Europe and the refugees: a travel diary

Who are the refugees, where are the headed and why? And are the Holocaust allusions really appropriate? Seth Frantzman investigates.

A waystation to wealthier countries. Photo: Seth Frantzman

The tall man with the mustache shrugged.  It was drizzling outside and inside the local convenience store, a dampness hung in the air.  I was searching for cigarettes and trying to make unsuccessful small talk with the local men from Preševo, an Albanian town on the Serbian border with Macedonia.  The men seemed puzzled by my English; not too many tourists come here apparently.

I told them it was to cover the refugee and migration crises.  Was it a burden on their town having 5,000 people crossing through the border a day?  “Today is worse because of the rain, the buses have all congregated here closer to the center,” said the mustachioed man.  They all seemed to have a quiet acceptance of the issue.  There was nothing they could do about it, except watch it transpire.

Outside in the rain the mostly Syrian refugees clustered around a bus stop next to rusty railroad tracks.  The day was miserable.  Did they feel more at home here in an Albanian town with its mosques and Muslims than in neighboring Macedonia and Greece that they had recently transferred from?  The men hadn’t noticed, they just wanted to get moving north.  To Germany.  To Finland. Away from dreary central and Eastern Europe to the “good Europe,” where they imagined a new life awaited them.

There is an internal contradiction in the narrative about the migration crises in Europe that has been in the new for the past month.  On the one hand commentators say that in demographic terms it is inconsequential—just 200-800,000 people or so out of an EU population of 500 million.  That’s less than a fifth of one percent.  But on the other hand the EU is apparently incapable of policing, documenting, controlling or even providing basic services to this supposedly tiny migration.

How can it be both insignificant and also so significant it has posed the greatest challenge to the Schengen agreement since the EU’s inception?  Troops are marching to the borders.  Hungary’s tiny army is on high alert.  Fences are being built.  Rail services are suspended.  Highways are being briefly closed.  People are comparing the treatment of the refugees to the “dark periods” of European history, a thinly veiled allusion to the 1930s and 40s.

What is really happening in Europe?  I set out to find out, on the ground, what this historic crises is all about.

Authorities are struggling to cope, but they are not Nazis. Photo: Seth Frantzman
Authorities are struggling to cope, but they are not Nazis. Photo: Seth Frantzman

Starting out

For 2,000 kilometers, I followed the refugee route into Europe from Greece.  For $1,200 the migrants pay smugglers to secure a ride on inflatable dinghies that whisk them across the narrow straits from Turkey to the Greek islands of Lesbos, Kos or Chios.  These sparsely populated islands now have migrant populations that sometimes outnumber locals.  Greece puts the migrants on ferries to the mainland and, so the refugees say, they often get free travel north to the border with Macedonia.  At the Greek border village of Idomeni, a small police and army contingent waits to greet the arrivals.  They get water and food from UNHCR local representatives and several other NGOs.  Then they are lined up in rows of 50 and the police escort them to Macedonia where they press their way through on a small bridge.

All of this is done without the need for travel documents, no passports, no customs, no checks.  It is informal in a sense, because it is not an official border crossing.  It all happens within a mile of the railroad and highway crossing that is official.  Once in Macedonia, which has also considered more aggressive border measures to stem the flow, the migrants board buses and taxis for the Serbian border.  A few hours later they cross into Serbia and arrive in Preševo after a short walk.  Here again are buses, some of them free, that whisk the people north, through Nis and on to Belgrade and Novi Sad and then the Hungarian border village of Horgos.

Some of this route is now in the process of changing as Hungary completed its metal fence with barbed wire on Monday to keep out the refugees.  In doing so Hungary has become the bad country in Europe, its Prime Minister Viktor Orbán portrayed as a modern day fascist.  There is no doubt his language, talking about Christian civilization being inundated and the harsh policies of the police, using tear gas and others means to disperse refugees, have made Hungary look uninviting. But that is his point, Hungary is just a transit country for refugees and he doesn’t want them.  Let them go through Croatia or stay in Serbia, he says.  There is some irony that Orbán is seen as a neo-fascist, while the people who forced the migrants to flee in the first place, Bashar al-Assad and his Iranian and Russian allies, are seen as more benign.

Why is there a refugee crises all of a sudden?  The number of Syrians coming to Greece has been growing by the week, and that has been obvious with the number of people crossing the various borders. Several weeks ago the “record” was 2,093 on August 24.  Now it has grown as high as 7,000 a day.  The police commander in Gevgelija said that he’s been observing this crises for 6 months and it is only growing.

Part of what has caused the sudden rise is “chain migration” the concept that when some people migrate they tell others back home and a tradition is established.  One can see this in Jewish history when groups like Lithuanian Jews moved en masse to South Africa.  In the old days Syrians who moved abroad would go to South America.  It is the reason so many Arabs moved to Detroit.

But why did this occur in 2015?

After four years of war it became clear Assad was not going to fall from power. In the wake of the Iran Deal and Russia increasing its involvement in Syria, the refugees who mostly come from Aleppo, realized they could never go home.  They had been more hopeful 2 years ago when the West had threatened to bomb Syria.  But now ISIS has distracted everyone, the Free Syrian army is in tatters.

That becomes obvious from talking to the Syrians.  Most are middle class.  Some are Kurdish families from Al-Hasakah, such as one man I met who was travelling with his baby son and wife.  His wife had a piercing in her lip and the two looked like they could be hipsters from the Village in New York, rather than Syrians stuck in a muddy yard waiting for buses in Macedonia.

אירפה שוב מקיפה עצמה בגדרות. צילום: סת' פרנזמן
Walls and fences are coming back in Europe. Photo: Seth Frantzman

Changing routes

Local people in the countries affected have mostly obliged the migrants with disinterested abandon.  In the northern Serbian towns, such as Bački Vinogradi, the local people are mostly Hungarians.  This is an area that was previously known as wine country and in nearby Palić there is a lake famous for hosting tourists and a five star hotel.  The town hosts a film festival in summers.  You’d think you were in the Lake District.

But over the last month it became a migrant corridor.  However one wouldn’t know it in the center.  Only on the railroad tracks nearby is there a constant flow of people.  Men and women carry babies.  Discarded items are strewn everywhere.  Thousands are passing in the fog, heading north.  It is good business for some of the Roma, or Gypsy, people hear, who gather up the items and make a living now selling water and cigarettes to the passers-by.

But the local people don’t seem to show hatred for this migration.  As in Preševo, they kind of marvel at it.  “How did we become a way station on this route,” they wonder.  The Serbian police also show no great interest in policing the refugees, so long as they stay on the tracks and keep moving.

Hungary changed the “rules” when it completed its border fence at Horgoš, closing off the rail line that the refugees were using to enter the country.  They had been entering informally and then detained at a large mud-soaked camp a few hundred meters inside Hungary.  Rumors circulated of “abysmal” treatment of the people, but that didn’t deter Syrians and Afghans—the other major component of this migration—from crossing.  Some 170,000 had used Hungary for transit by September 14th, when the “informal” border was closed by the fence.

I spoke with the local IsraAID group that had gone to the Serbian-Hungarian border to assist.  They were one of dozens of NGOs that were interested in assisting in Hungary or Serbia. In Hungary, many Catholic groups were involved in giving aid in the wake of the Pope’s call on people to take refugees into their houses.  IsraAID has been operating in Lesbos for weeks and aiding migrants as they come ashore.  In Serbia they thought to assess the situation and provide aid.  But the thousands of people coming from Macedonia to the border area with Hungary, and now stuck by the fence, quickly realized that crossing through Croatia would be the next best option.

התארגנויות מקומיות לסיוע לפליטים. צילום: סת' פרנזמן
Local aid initiatives. Photo: Seth Frantzman

Everyone passes the buck

On September 16 clashes broke out between those migrants who remained congregated at Hungary’s border in northern Serbia.  Water cannon and tear gas was used by the Hungarian police, which has been bolstered in recent weeks.  Hungary’s actions have exacerbated tensions with Serbia.  Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vučić told reporters that Hungary must “behave in line with European standards…we will find a way to protect our borders and will not allow anyone to humiliate us.”  He asked the EU to find a solution.  Serbia is not an EU member yet.

At 4:36 in the afternoon on September 17, as some 7,000 refugees entered Croatia, Croatia’s President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović was reported to have met with his army chief and told him to be ready to call out the troops to “protect the national borders from illegal immigration.”  In Neighboring Slovenia, which migrants are now using as a transit point from Croatia to get to Austria and Germany, the Red Cross has also declared a state of emergency, noting does not have enough resources to cope if the crises deepens.

One gets the feeling of a domino effect, as one after another European countries cry foul and note that they cannot “cope” with the influx.  But the high level meetings between EU states and discussions of a “quota” system seem totally far-fetched.  The real interest of each country from Greece northward is to shift the problem north.  The refugees and migrants play a role in this, because they don’t want to go to all the member states of the EU, they are focused on one or two.

For the Kurdish immigrants from Syria, Germany makes sense as a destination, because there is a tradition of Kurdish immigration to Germany and Scandinavia from Turkey.  The Syrian connection to Germany is less clear.  None of those I spoke with could clearly articulate why Germany was the main destination, except some of their friends or relatives had made it there and reported it offers a good prospect for a new life.

As we look back over the past weeks, and from what I saw on the ground following the refugee trail for 1,000 km from Thessaloniki north, some of the reports in the media can be seen in a new light.  Among the right wing press there has been a tendency to exaggerate the terrorist threat among the refugees.  On September 15 Lebanon’s Education Minister Elias Bou Saab warned British Prime Minister David Cameron that “1 in 50” of the migrants might be ISIS members sent to carry out attacks.  If there are 500,000 refugees coming this year to Germany, would that mean there are 10,000 ISIS Jihadists in Germany?

In June of 2015 Germany’s Interior Ministry estimated that 700 Germans were fighting for ISIS in Syria.  Germany isn’t the only country that was an ISIS recruiting ground, thousands of European-born Jihadists went to fight in Syria.  When I was with the Kurdish Peshmerga in Iraq 30 km from Mosul, the commanders there told us that they often encountered “European looking” foreign fighters who they killed and who did not have ID.

The narrative that ISIS members are coming to Europe with the migrants is a false way to look at it.  If ISIS members are among the migrants, they are returning to Europe, not invading Europe.  Europe has been a recruiting pool for ISIS before the Syrian migration.  In fact one could argue that European-born Jihadists who joined ISIS helped destabilize Syria and helped create this refugee crises.  Among the refugees I spoke to in Greece, Macedonia, Serbia and Hungary, most of them were members of families—not quite the profile of a lone Jihadist.

What is particularly interesting is that as much as 20% of the migrants are non-Syrian are from places like Afghanistan.  Without doing an official survey, it seemed that many of them were actually Hazzara-Shia.  The presence of Iranian-trained Afghan fighters in Syria was first reported in June of 2014.  The Free Syrian army had actually reported capturing an Afghan Shia in October 2012, according to the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

The story of the Afghans in Syria is not just about Iran recruiting them and paying them some $500 a month, according to reports.  There were already some Afghans in Syria before the Arab spring in 2011.  They had fled the Taliban to Pakistan, and then come through Iran for work.

When the war broke out, Iran wanted to use them to fight for Assad.  But some of these people had other plans.  I spoke with Afghan men and women in Serbia who said they had fled via Pakistan and come from Turkey.  Obviously life in Syria for them was miserable and they sought to keep moving.  They are suppressed as a minority in both Pakistan, where Shia are regularly victims of terror attacks, and Afghanistan.  In fact Iran and Afghanistan almost went to war in the 1990s when the Taliban suppressed the Hazzara Shia.  Those who see gangs of terrorists among the refugees perhaps forget that Afghan Shia are not likely to be ISIS recruits.

קבלת פנים מסוייגת; פליטים במזרח אירופה. צילום: סת' פרנמן
An ambivalent welcome, with a hope that they move on north. Refugees in Macedonia. Photo: Seth Frantzman

Europe, refugees and history

Various arguments are presented in explaining why EU states seem incapable of handling immigration.  One theory posits that European countries have no history of dealing with large waves of migrants.  But the fact is that the EU was able to deal with tens of millions of refugees in the aftermath of the Second World War, when literally the whole continent was on the move.

In November of 1956 when the Hungarian uprising was crushed by the Soviet Union, some 200,000 Hungarian refugees poured into Austria, as the rate of 5,000 a day.  Andreas Gémes, writing at the Institute for Human Sciences in 2009 notes “following the initial surprise, chaos gave way to better organization and management.  Soon every refugee received a minimum of 2,400 calories a day of nutrition and clean and warm clothes were distributed, along with pocket money, toiletries and cigarettes.”

The Austrians asked other European countries to help, but most agreed only to take a few thousand, although eventually some 19,655 were re-settled in the US.  But Austria survived and provided hospitality and re-settlement to the Hungarians, housing many of them in temporary camps, or even in schools, through 1957.

Why could Austria figure this out in 1956, but the whole of the EU can’t figure it out in 2015?  Jordan and even the Kurdish Regional Government of Iraq have built large camps for refugees fleeing Syria and fighting in Iraq.  None of these camps are ideal; many of those in Kurdistan offer the refugees the bare minimum of tented accommodation.  But it’s a question of organization and deciding to do something, rather than have chaos.  What is happening in the EU is chaos, with each country hoping “problem” moves on.

This is not a new phenomenon.  During the Libyan war in 2011, some 300,000 refugees fled to Europe, the small island of Lampedusa saw 45,000 arrive from North Africa.  In 2014, some 170,000 people made it by boat to Italy from Africa and in one 48 hour period in May of 2015, Italy rescued 6,771 migrants.  Relief Web claimed that 309,000 refugees had arrived to Greece by September 11, 2015, but 121,000 had made it to Italy from North Africa.  So the migration “crises” is not new.  Neither is the policy of “passing the buck” to other states.  Italy encouraged arrivals from North Africa to move on to France, where many of them wanted to go anyway because they spoke French, a common language in northern Africa due to the history of colonialism.  And in France, thousands of refugees camp in Calais and disrupt trains and trucks on the way to the UK, with the hopes of going there.  The UK and France seem incapable of dealing with just this small amount.

זרם הפליטים נמשך. צילום: סת' פרנזמן
The human stream marches on. Photo: Seth Frantzman


The number of migrants and refugees coming to Europe is not slowing down.  On the Greek islands like Lesbos, local authorities report record numbers and the Greek navy is rescuing hundreds and thousands at sea.  Hundreds are also dying on the journey across.  The increased role of Russia in the Syrian civil war, and the Iran Deal which will unlock billions for the Revolutionary Guard responsible for suppressing the Syrian rebels, will cause even more refugees to seek permanent re-settlement in Europe.

Meeting with the Syrians who are fleeing in person puts a human face on their struggle to find a new life.  Those who compare the actions taken by Hungary to the Holocaust however are doing a disservice.  This is not the Holocaust.  Refugees are generally being welcomed and given aid.  At some border crossings there was so much aid on offer, the refugees didn’t even bother to take it, but wanted to hurry north before more countries close their borders.

It is no irony that these refugees are crossing the Europe that is haunted by ghosts of the Shoah, and that may underpin some of the open policies of EU countries.  Jews fleeing Nazi Germany were not so lucky.  Even after the war in Europe many Jews sat in displaced persons camps for years.  By contrast, most refugees arriving today are not being kept in barbed wire camps. Instead, they are finding their way into European society, as millions have who have fled war and famine or just poverty over the last two decades for Europe.

The Syrian refugee phenomenon has been unique, especially in the manner and volume of them crossing the borders informally to head north.  It goes to the heart of what the EU’s common open borders mean.  Even with “quotas”, refugees who don’t want to settle in places like Poland, will not settle there and will simply move back to Germany, just as those from North Africa who made it to France camp out in Calais hoping to get to the UK.

To receive updates on new articles in English, join Mida on Facebook or Twitter or join our mailing list.


Related articles

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.