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Migrants wait to board a train at Belgrade's main railway station bound for the border with Hungary on June 26, 2015. Hungary, which has seen 60,000 migrants crossing its border this year, said it would build a four-metre (13-foot) fence on its southern border with Serbia through which most migrants come into the country. (Andrej Isakovic / AFP/Getty Images)
Gateway to freedom
Their journey is gruelling. Tens of thousands of migrants travel routes as long as 7,000 km – on foot – exhausted and hungry and sometimes hunted by police, for havens in Western Europe and even Canada.

The Globe's Senior International Correspondent Mark MacKinnon spoke with several migrants along the Serbia-Hungary border in a place called The Jungle and reports on their harrowing overland journeys

Turn off the highway that winds among the farms near Serbia’s border with Hungary, walk into the shoulder-high weeds and you find them: hundreds of people, nearly all of them young men, clustered in makeshift camps. They’re hiding here – near the end of epic overland journeys – waiting for the right moment to continue their march north, toward what they hope are new and better lives in the European Union, or even Canada.

The migrants call this place The Jungle, which is more a reflection of the palpable edginess here than the density of the foliage. The Jungle is just 10 kilometres from the Hungarian border, and the gateway to the 26 countries in Europe where people can move across state lines without visas. The migrants have been dreaming about reaching the Schengen Area since they left their homes in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria, and Iraq. Once they get across the Hungarian border, they feel closer to their goal. They talk of jobs in Germany, distant relatives in Sweden.

They walked most of the way here. “It took us six months,” said an exhausted-looking Sajid Khan, a wiry 18-year-old from Paktia province in eastern Afghanistan who made the almost 7,000-kilometre overland journey via Pakistan, Iran, Turkey, Greece and Macedonia with four other young men. Swollen and blistered feet poke out from their battered plastic sandals.

Mr. Khan and his fellow travellers spent a recent afternoon waiting in the sparse shade of the forests here, each sitting beside a backpack full of belongings they carried on their journey. A short walk away in the next clearing sat another group of perhaps 20 men, most of them Syrians and Pakistanis. A little further into the trees behind an abandoned brick factory were three other makeshift camps, where dozens more Afghan men waited for nightfall and the chance to continue their journey north. There were several more camps deeper in the woods, one migrant said, explaining that they sleep outdoors in small groups so they can scatter more easily if the police approach.

The migrants clustered at The Jungle are part of an unprecedented wave of tens of thousands of asylum-seekers from the Middle East and Central Asia who have arrived in Europe this year. The overland route they took is the second prong of the great migration under way from the war-torn regions of the world toward the relative stability and prosperity of Europe.

The arrival of more than 120,000 people this year who crossed the Mediterranean Sea to reach the islands of Italy and Greece has captured international attention and provoked heated debate within the EU over how to deal with the crisis. However the flow of refugees overland via the Balkans is nearly as rapid – more than 60,000 migrants crossed from Serbia into Hungary in the first five months of this year – and just as overwhelming to the countries trying to deal with this new front in the drama.

“Some of them were university professors, some of them were poor in their own countries. It’s a mixture of everyone. It seems like a migration of peoples, of nations,” Serbian Interior Minister Nebojsa Stefanovic said in an interview at his office in the capital city of Belgrade. “This is something that hasn’t been seen in the last several centuries.”

Migrants travel on a train bound for the northern Serbian city of Subotica, near the border with Hungary, on June 28, 2015. Amnesty International accused Balkan countries of mistreating migrants passing through their territories on the way to the European Union, saying people fleeing war were being "shamefully let down". (Igor Pavicevic / AFP/Getty Images)

It’s a situation Mr. Stefanovic said he expects to continue for several years. Serbia is now dotted with impromptu camps such as The Jungle. Two parks adjacent to the main train station in Belgrade – once a stop on the famed Orient Express route connecting Europe to Istanbul and the Middle East beyond – are full most nights with hundreds of sleeping migrants.

While countries such as Hungary and Slovakia to the north have seen mass anti-immigrant protests in recent weeks, Serbians have largely remained tolerant so far. Mr. Stefanovic said Serbs are broadly sympathetic to the migrants’ plight because many Serbs still remember being forced from their own homes during the Balkan Wars of the 1990s.

But Serbs also know the migrants aren’t here to stay; they’re just passing through on their way north.

Border wall planned

Across the border in Hungary, the mood is full-blown paranoia. On the day Mr. Khan was interviewed in The Jungle, The Globe and Mail followed a pair of green police paddy wagons as they patrolled the border towns of Morahalom and Asotthalom, their presence during daylight hours doing more to reassure local residents than deter the migrants who invariably wait for nightfall to make their move.

“If you come to Hungary, do not take the jobs of Hungarians,” reads one billboard in Morahalom. “If you come to Hungary, you must respect our culture,” reads another. A thousand such signs have recently been erected around Hungary by the National Consultation on Immigration and Terrorism, a government body launched earlier this year that has been criticized by other EU governments for its explicit linking of migration to a supposed threat from “terrorists.” “People are scared,” admitted a waiter in Morahalom.

Hungary announced in June that it was suspending participation in a key EU rule requiring that migrants’ asylum claims be processed in the country in which they first arrive, a rule the migrants were already going around by avoiding authorities in EU member states like Greece and Bulgaria along their route.

If you come to Hungary, do not take the jobs of Hungarians

If you come to Hungary, you must respect our culture
A billboard in Morahalom, Hungary

Prime Minister Viktor Orban has further rattled Serbia and the EU by vowing to build a 200-kilometre wall along his country’s southern border with Serbia. “The boat is full,” explained Hungarian government spokesman Zoltan Kovacs. Hungary, Austria and Germany have also sent border police to help Serbia better patrol its border with Macedonia.

But the migrants at The Jungle are confident that a Hungarian border wall wouldn’t stop them. Not after they’ve come this far, not after all they’ve been through.

“Two people who were walking with us died in the mountains between Iran and Turkey because they didn’t have water. I was lucky because I had this much water left,” said Ali Husseini, a 16-year-old Afghan, holding his fingers a pencil’s width apart to illustrate his own margin between life and death. He said he’d been walking for five weeks straight since leaving the Pakistani city of Quetta, where his family has been living to escape the war in Afghanistan.

The thin and muscled Mr. Husseini – who worked in a clothing shop while attending school in Quetta – has travelled nearly 6,000 kilometres since leaving home. He said he didn’t plan to stop walking until he reached his final destination of Sweden, which he has heard (correctly) has Europe’s most welcoming asylum laws. Well aware of the EU’s policy about applying for asylum in the country of first arrival, he and many others in The Jungle say they plan to keep a low profile even after they’re inside the Schengen Area.

A Serbian border officer finds a group of illegal immigrants from Syria near a railroad close to the border with Hungary, 30 kms east of Subotica, on June 25, 2015. Hungary's parliament on July 6, 2015, overwhelmingly approved the construction of a controversial fence on the border to keep out migrants, under new legislation that also tightens asylum application rules. (Andrej Isakovic / AFP/Getty Images)

Only when Mr. Husseini reaches Sweden will he walk into a police station and formally declare that he wants political asylum from Pakistan and Afghanistan, where he says he and his family face persecution and violence because they are from the Hazara ethnic minority group.

“We want to go to Hungary but we want to pass through without giving our fingerprints,” he said, speaking for a group of a dozen Afghans he was travelling with. Among the group, only Mr. Husseini spoke English. But Sweden, they’d all heard, offers free language lessons to new immigrants.

Criminal abuse

The migrants’ desire to avoid the authorities makes them extremely vulnerable to abuse by both criminals and police along the way. Mr. Husseini said men in police uniforms raided The Jungle one recent night. But rather than detaining the migrants, or directing them to Serbia’s formal system for asylum-seekers, Mr. Husseini said the uniformed men took money and mobile phones from those they caught, then released them to continue their journey.

Losing the mobile phone was as much of a bother for Mr. Husseini as the stolen cash. Many of the migrants use apps such as Google Maps to make sure they’re headed in the right direction across unfamiliar terrain.

Another English-speaking migrant – a Pakistani who gave his name as “Peter Diamond” – was sporting two fresh black eyes and a badly cut face the morning after the raid. Laughing bitterly, he said he’d hurt himself while “hugging a tree.” Mr. Diamond, who said he was persecuted in Pakistan because he’s Christian, said his end goal was to get to Canada and then bring his family there.

Both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have recorded testimonies of migrants abused by police in Serbia, as well as in Macedonia and Greece, including bribe-taking and illegal “pushbacks,” where migrants were driven back over the border they had just crossed and dropped off, in contravention of national and European laws on the treatment of asylum-seekers.

Mr. Stefanovic, Serbia’s Interior Minister, said he was aware of the allegations and had ordered an investigation into the “isolated incidents.” He said that Serbian and Hungarian police, working together, had broken up 40 smuggling rings in the past year. “These are the people trying to misuse the bad fortune of the migrants and take as much money as they can from them,” he said.

A Syrian migrant shows his bandaged feet near police station in the southern Serbian town of Presevo, near the border with Macedonia, on July 2, 2015. On the right, another couple sleeps near the same police station. Some migrants make it across the border into Hungary as a migrant family resting on a local road (centre) did. Hungary has been one of the main routes for people hoping to cross into Western Europe in the last two years. (Dimitar Dilkoff and Csaba Segesvari / AFP/Getty Images)

The overland route to Europe can be as dangerous as the Mediterranean Sea crossing. For those with money, smugglers can be hired to take migrants from one border to the next. But even the rich migrants travelling with their whole families have to dismount and sneak across each border on foot.

“At the Iranian border [with Pakistan], the police shot at us. I didn’t stop, I just kept running,” said Mr. Khan, the 18-year-old from Paktia province, speaking in broken English. Other migrants say the hardest part was wading across the Evros River that forms Turkey’s border with Greece, where every year police find bodies of those who failed to make the crossing. Others paid smugglers to take them across the Aegean Sea on rickety boats. Several migrants admitted they’d never heard of Serbia, Bulgaria or Macedonia until they were told they were in those countries.

The route from the Middle East to the Balkans shifts with the seasons. In the winter months, migrants who reach Turkey have little choice but to take their chances crossing either the Evros or the Aegean. But summer has melted the snow in the Balkan mountain range between Bulgaria and Serbia, opening an arduous alpine route for the next few months.

For much of the way, the migrants follow the train tracks, leading to an epidemic of broken ankles and twisted knees among the travellers. “Most of them have blisters on their feet, joint pains, bone pains, respiratory issues, skin problems like scabies, fleas and lice,” said Milena Radosavljevic, a doctor with Médecins sans frontières (Doctors Without Borders) who gives free consultations at The Jungle several times a week. “I think they just go on adrenaline. The human body is not built for this, walking hundreds, thousands of kilometres.”

Migrants from Afghanistan gather near an abandoned brick factory in Subotica, Serbia on June 28, 2015, as they prepare to cross the border into Hungary. So far this year nearly 70,000 migrants have crossed into Hungary illegally, most of them coming from Kosovo, Syria and Afghanistan. (Laszlo Balogh/Reuters)

‘We are not animals’

In Belgrade, where the government and police have largely taken a laissez-faire attitude to the camps near the train station, many migrants pause and gather intelligence from other travellers about the latest situation at the Hungarian border and beyond.

“We’d go to Sweden if we had the money, but we don’t have anything left,” said Ibrahim Mohammed, speaking in Arabic as he sat sharing crackers with seven other family members – including three girls under the age of 12 – in the park across from the station. The family, Palestinian refugees who lived in a camp on the outskirts of Damascus until the outbreak of Syria’s civil war, all had badly blistered feet after their 2,800-kilometre overland journey. “Right now we don’t know where we’re going tomorrow, except to keep going north,” said the 49-year-old Mr. Mohammed, a factory worker in Damascus before the war.

Though the Serbian government has recorded a spike in official asylum applications – from 5,000 in 2013, to 16,500 last year, to more than 35,000 in just the first five months of 2015 – only a tiny fraction of those truly want to stay in Serbia. (Serbia’s official figures do not include the thousands of Kosovars who have also headed north this year, fleeing economic collapse in their country. Belgrade does not recognize Kosovo, which unilaterally declared independence from Serbia seven years ago, as an independent state.)

All the European countries are safe. … In England, you go to jail if you kill a cat or a pigeon. In my country, hundreds of people are killed every day. If you want freedom, you have to come [to Europe].
Afghan migrant Baryal Hussein Khil, 27

Serbia has been criticized for approving just one asylum request in 2014, while granting temporary protection to only five others. But Mr. Stefanovic said Serbia – which is still home to tens of thousands of people who are designated as refugees from the wars in Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo – can not do more.

“We do not have enough space to shelter everybody,” he said. “We are already stretched to the maximum. We are trying to expand our asylum centres to take some more, but to be quite realistic many of these people say ‘Listen, we don’t want to live in Serbia, we are just passing through your country. We want to go to Germany, Sweden, France.’ Freedom of movement tells us that we have to let them go.”

Few here believe Hungary’s planned wall will deter that flow of people.

“If they build it, they [the migrants] will just find a way to cross it. It will raise the level of corruption, but it will not change anything,” said Jelena Hrnjak, program manager for Atina, a Serbian non-government organization that works to combat human trafficking and gender-based violence. “I don’t see how it will help the situation at all.”

Migrants prepare to enter a train to Serbia in the town of Gevgelija, on the Macedonian-Greek border, on July 9, 2015, on their way north to European countries. (Robert Atanasovski/AFP/Getty Images)

Baryal Hussein Khil scoffs at the idea a wall would keep him or any of the others camped in The Jungle from pushing forward. Remarkably, Mr. Khil is in the middle of his second overland journey from Afghanistan.

The last time, Mr. Khil said, he made it as far as Wolverhampton in central England, where he spent two years working at a car wash before he was captured in a police raid and deported back to Kabul. But the Afghan capital, he said, is even more dangerous now than when he first fled it seven years ago. So he started walking again.

This time, Mr. Khil – his dark hair greying at just 27 years old – said he wants to go through the asylum process legally. He said he’ll take up residence and look for a job in any EU country that will take him.

“All the European countries are safe. … In England, you go to jail if you kill a cat or a pigeon. In my country, hundreds of people are killed every day,” Mr. Khil said, mixing expletives with English he learned at a United Nations school in the Pakistani city of Peshawar. “If you want freedom, you have to come [to Europe]. We are not animals.”