A family torn apart: How Hungary's hypocritical immigration policy left one Arab man stuck in Serbia alone

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Russia's invasion of Ukraine exposed the double standards of European countries in accepting refugees. Hungary is one such example. For non-Ukrainians like Lebanese citizen Samir, now trapped in Serbia, his life and future hang in the balance.

"The forest is my home," says Samir* pointing to the wood in front of him. “The camp is overcrowded, and the sanitary conditions are disgusting. At least I am alone there.”

On the outskirts of Sombor, Serbia is a reception and transit centre managed by the Serbian Commissariat for Refugees and Migration. It is a camp where basic accommodation is provided to people in need of international protection but who are not interested in seeking asylum in Serbia.

Due to over-population in the camp, many people seek refuge in abandoned buildings nearby, makeshift settlements or in the woods, in precarious conditions and without access to basic services.

"I have tried every solution, but without documents I cannot get out of Serbia legally. Rather than living in this hell I am thinking of trying to return to Lebanon. There my life is at risk, but at least I have a house, a bed and a shower, a fridge with food, and dignity"

The people who live here find themselves in a space-time limbo in which they must decide quickly about their future because of the difficulty they have in entering EU territory through Hungary.

In fact, while Hungary has opened its borders to receive hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian refugees fleeing the war, it remains intransigent regarding the reception of refugees arriving from other countries.

This double standard, however, creates a series of contradictions and errors in the reception system, perfectly embodied in Samir's story.

Escaped from Ukraine, but rejected in Serbia

Samir is a young Lebanese man who had to flee his country because of death threats he received after making a journalistic report. "After fleeing Lebanon, I lived in various countries until I arrived in Ukraine. There I met my current wife, and we recently had a child."

His eyes shone with love and melancholy, proudly displaying a tattoo dedicated to his son. But immediately anguish returns to his look.

A family of refugees fleeing Ukraine walk through the Hungarian countryside
A family of refugees fleeing Ukraine walk through the Hungarian countryside [Getty Images]

"As soon as the war started, my family and I decided to run away. We arrived in Hungary, at the border with Ukraine, and from there we took a car to get to Austria,” Samir explains.

"Seventy kilometres from the border, the police stopped our car for a check, and when they saw my Lebanese passport, they made me get out of the car, despite the fact that I had all the documents showing that I was living legally in Ukraine."

To prove that his words are true, Samir looks for the photos on his phone and shows his marriage certificate, his son's birth certificate and the photo of his passport, on which he had a valid Schengen visa.

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Samir, in fact, would have the right to stay on European Union territory because the EU decided to provide temporary protection to all Ukrainian citizens and their families who lived in Ukraine before 24 February 2022 and had to leave because of the war.

This, however, did not happen, and the young Lebanese remained trapped in a flawed and discriminatory Hungarian reception system bug.

"The police made me get out of the car and forced my wife and son to drive on to Austria," he continues. "You may not believe it, but I can't stop thinking about the screams of my wife and son when they forced them to go on without me." Samir's eyes fill up and a tear falls from his eyes that are almost expressionless but imbued with intense pain.

"Samir embodies the contradictions of a selective and discriminatory reception system such as the Hungarian one, which on the one hand welcomes, but on the other continues to block migrants"

After being stopped, Samir says he was detained for three days by the Hungarian police. "The first two days they detained me in a room without food and water, there was not even a bathroom.

"On the third day, they moved me to another room and gave me a glass of water. Then they put me in a police car and deported me to Serbia. A Tunisian and an Iraqi man were with me," he reports, revealing the disorientation he felt once he arrived in Serbia, a completely unknown territory.

"I arrived in this unfamiliar country with nothing, the police had taken all my documents, my phone, I had no clothes. Luckily, when I arrived, I found some helpful people who gave me something to sleep and eat, and above all a phone," through which he managed to get in touch with his wife and son. "I tried the game seven times since I've been here, but I was always rejected in Serbia. But I consider myself lucky because I have never been beaten by the police or the military."

Samir is currently trapped in Serbia, as he is no longer in possession of his documents. "I have tried every solution, but without documents, I cannot get out of Serbia legally. Rather than living in this hell, I am thinking of trying to return to Lebanon. There my life is at risk, but at least I have a house, a bed and a shower, a fridge with food, and dignity.”

A selective reception system

Samir embodies the contradictions of a selective and discriminatory reception system such as the Hungarian one, which on the one hand welcomes, but on the other continues to block migrants.

“People are unable to enter Hungary illegally,” explains Nikola Popović, Protection Assistant at the Humanitarian Center for Integration and Tolerance (HCIT). “There are multiple defence systems, such as a very high fence, thermal cameras, constant patrols, Frontex military, Hungarian military, Hungarian border police as well as regular police, so the border crossing is dangerous for migrants both physically and mentally."

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Currently, the only way to enter Hungary for non-Ukrainians is to present a “statement of intent” at the Hungarian embassies in Kyiv or Belgrade to even initiate an asylum procedure.

These ways further restrict the already extremely limited Hungarian access to asylum.

A system that on the one hand has decided to adapt to EU policies and welcome those arriving from Ukraine, but on the other remains extremely violent towards those arriving from other parts of the world, such as Samir, who is stuck in Serbia because of his origins, even though his documents testified that he was legally on Hungarian territory.

The Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjártó left no doubt about the future of reception in Hungary, in his speech to the 49th Regular Session at the UN Human Rights Council. “We don’t allow any illegal migrant to enter the territory of Hungary, and we will always protect Hungary from these people. And I have to reject any comparison being made between with those who are fleeing from the war and those who are illegal migrants.”

(* The name is fictitious to protect the identity of the respondent)

Anna Toniolo is an Italian freelance journalist with a focus mainly on human rights, gender issues, civil society and extremism between Europe and the Middle East.

Follow her on Twitter: @annatoniolo5 

Carlotta Giauna is a video and photo reporter specialising in video shooting and editing. She has worked in Africa, the Maghreb, the Balkans, Greece, Turkey and Lebanon and published for major Italian and international newspapers.