When Europe closed the door: A week on the migrant trail

Refugees cross the border from Serbia into Croatia. 
Richard Hall

What began as a steady stream turned into a flood.

In the early months of 2015, the number of refugees and migrants arriving on Europe’s shores roughly matched the previous year. But when the summer weather calmed the Mediterranean Sea, hundreds of thousands embarked on the dangerous voyage, fleeing war, instability, and in some cases crippling poverty.

They came from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and across Africa. Once they had reached Europe, after crossing the sea on dangerous boats, many might have expected their troubles would be over. They would soon find out that their journey had just begun.

This is the story of one week in mid-September, during the height of the migrant crisis.

It was a crisis that Europe as a whole should have been equipped to deal with competently, but which it clearly did not. Borders were closed and routes were shut off; in some cases refugees were beaten and corralled. Children walked with their mothers through blazing heat, then were stranded in the rain.

Europe panicked, and thousands of refugees and migrants paid the price. 

I. Rush to the border 


SID, Serbia — It's nearly 8 p.m. in the Serbian border town of Sid, a quiet little place in the middle of nowhere, seemingly not used to receiving visitors.

Khaldom, a Syrian from Damascus, steps off the bus weary and heads to a small cafe next door. The group he is traveling with, all Syrians, follows him. At least a dozen taxi drivers parked outside the train station across the road watch them as they walk.

Khaldom and his friends have come straight from the Hungarian border. Before that, they had made the crossing from Turkey by boat, paying smugglers more than $1,000 each to reach mainland Europe. They made their way to Athens. They thought the hard part was over. They had a plan: cross into Hungary, as so many others had done, and follow the "Balkan route" into Western Europe.​

It wasn't going to be that simple. The news came as they were getting ready to leave: Hungary was closing its borders to refugees. They had 24 hours to get there.

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

Khaldom’s story would become a familiar one for refugees trying to find sanctuary in Europe. As the continent struggled to deal with an influx of people at its thresholds, many countries moved to slam the door shut.

When the Hungarian border closed, Khaldom and his group decided to head to Croatia, which brought them here to Sid, on the border. The journey to Western Europe would be longer, and they still had to find a way through Slovenia. But the sight of tear gas and holding pens at Hungary’s border had sent a message. That door was closed.

As they sit down to eat, Khaldom and his friends watch the chaotic scenes still unfolding at the border they just left on a small television attached to the wall.

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

Over the next few days, as the news from the Hungary-Serbia border filtered backward along the migrant trail, refugees began to change direction and head the same way Khaldoum and his friends had. A new route was forged. Instead of passing through Hungary, thousands would head to the Croatian border. In the 24 hours before Khaldom arrived, 5,650 took it. Many more were heading that way.

Ten other Syrians gather in the cafe with Khaldom. They 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.

At a cafe in the small town of Sid, on the Serbia-Croatia border, Syrian refugees watch chaotic scenes at the Hungary border unfold on a small television attached to the wall. They had been there just hours earlier. 

“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, inflation had 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. When he arrives there and is settled, he will 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.”

The people traveling with Khaldom cite similar reasons for leaving Syria after four years of war. Dima and her husband Muhammad married earlier this year. 

“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.

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? Will Slovenia allow us passage? 

Taxis line up outside the train station in Sid. Normally a sleepy town, cab drivers are now taking hundreds of migrants a day to the border just a few kilometers down the road.

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

A member of the group talks with taxi drivers outside the cafe. They agree to drive 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 strange scene then unfolds inside. 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 of the group tries to reason with the man. “We are fleeing war,” he says.

“We had our own war here,” says the Serbian man, “but we stayed.”

“Nowhere is safe in Syria. We came here to protect our families,” comes the reply.

All of a sudden, one of the refugees hears that thousands of people are already traveling from the Hungarian border to try their luck through Croatia instead. They start to worry Croatia will soon close their border like Hungary in the face of a new wave of migrants.

The after-dinner calm ruptures. There is a rush of movement as the group quickly gathers their things.

They head to the taxis outside. After bundling into several cars they drive for ten minutes toward the border. A right turn leads them 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 hands. Then they all walk off into the darkness.

II. Another border closes 


CROATIA-SERBIA BORDER — Khaldom and his friends made the right choice rushing to Croatia. Tens of thousands did the same, and it was a matter of days before the country was overwhelmed.

Hungary’s unilateral decision had a ripple effect all the way back along the migrant trail. People were forced to change course. The Balkan Route, as the way through Hungary was being called, was effectively closed.

Waves of refugees descended on Sid, where they crossed into Croatia.

In panic, two days after Hungary closed its doors, the Croatian government closed seven out of its eight border crossings with Serbia. After initially expressing its will to welcome refugees, the Croatian government found itself unready for the scale of the crisis. Croatian Interior Minister Ranko Ostojic said that his country was "absolutely full."

The closure essentially blocked the main land route for migrants into Western Europe. But as many other governments would soon learn, border closures are not a deterrent for people fleeing war.

The morning after Croatia announced its border closures, buses packed with people began to arrive near the Serbian border town of Sid. In the afternoon, they came every 20 minutes. 

Migrants walk through a cornfield between Serbia and Croatia.

From there they walked through a cornfield into Croatia, the same way Khaldom and his friends had. In the blazing heat, entire families dragged their belongings along a dirt track that runs through the field. Mothers and fathers carried children on their backs, stooping and sweating with no protection from the sun. At the other side of the field lay a graveyard, where Serbian police directed the migrants around the official border posts.

“Is there help on the other side?” asked a Syrian woman traveling with her three young children. “How far is it to walk?”

At a halfway way point between Croatia and Serbia, a mobile clinic run by Doctors Without Borders was providing travelers with treatment. One elderly man struggled to breathe as he lay on the ground, attended by medical staff.


Alberto Martinez Polis, medical activity manager for the aid organization, said MSF had seen 180 patients in one day.

“These people are strong people, as you can see. They have been walking for kilometers and kilometers. But we see complaints that arise because of the journey such as sun burns, sprains, sore bodies.”

Many of the travelers came from Deir ez-Zor, in eastern Syria, and the capital Damascus.

Sitting under a tree to catch his breath, 23-year-old Ahmed spoke about where he hoped to end up.

“Maybe Germany, maybe England, maybe Belgium. I hope to complete my studies. I studied law in Syria for three years, I didn't finish because of the war. My dream is to be a lawyer,” he said.

Ahmed set off from Idlib, a rebel-held city in northern Syria, 11 days earlier. He traveled by boat from Turkey to Greece, then worked his way up through Macedonia and Serbia to the no-man’s land between Serbia and Croatia.

Asked where he planned to go next, he shrugged. “I don’t know.” Like many others, his plans changed by the day.

III. Chaos at the station


Many of the weary travelers arriving in Croatia hadn't planned to go there. When they left their homes in Syria or Iraq, they thought they would be traveling through Hungary and Austria. They were learning the new route as they went.

The same was true for the Croatian government. They hadn't anticipated that their country would become a main thoroughfare for refugees heading west. That lack of foresight would have a traumatizing effect on hundreds of refugees who arrived in those first few days when the new route was forged.

Hundreds of travelers gathered at Tovarnik train station, awaiting trains to Zagreb or anywhere else further west. The crowds waited for hours in the heat, without water or food. Police cordoned off the area and refused to allow them to leave.

The people became angry, pushing back at the police lines and fighting to escape. They eventually broke through, pouring out of the station in search of buses and taxis to take them further into Croatia on to Western Europe. But many were still waiting the next day, having slept outside overnight.

A child and her father are caught between police and migrants at Tovarnik train station in Croatia.

For those who made it into Croatia, Slovenia was the next destination — but that trip too presented problems. More than 150 migrants who arrived at the Slovenian border on a train were turned back by authorities there the same day.

The doors were closing fast all over Europe as the continent scrambled to deal with the biggest wave of migration since World War II.

A man and his wife are reunited after becoming separated among the hundreds of refugees and migrants held at Tovarnik train station in Croatia.

As Croatia closed its borders, Austria announced that it would 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 was enforcing temporary border controls. After effectively announcing it would open its borders to refugees, even Germany reinstated controls to stem the tide.

Many of those penned in at Tovarnik had traveled from Serbia’s border with Hungary, where police assaulted protesters with tear gas and water cannons.

“They beat us. They do a lot to us,” said Majid, a Syrian from Damascus who had tried and failed to cross the Serbia-Hungary border before traveling to Tovarnik.

“Now I think I prefer to go back to my country and die over there. It’s better, at least I die in my home.”

IV. From border to border 


CROATIA-HUNGARY BORDER — When the dozen or so buses arrived at the border, many of the passengers on board didn’t know where they were.

“What is this border?” asked one man as he stepped off the bus. “Is this Hungary?”

The migrants and refugees had come from the Croatian town of Tovarnik, on the border with Serbia. Some of them had been stuck there with no shelter for two days waiting for a train or bus to go west. They were tired and hungry, but glad to be heading in the right direction.

The passengers disembarked on the Croatian side of the border, walked 50 meters to the no-man’s land between the two crossings, and boarded another bus headed deeper into Hungary. Stepping down from each bus as it arrived was a Croatian police officer to oversee the transfer.

This orderly scene, on a bright and humid September day in the middle of cornfields, stood in stark contrast to a growing row between the neighboring countries, and splits within Europe as a whole, over how to deal with the thousands of migrants and refugees arriving every day. 

In the space of a week, after Hungary closed its border, Croatia became a key transit point in the flow of migrants to Western Europe. 

A young girl steps off the bus at the Croatia-Hungary border. The bus had traveled from Tovarnik, on the Serbia-Croatia border. Many refugees and migrants had been trapped there for days, awaiting transport.

After trying, albeit briefly, toslow the arrivals at its border, Croatia adopted a different approach: If it couldn’t keep the migrants out, it would help them hurry on to Hungary.

The Croatian government was soon facilitating the movement of refugees and migrants from its eastern border to the borders of Hungary and Slovenia with startling efficiency.

In Beli Manastir, a town close to the border with Hungary, a welcome center of tents and portable toilets set up by UNHCR and the Red Cross to deal with incoming refugees was empty.

“We were told to expect thousands from Tovarnik, but today just one family has arrived,” said a volunteer.

Later on, it became clear that they had all been bussed immediately to the Hungarian border, along with the hundreds who had been in the town the day before.

V. The race to Berlin 


VIENNA, Austria and BERLIN, Germany — In the bustling main hall of Vienna’s Westbahnhof train station, a long line stretches out of the ticket office, past a stone sculpture of a winged lion, all the way to the glass-walled entrance.

The weary travelers in this line, separated from the commuters and backpackers by a bright yellow barrier, are buying one-way tickets. To ask any one of them where they are going is to invite a chuckle: “To Germany, of course.”

The question elicits a similar response even in those countries at the beginning of the migrant trail. Everyone seems to be heading for Germany.  

The reasons are complex, and differ from person to person. But at one end of Europe dangles a carrot in the form of generous quotas for refugees and migrants, job opportunities, and welcoming words from German Chancellor Angela Merkel. At the other is a big stick wielded by Hungary in the form of fences, threats of arrest, bellicose language — and in some cases actual sticks in the hands of overzealous border guards.

In the middle of the two are Croatia and Slovenia, ferrying migrants through their territory as quickly as possible. It's a powerful force pushing people west. 

Even if the refugees don’t know what they'll do when they arrive in Germany, they speak of it in glowing terms. 

“I love Germany," says Ahmed, a Syrian refugee from Aleppo who passed through Greece, Macedonia, Serbia, Croatia and Hungary before arriving in Austria. “The German people are very hospitable,” he says, a fresh ticket to Berlin in his hand. 

Naeimeh, an Iranian student studying for a bachelors degree in Vienna, has volunteered at the city’s main station for the past few days. She translates for Farsi-speaking refugees, mostly Iranians and Afghans. 

“They think Germany is the best place on Earth,” she says. “No one wants to stay here [in Austria]. It’s strange.”

The line at Westbahnhof stays steady at around 100 people most of the day. Nearly everyone who leaves the ticket office is heading to Germany. Some are heading to Finland, a few to Britain. 

The hall is packed with migrants and refugees resting. Most of them have traveled for 10 days or more to get this far, including the dangerous journey by boat from Turkey to Greece.

The view of Germany as the promised land likely has something to do with how Merkel has dealt with the migrant crisis.

After a faltering early response (during a televised town hall with local schoolchildren, she told a tearful asylum-seeker that Germany did not have room for people like her), the chancellor changed her tune. 

As tens of thousands continued to arrive on Europe’s shores, and refugee centers were being attacked in German villages, Merkel declared her country would open its doors to Syrians fleeing the war and increase quotas for refugees from other conflict zones. 

“If Europe fails on the question of refugees,” she said, “it won’t be the Europe we wished for.” 

Her words traveled a long way. 

Facebook groups set up by Syrians hoping to travel to Germany praised the chancellor. Images of her adorned with “Compassionate mother” spread across social media.

“We heard what Merkel said,” said Muhammad, a Syrian from Damascus in the Serbian town of Sid, explaining why he was headed for Germany. “It had an effect on us.” 

But there are many, like Ahmed, who see beyond the German leader to the society as a whole. Even before the war, Germany was a leading destination for Syrians. 

Half a million migrants — mostly from the Middle East and North Africa — have arrived in Europe this year, according to UN estimates. Germany has received the largest number of asylum applications of any country in Europe: 296,100 between July 2014 and June 2015, according to Eurostat. Since the start of the Syrian crisis in 2011, around 105,000 Syrians have applied for asylum. 

The government expects up to one million people to seek asylum there this year — a staggering number, even for a country with a history of integrating refugee populations and migrants. 

But unlike in Britain, where public opinion is against accepting more refugees, Germans appear willing to take more. 

A poll of Germans released in early September found that only 33 percent of respondents wanted fewer refugees, compared to 37 percent in favor of Germany continuing to take a similar number in the future and the 22 percent who believed their country should accept more. These things don’t go unnoticed by people desperate for a new home.

And in many cases, Germany delivers on its welcoming promises. On the streets of Berlin T-shirts with the words “Refugees Welcome” are a common sight. Local groups soliciting donations for refugee centers have sprung up organically around the country.

In the basement of a clothing shop in the Kreuzberg area of Berlin in September, a dozen or so volunteers sort through boxes of clothes and canned food.

“There was a group of friends who started to collect things. They told their friends and they told their friends and so on and so on,” says Angela Wohlgehagen, who works for a TV company in Berlin. The group now has 40 regular volunteers who work in shifts.

Why the outpouring of support in Germany for refugees?

“I think it has a lot to do with our history. Germany was a divided country, and we had war in Germany. Our grandparents know what it's like to be a refugee,” Wohlgehagen says.

This group of volunteers drives six to eight carloads of donations a day to local refugee centers. 

“We are looking for a bigger room,” says one of the volunteers. 

Volunteers pack boxes full of donations for refugees at a collection center in the Kreuzberg area of Berlin.

There are other pull factors, too. Even before the current refugee crisis, Germany played host to a large number of migrants. Many people currently on the move have family in Germany or Britain. If not family then friends.

Refugees making the life-changing journey across a foreign land rely on each other for information and support. A virtual hive mind exists where refugees share information about routes, borders, smugglers and missing persons, online and in person. 

A well-worn route, traveled by those who came before them, is low risk — whereas staying in an unknown place like Croatia or Hungary is a huge risk for an outsider trying to begin a new life. 

And they quickly learn valuable lessons along the way. Central and Eastern European countries struggled to find a unified response to the thousands of migrants arriving at their borders. That incoherence caused misery. Hungary closed its border with Serbia and fired tear gas and water cannons when people tried to challenge the closure. Its politicians have used threatening language when discussing the crisis and authorized the use of its armed forces to deal with refugees trying to cross. It has even taken out full-page advertisements in newspapers in Jordan and Lebanon, warning refugees not to come. 


As the number of people traveling to Western Europe showed no signs of slowing toward the end of September, the European Union voted to impose mandatory quotas on its members to accept refugees. Germany, which was the driving force behind the plan, was given the highest quota by some margin. 

But the plan to relocate 120,000 migrants from the landing points of Greece and Italy was deeply unpopular with Eastern European countries, which are poorer, less ethnically diverse, and whose populations are far more opposed to immigration. 

Romania, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary voted against the quotas, which were passed by a majority vote. Slovakia even went so far as to say it would not accept the quotas despite the mandate. 

The UN refugee agency said the plan would not be enough, given the large numbers still arriving in Europe. 

"A relocation program alone, at this stage in the crisis, will not be enough to stabilize the situation," UNHCR spokeswoman Melissa Fleming told the BBC.

There are some who see the refugee crisis as a challenge to the very purpose of Europe. The closure of borders and the building of fences already threatens one of its central tenets.  

Merkel, since she changed her tune, has remained steadfast, insisting that Germany and Europe can deal with the crisis.

“I say again,” she said in mid-September, “we can do it and we will do it.”

VI. A different Europe? 

A supporter of the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) party displays a placard showing German Chancellor Angela Merkel dressed in a uniform of the former socialist youth movement 'Free German Youth' (Freie Deutsche Jugend, FDJ) during a demonstration against the German government's asylum policy organized by the AfD party in Berlin on November 7, 2015.

At the end of October, the 28 member countries of the European Union met in Brussels with a number of nations outside the bloc who were on the front line of the refugee crisis, among them Serbia and Macedonia.

An agreement was reached to build holding camps along the migrant trail, a partial solution to ease the suffering of those traveling along it.

It was the fifth time EU leaders had met to discuss the crisis, and it was the first time a substantive solution had been reached that was focused on the welfare of migrants and refugees.

It came more than two months after Merkel warned of the failure to address the refugee crisis. “It won't be the Europe we wished for," she said in August.

And for a while it looked as though that time had come already. European leaders bickered over the burden of accepting refugees. They acted unilaterally in closing borders without consulting their neighbors, creating bottlenecks. At the receiving end were the thousands who had fled war and instability, seeking shelter and safe passage.

Whether the fragile agreement forged in Brussels can be built upon remains to be seen. Hungary’s border fence still stands; there are still disagreements about the number of refugees each country can take. Germany and Austria have reintroduced some border controls, a move that some say threatens one of the key tenets of the EU's purpose: unfettered movement. 

Merkel has faced strong opposition at home to her refugee policy, from right-wing groups and from the Bavarian region, where a large number of refugees are being resettled. Just last week, Austria was bussing refugees to the border with Germany.   

But no amount of discord in Europe matches the suffering faced by those fleeing there. Refugees are continuing to make the dangerous journey. Thousands still arrive every day in Greece.

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