Halted in Hungary

Aleksandrina Ginkova

Border militias fill a vacuum in eastern Europe, sometimes with the state, sometimes against it

Three migrants who identified themselves as Pakistanis are stopped and held by a Hungarian 'civic patrol' near the village of Asotthalom on Hungary's southern border with Serbia. Photo: Aleksandrina Ginkova

Three men walk in the grass near the road. They are dressed in dark, dusty clothes.

“Where are you from, guys?”

“Pakistan,” they reply in unison.

“When did you leave Pakistan?”

“Six months ago,” replies one.

My fixer and I notice them on a road outside Asotthalom, a village surrounded by maize and sunflowers in southern Hungary near the border with Serbia. It’s a hot summer’s day and the men are carrying small backpacks. One of them shows me his feet. He wears socks, but no shoes, which he says he lost.

Someone must have noticed them, for within minutes a car arrives carrying the deputy mayor of the village and two men who are members of a so-called ‘civic patrol’.

I am here to report on patrol’s activities for an investigation with the Balkan Fellowship for Journalistic Excellence into a similar phenomenon that has emerged in Bulgaria. We had interviewed the deputy mayor and the patrolmen earlier; now we could see them in action.

The Asotthalom civic patrol shot to international renown last year at the height of Europe’s migrant crisis, when hundreds of thousands of people from the Middle East, Africa and Asia were coursing across the Balkans en route to western Europe.

In Bulgaria, armed men roam the forests and mountains of Bulgaria’s southern border region with Turkey, ostensibly independent of the state in a challenge to the power of the elected government.

In Hungary, however, they were hired by local authorities, and won the attention of foreign media with a video message in the style of an action movie by Asotthalom mayor Laszlo Toroczkai, featuring patrolmen on motorbikes and horseback to deter migrants from trying to enter Hungary.

The tide of migrants – men and women trudging through fields and along railway tracks with tired young children in their arms – has ebbed since Hungary’s right-wing government under Prime Minister Viktor Orban erected a fence the length of the border with Serbia. But the divisions awakened by their plight look here to stay.

“We are approaching the limits of being a civilised country,” says Mark Kekesi, a Hungarian activist with a civil rights group called Migszol which advocates for the rights of asylum seekers and refugees. “We are one step from outright Nazism.”

Zsolt Takacs, a civic patrol member in the Asotthalom, is unabashed. “I accept the Third Reich. Anybody can say what they want, but Hitler did huge things. He built up a country,” he said, stressing that he was speaking as a private individual and not as a member of the patrol.

For some of the guards, the migrants are part of a conspiracy to bring down Europe, beliefs stoked by Orban’s frequent warnings that the continent’s identity, economy and “Christian faith” are at stake. I have heard similar sentiments among the Bulgarian militiamen and ordinary Bulgarians; it’s hard to tell whether they represent a fringe minority or reflect a growing body of opinion in societies across eastern Europe.

“A lot of young men come who are approaching the age when they will make families,” said another patrol member, Nagy Sandor. “They will try to conquer a western woman and their child will be raised according to his religion. When the child grows up, he will stab you with a knife, because it is the trend in that culture.”

The three Pakistanis say they have travelled through Turkey, Greece, Macedonia and Serbia. They give their ages as 14, 18 and 20 years old. Asked why they left for Europe, the 18-year-old says: “War. In Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria, Palestine...”

None of them have identification documents. The younger two say that in Pakistan IDs are issued only after the age of 18. The eldest says he left his at home. The Hungarian patrol members become angry, saying the Pakistanis destroyed their documents.

The youngest says he wants to go to France because he has a brother there. The other two, who say they are cousins, want to reach relatives in Italy. Sandor is unimpressed: “They don’t have a profession, they don’t know languages; what do they want to do in Italy?”

Without explanation, the shoe-less man tosses his dirty socks into the grass. One of the patrol members orders him to pick them up, saying they pollute the woods. He complies.

The police arrive and take over. The Pakistanis are led away and the civil patrol’s work is done. Their shift runs for the next 24 hours, and probably years to come.

Aleksandrina Ginkova writes about international affairs for the Bulgarian news website Dnevnik.bg. For the Balkan Fellowship for Journalistic Excellence, Aleksandrina is investigating the emergence of armed militias patrolling Bulgaria’s borders for migrants.