On the migrant trail: 'We fled war and expected to be treated differently'
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From eastern Greece to the northern tip of France, thousands of migrants fleeing war and persecution tread the Balkan route each day heading for northern Europe. Follow their hazardous journey with FRANCE 24's team of reporters.
Hundreds of thousands of migrants have risked their lives trying to cross the Mediterranean to Europe so far this year, forced into exile by hunger, war and persecution. Many land in Greece, the starting point of a hazardous journey through the Balkans towards northern Europe. Who are they? What are their hopes and dreams? And how do they circumvent Europe's border guards? From Thessaloniki in Greece to Calais in France, FRANCE 24's team of reporters document the migrants' journey to exile, following the men, women and children already changing the face of Europe. Follow their reports every day at 9pm Paris time (GMT+2) and keep track of Fernande van Tets’ tweets and her daily reporter's notebook on FRANCE24.com.
September 10 in Calais, northern France: Last night, we started the final stage of our journey. We stopped at a leisure centre in Cergy Pontoise, just north of Paris, where 110 asylum seekers have found a temporary home in a space usually reserved for summer camps. Ali, from Damascus, said he expected his month-long journey to end in Germany, where he has two uncles. But when a Red Cross worker told him that family reunification was faster in France, he decided to board yet another bus. For Abu Rahman, another Syrian, Paris sounded more romantic than Munich.
This bodes well for European plans to redistribute asylum seekers. Many have only a vague idea of what life in Europe will be like. They want to study, work and be reunited with their families. If those wishes can be granted, it doesn't matter whether they are in Germany, Spain or France, the three countries likely to take in the most people under current plans.
But others have a clearer destination in mind. They could tell us the names of cities they were heading for, where they have friends or family, in other words a safety net. The four Syrians we met in Calais today were adamant they would make it to London. They have family there. They also speak English, thus clearing one more barrier to integration in a new country.
They took the same route as we did, travelling on foot, bus and train through Greece, Macedonia, Serbia, Hungary, Austria, Germany and, finally, France. They slept on the streets outside Budapest’s Keleti station, hiding from the police. Looking back on their epic journey, Abed Abu Zeid spoke for the group when he said his first impression of Europe was not what he expected. "We couldn't imagine Europe like that, we expected to come here to graduate from school, to continue studying," he said. "We fled war and expected to be treated differently; we were really surprised."
While many hope to stay on in Germany, Abed and his fellow travellers slipped away and took a bus to Paris. They stopped for a few selfies in front of the Eiffel Tower, before heading north to Calais. They have travelled 3,300 kilometers, but their journey isn't over yet. The first night they tried to climb into a truck, but had no luck. Trucks are well protected now by the new secure zone, enclosed by a fence with barbed wire and patrolled by sniffer dogs. Trying to get onto a London-bound Eurostar train is the new trend, we were told. And that is what Abed and his three friends are trying to do. Last night, police caught them before reaching the tracks. Tonight, they will try again.
September 9, in Stuttgart, southern Germany: Big German manufacturers have been waxing lyrical about taking on refugees, saying that new arrivals to the country would make ideal employees. These companies say they admire the self-starting entrepreneurial spirit of migrants who have risked everything to make a better life for themselves.
For the moment, much of this is just talk.
But one small German business we visited has already proven that taking on a motivated migrant makes solid business sense. Well before the current refugee crisis, the Schrotter meat wholesaler in Stuttgart took on 20-year-old Ghanaian refugee Bubobar. His appointment as a trainee butcher is a heart-warming success story.
“It’s actually very difficult to find young Germans who are willing to try this kind of work,” said Karl Schrotter, who owns this family business manned by around a dozen mostly middle-aged, moustachioed butchers. “Bubobar has been brilliant. He is highly motivated and he has made a great effort to learn German,” said Karl. “He is the perfect trainee.”
Bubobar told us that the language barrier wasn’t the biggest challenge. He’s been going to school and chats happily with his colleagues.“But getting up very early, and getting to use knives and machinery has been tough to get used to,” he said.
Karl’s son Sebastian is full of admiration for Bubobar, but is less generous towards his fellow Germans who don’t want to stoop to menial or physical work: “It’s their own fault if they are unemployed."
Bubobar’s a natural,” he said. “He really knows how to use a knife now, and it isn’t as easy as it looks. He’s blossomed since he came here. We are overwhelmed by how well he is doing.”
September 7 in Munich, Germany. "After seeing the huge volunteer response in Vienna over the weekend, on Monday we travelled to Munich, where thousands of refugees have poured in over recent days. And what we found is that people here are also mobilising to help the refugees. But unlike in Vienna, they are really digging in for the long haul. Their efforts are geared towards the fact that for most of the refugees, this is their end destination.
There are really several stages to the response in Germany. In the first few hours, the refugees are given time to rest and receive a medical check-up. Then they are moved to reception centres around the country, because there just aren’t the facilities in Munich to deal with the vast number of people flowing into the city.
Normally, the system works quite quickly here, but because there is such a huge amount of people, it can take days and sometimes weeks to get everyone processed. During this time the refugees don’t get any money from the state, so they rely completely on charity.
One of the things the refugees are often in dire need of is clothes. A lot of them are sleeping in makeshift shelters with no washing facilities, while others have lost all their belongings on their journey to Europe. We visited one charity that had set up a massive warehouse in the city that was overflowing with clothes people had donated. The challenge for them was how to process and distribute such a huge number of items. They’ve had to impose rules on what they are willing to accept because they just had too much to process.
Nevertheless, the level of organisation was incredible – and that goes for the response by both volunteers and authorities across the city. Really, it has to be so organised to be able to cope with the number of many people arriving in Munich – the city is stretched to its limits."
September 5 in Vienna, Austria. "On Saturday we arrived in Vienna, along with the migrants and refugees coming by train from Budapest. The most striking thing was the tremendous response from volunteers in the Austrian capital – it really was incredible.
First we visited the Westbahnhof station where, when a train of migrants arrived, people immediately started clapping and cheering. The people did not get off the train because they were heading straight on to Munich, but the volunteers rushed onto the platform, handing food, water, nappies and other supplies through the train’s windows.
Later we went to another station, Hauptbahnhof, and it immediately struck us how organised the volunteers were. There were a hundred people there, maybe more, helping to coordinate the response, telling people where to go, answering questions. They each wore a sign stating which languages they spoke so the migrants could find the right person to help them.
There was an entire mini hospital set up at the train station with volunteer doctors and even psychologists. There was a children’s play area with toys and walls decorated with Disney characters. A lot of the refugee children hadn’t held a toy in months and you could see the excitement on their faces. There was a place to get food and a place to pick out clothes people had donated. In fact, the volume of the donations was so huge that the volunteers had to start donations away as they just didn’t have the manpower to process it all.
But despite the huge volunteer effort, as well as signs saying things like “Refugees welcome” and “We want you to stay”, most of the people arriving in Vienna didn’t stay long. In fact, maybe less than two dozen of the around 10,000 people who have passed through Vienna in the past couple of days have actually applied for asylum here. They all want to keep going until they reach Germany."
September 4 in Budapest, Hungary. “At Keleti train station in Budapest we spent a lot of time with a woman called Amira, from Qamishli in the north of Syria who we had met the night before when she was getting ready to sleep outside the station on a piece of cardboard with her four-month-old son. She was quite calm when we first met her but the next morning, after sleeping badly for the third night, she was angry and overwhelmed by the hopelessness of the situation.
However, later in the day - when we began the long march to the Austrian border – the hope was tangible. It was great because people were finally able to do something – they were fed up with all the waiting.
'I have a ticket to Munich and the Hungarian government stole my money. But it’s okay because god gave me two feet and I’ll just walk to Germany,' one man told us.
There was such a huge variety of people on the march to Austria. We saw a man with one leg on crutches, people in wheelchairs, and people pushing buggies. The line of marchers stretched back over a kilometre along the highway out of Budapest. As night fell, the women and children started to fall behind, as the children were clearly exhausted, but everyone kept going.
We met one family with five children. The children were scared of the volumes of the traffic and the family did not know where to go. They asked us for a lift and, of course, we wanted to help but our car was already full. We also were not going in the right direction. People kept on asking us for advice: ‘where should we go? Should I apply for asylum in your country?’ For the FRANCE 24 team this was a strange moment, as we no longer just bystanders. We tried to help by passing on information… but we really wish we could do more."
September 3 in Belgrade, Serbia. “We’re in a Belgrade park where migrants have pitched their tents waiting for a chance to move on to the Hungarian border. Most of the people here could not afford a hotel room or failed to register with Serbian authorities in the border town of Presevo. They include many Iraqis and Afghans, who tend to be less well off than the Syrians. Some pretend to be Syrian, hoping it will help them get refugee status. One man we spoke to claimed to be from the Syrian Kurdish bastion of Kobane, but only hung out with Iraqis. In theory, those without registration certificates are not allowed into hotels and on local transport. In practice, they are simply charged more. One man paid 50 euros to get here, when others were charged 20 euros.
The most important item they carry with them is their mobile phone, which they’re constantly striving to keep charged. They need it to let people back home know they’re OK. Even more importantly, mobile phones are crucial to know where they’re going, and how to get there. Most have little or no notion of Europe’s geography. All they know is that they have to keep going west until they reach Germany. So they regularly check their Facebook groups to find out about the best routes. And they need their GPS to make sure they’re not getting lost or being led astray.
There are two groups of travellers. On the one hand there are those who have no idea where they’re going and wait for smugglers in the park to sell them a way into the EU. It costs 500 euros to get to the Hungarian border and 1,500 euros to make it as far as Germany. And then there are those who set off alone, without smugglers. They plan to reach the border by bus, lay low for a while and then give it a go. It’s one of the trickier parts of their journey, and they’re desperate to avoid fingerprinting once they step into Schengen and the EU.”
September 2 in Presevo, Serbia. “The first impression of Presevo, Serbia’s southernmost outpost, is one of a multitude of colourful tents pitched along the main street. This is a key stop on the migrants’ journey towards northern Europe. All have to go through a makeshift registration centre, located in a former tobacco factory. Outside the gates, hundreds surge forwards in a bid to enter, but Serbian police stand in their way. The army is present too.
There are two lines, one for families and a longer one for young men. The men face a long wait as children get priority. Around midday, a scuffle breaks out, batons are raised. We are allowed inside the centre under the supervision of a government minder. Police inside are nervous, overwhelmed by the sheer number of applicants and the journalists that follow them. Some officers soon get into an argument with our minder. The compound is equipped with toilets, showers and tents to provide some shade. The migrants are searched, registered, fingerprinted and photographed – but we’re not allowed to film any of this.
I was happy to see old faces, including Naomie, whose white hat stands out. She tells me they were allowed in after a few hours’ wait. We also catch up with Uday, whom we first met on Sunday as he walked across the border between Greece and Macedonia with his sister, wife and three children. They have already registered and secured the precious piece of paper bearing the name of an asylum centre, written in Serbian. Nobody plans to go to these centres, but they need the piece of paper to check into a hotel – and, crucially, use local transport. Outside the building, bus companies clamour for their business, hiring Arabic translators and posting maps with their routes to Belgrade and Subotica – on the Hungarian border.”
September 1 on the Macedonian border with Serbia. “Naomie, 17, looks like she is on a train heading for the beach in St. Tropez – not the Macedonian border with Serbia. She wears a large white hat and is immaculately made up with pink lipstick, black eyeliner and mascara. Only two weeks ago, she was living in her family home in the Syrian city of Aleppo where her father is an industrialist. They had a pool, a garden, a dog. Now she is travelling towards Germany, where she has family in Hamburg. Naomie’s hand bears the number 34 in green marker. It's the number of her group when she walked into Macedonia from Greece the day before; the Greek police sort those looking to cross into groups of 50 to ensure the process is orderly. Her train is one of five to have left the Macedonian town of Gevgelivja, near the Greek border, on Monday. It has only one stop: the Serbian border. The trains are organised by the government and the aim is to keep people moving, as fast as possible. It's a marked change for the migrants and refugees. Until June, they were not allowed on public transport and had to make their way on foot or buy a bike. It takes eight days to walk across Macedonia.
Today, it takes just four hours. I was struck by the huge variety of people on the train. All were able to pay the 10 euro fare. Some, like Naomie and her cousin Hanin, come from Syria’s wealthy elite. Hanin is embarrassed to travel this way, but says she will do anything to keep her children safe from the war. There are also people like Imad, a low-level public servant from Douma, a suburb of Damascus, who was arrested, tortured and thrown in jail. He is almost out of money and has no idea where he is going. Many on the train ask me for advice on where to go. Most take a nap, children and men stretching out in the aisles.
Upon arrival at the last train station in Macedonia, people mostly ignore the offers of free food and drink. A few pay for a bottle of chilled water or juice from the locals who sell their wares in wheel barrows on the tiny platform. At the other side of the tracks, buses arrive, carrying more people. A long line of men, women and children snakes into the distance, across the fields and into Serbia.”
August 31, 2015, on the Greek border with Macedonia. Idomeni is a tiny village of less than 100 people, located 80 kilometres north of Thessaloniki. On Sunday, it was host to some 7,000 migrants eager to cross into Macedonia, according to a UNHCR worker on the ground. FRANCE 24's reporter Fernande van Tets witnessed their passage. “The migrants arrived in busloads and taxis all day and were split into groups by Greek police,” she said, describing chaotic scenes as families struggled to stay together. “The groups took it in turn to cross the railway into Macedonia. Many had to wait for hours in the baking heat. When their turn came, they jostled into position then quickly walked across the tracks in between two trains hurtling past.”
"The migrants were mostly middle class, people who could afford the crossing from Turkey to Greece. They wore trainers and outfits similar to our own. They paid their bus fares and those who could afford to slept in hotels in Greece. Others slept out in the open. All were glad the sea was behind them. The crossing in overcrowded boats and flimsy rubber dinghies was definitely the worst part of their journey. Now they’re just following the westward flow, getting onto buses and trains heading for Serbia. But things will get more difficult again once they reach the Schengen borders.”
"The most impressive thing is not the sheer mass of people, but the personal stories they all carry with them. Like the story of Mountaha, 23, and her husband Anas, 24. Their baby boy Mohamed was born two months ago in Turkey. They want to go to Germany to give him a better life. The couple, who are originally from Damascus, sold their car, house and gold to be able to pay 3,500 euros each to make that dream come true. Anas hopes to be a computer engineer. Mountaha dreams of being a writer."