trying to find sanctuary in Europe: As the continent struggles to deal with an influx of people arriving at its doors, many countries have moved to slam the door shut.

Just this week, Austria has announced that it will implement tighter controls and deploy 2,200 soldiers to its eastern frontier. Slovakia said extra officers would be sent to its border with Hungary and Austria, and Slovenia is now enforcing temporary border controls. On Sunday, after effectively announcing it would open its borders to refugees, Germany reinstated controls to stem the tide.

The measures, announced at different times and apparently with little coordination, have forced refugees to adapt their routes, often at the last minute. The result can be heartbreaking for those who have traveled so far, and who in many cases fled extreme conflict.

Police used tear gas and water cannons to disperse crowds of migrants and refugees at the Serbia-Hungary border on Wednesday — most of whom were holding out hope that Hungary would relent and let them through.

Refugees cross from Serbia into Croatia on Thursday, passing through a cornfield away form the official border crossing.

A change of plan

Like Khaldom, many other Syrians are now heading for Croatia. The journey is longer, and they still have to find a way through Slovenia, but the sight of tear gas and holding pens at Hungary’s border has sent a message.

The Croatian government said on Thursday that 5,650 people had arrived in the last 24 hours. Many more are believed to be heading that way.

At a cafe in the small town of Sid, on the Serbia-Croatia border, Khaldom and his friends watch the chaotic scenes more than 100 miles away unfold on a small television attached to the wall.

“It’s terrible there. I slept in the street for two days,” he says.

They have stopped in Sid to eat, fill up their water bottles and charge their phones before heading on to Croatia. Keeping up with the news is essential to them now. They constantly check for reports of new border closures or restrictions.

“Croatia is still OK!” a young man shouts, after receiving the news from a voice at the other end of his phone.

Khaldom worked in the financial department of a large firm in Damascus before he decided to leave. While the Syrian capital has not seen the destruction that has hit other cities, extreme inflation has made the value of his wages drop from $2,000 a month to less than $300.

“It is getting harder to live there. There are now only two or three cities in Syria that are not destroyed,” he says.

He left his wife and 3-month-old daughter behind in a bid to reach Germany alone, at which point he would send for them.

“It was the hardest decision I ever had to make. But maybe I can make a better future for them, especially my little angel.”

Khaldom is one in a group of 11 Syrians, mostly from Damascus. They found each other in Belgrade, the Serbian capital, and have been traveling together since.

They cite similar reasons for leaving Syria after four years of war.

Dima and her husband Muhammad married earlier this year. They traveled to Lebanon, then Turkey, then by boat to Greece.

“We didn’t feel safe anymore. Every time you leave your house you have to say goodbye to your family,” she says.

Four or five of the travelers are young men fleeing conscription in the Syrian army — a group increasingly represented among refugees fleeing the country.

A rush to the border

As the group finishes their dinner of beef goulash and fish, they turn their attention to their phones again. They are planning to head to Zagreb in Croatia, where they’ll decide the next step. They wonder aloud whether they will face trouble at the Croatian border. How far away is it? How far to Zagreb? Will Slovenia will allow us passage?

“Let’s worry about Croatia first,” says one.

One of the group talks with a group of taxi drivers outside the cafe. They agree to take them to the Croatian border, 10 kilometers away. The discussions are in English — a language they both speak a little of.

“OK we can take you in three cars. It will cost you 35 euros per car and we will drop you 200 meters from the border,” says one of the drivers. “You walk down a dirt road and you will be in Croatia. The first village is one kilometer away.”

“Is it safe?” asks one of the Syrians. “Why can’t we go through the border crossing?”

“There might be a problem. Not on the Serbian side but on the Croatian side.”

“Can you please do it for 30 euros?”

“No, no, no, my friend I cannot.”

The group agrees on a price and settles back down to their phones. A local man in the cafe who appears drunk berates the refugees for leaving their country.

“You are patriotic?” he asks one of them. “Then why do you leave?”

One Syrian sits down and tries to reason with the man.

Then another hears the news that thousands of people are traveling from the Hungarian border to try their luck through Croatia instead. Some are worried that Croatia will soon close their border like Hungary in the face of a new wave of migrants.

They gather their things quickly and jump into taxis outside. They drive for ten minutes toward the border before taking a right turn onto a dirt road that runs through a corn field. The cars stop. The refugees step out and gather their things.

They huddle for a moment in the light of headlamps. They tighten the straps on their bags, pat their pockets and go over the plan one last time. Dima and Muhammad take each other’s hand. Then they all walk off into the darkness.