Even before the collapse of the American-backed government in Afghanistan, there was an intense pressure from Afghan “refugees” on the external borders of the European Union.
The following report on the new migration route through the northern Balkans is from Mitteldeutscher Rundfunk (MDR, Central German Broadcasting, the public broadcaster for Thuringia, Saxony and Saxony-Anhalt). Many thanks to Hellequin GB for the translation:
Afghan refugees on their way to the EU
Because Croatia and Hungary have erected high border fences on the Balkan route, refugees are now increasingly trying to get to the EU via Romania. The number of illegal border crossings rose by 200 percent in the first half of the year. Important hub: the western Romanian city of Timisoara. Many people seeking protection want to find a truck there that they can use to get to Western Europe undetected.
Ahmadi’s brown eyes look sadly into the distance; he is holding his destroyed cell phone in his left hand. The 17-year-old is sitting on a meadow in Timisioara in western Romania, in what is known as the Afghan Park, as Ahmadi and his compatriots call their meeting point at a shopping park. Almost every day there are checks by the police and gendarmerie, from which Afghan refugees repeatedly report that they’re been attacked or had their cell phones destroyed.
Ahmadi considers it pointless to report the incident to the police. That doesn’t help him get a new cell phone, either, he says. The telephone was his orientation aid on the run; he was able to use it to call up routes across the Middle East and now in Europe. Without a cell phone, he cannot contact his smuggler who is supposed to bring him to Germany.
On the run for over a year
The young Afghan left his home region of Nangarhar long before the international troops withdrew, otherwise he would have had to join the radical Islamic Taliban at home or hide from it, he says. “I preferred to forge on ahead.” He also wants to lead an economically better life in Western Europe. He has already covered around 5,000 kilometers, a large part of it on the Balkan route from Greece via Bulgaria to Serbia. In four months, he hopes, he will be with his brother in Germany, but Ahmadi has been on the run for over a year now.
It was particularly difficult, he says, in Serbia, where meter-high fences have made access to the EU almost impossible since the great refugee movement in 2015. He made nine attempts to come to Croatia. He tried to cross the Serbian-Hungarian border three times, all without success. Most recently, he took the route via neighboring Romania, which for a long time was considered a dead end among those seeking protection: since the EU country does not belong to the Schengen area, all borders in Romania are strictly controlled — including that with the EU neighbor Hungary.
Over 530 kilometers of green border with Serbia
But for a few months now, the Eastern European country has seen a significant increase in the number of refugees and migrants. The Romanian border authority registered almost 9,000 border crossings in the first half of the year, 200 percent more than in the same period of the previous year. The majority of those seeking protection do not come from Ukraine or the Black Sea, but from Serbia over the green border, which in some places meanders along the Danube, and runs through countless forests and fields.
The Romanian press recently wrote that a “new Balkan route” led through western Romania. An assumption that the border police in Timisoara do not want to share, even if most border crossings were on their 530-kilometer stretch with Serbia this year. “Regardless of whether this is called the new Balkan route or not,” says the spokesman for the Timisoara border police, Petre Nicola, “we are well prepared for every scenario.”
Difficult terrain to monitor
His colleague Cosmin-Florian Balaci is currently standing on a hill with a green camouflaged transporter to have a better view of the fields and the border with Serbia. The thermal imaging camera installed on the vehicle roof scans the area within a four-kilometer radius. Balaci’s eyes search the screen with the flickering points of warmth, which differ in size, shape and degree of warmth: “Over the years I have learned to recognize whether a person or an animal is walking through the field,” says the border policeman.
The entire border line is monitored around the clock with thermal imaging cameras and patrols. It’s hard to imagine that anyone can even pass the green stripe, let alone thousands of people seeking protection, like this year. But there are hiding places at many locations in dense sunflower fields or disused irrigation canals — sometimes it is just the fog that significantly restricts the view on the green border. The border guards do not want to give more details in order not to provide smugglers with insider knowledge. The fact that Afghans have been trying to cross the border more and more this year has also been observed by the border official Balaci: “With the global madness, they are under increasing pressure to get to Europe.” But that doesn’t change anything in his work to prevent illegal border crossings, he says.
Smugglers coordinate from Afghanistan
Ahmadi only managed to escape across the Romanian border on the third attempt. A smuggler brought him across the border for €800 euros. His costs for the entire escape route have so far amounted to almost €2,500, which flow to Afghan backers who have an extensive network on the Balkan route. They hold their hands out at every border, and payment is made if the border crossing is successful. Ahmadi doesn’t want to think about who the feeders are. Rather, his thoughts revolve around how he can get to Germany, again with a smuggler, this time for another €1,500.
The young Afghan is straightening a plastic sheet under which he slept at night in a park in Timisoara. As an asylum seeker, the minor could actually spend the night free of charge in state accommodation, but he wants to be able to leave for the border with his bag at any time. The city of Timisoara, which is close to the border with Serbia and Hungary, has become an important hub for many Afghans to come to Western Europe. Many spend the night in parks or ruined houses because they want to leave Romania as quickly as possible.
Waiting for an escape truck
Their escape plans are similar: they hide in lorries in parking lots in the vicinity of the city, hoping to cross the border into Hungary undetected. A smuggler selects the truck and opens the cargo area for them. “Our chance is that the police won’t check every truck,” says Ahmadi. But even at this border he has already failed several times, four times he was sent back to Romania. The young Afghans in Timisoara call their attempts to cross the border “game” because it takes a lot of luck not to be caught by the police.
Aid association provides food and medicine
But without his own phone, Ahmadi is stuck for the time being. He seeks help from “Casa Logs”, an organization of social workers and volunteers in Timisoara. They provide the refugees in Timisoara with food and medical help. Some come because they need consolation or are stuck in a dead end, as Ahmadi does now. The social worker Flavius Loga started the association last November when almost a thousand Afghans came to the city every month to find a getaway truck to Western Europe. “We are concerned with humanitarian aid, regardless of whether the asylum seekers want asylum in Romania or move on,” says Loga.
The social worker is not surprised that the majority of the refugees are just passing through. His country itself has been experiencing a huge hemorrhage for three decades: “We have almost five million Romanians who have left their homeland because they thought it was better in Germany and Western Europe. I don’t think we can condemn the refugees who want to move on,” says Loga.
Friends want to come
Ahmadi is undecided. Should he keep trying to cross the border into Hungary or apply for asylum in Romania? Given the return of the Taliban in Afghanistan, the 17-year-old would have a good chance of obtaining international protection status, even if Romania has rejected the vast majority of asylum applications in the past. A few days ago friends from Nangahar in Afghanistan called him to find out how he managed to get into the EU. They wanted the phone number of his smuggler.