MAJDAN – A group of migrants huddles beside a small, smoky fire inside an abandoned building in northern Serbia, the last moments of warmth before they set out into the driving snow toward the razor wire, cameras and sensors of Hungary's electrified border fence.
A few hours later, they return, their efforts to cross through Hungary and toward Western Europe thwarted by the three-meter (10-foot) fence and heavy Hungarian police patrols which, after intercepting them, escorted them back across the border into Serbia.
“I’m going to Austria, I’m going to Germany, I’m going to the Netherlands," says Muhtar Ahmad, a 26-year-old from Aleppo, Syria, who is squatting with around 35 other migrants in the makeshift camp outside the Serbian village of Majdan, a mile (less than two kilometers) from the Hungarian border.
“I’m not staying in Hungary. What’s the problem?”
As migrants from Syria, Afghanistan and other countries embark on the last stretch of their long journeys toward Europe's wealthier nations, their efforts to cross irregularly into the European Union through Hungary — and the country's contentious practice of returning them to Serbia when they are caught — have made them part of a political campaign with which Hungary's nationalist leader hopes to win an upcoming general election.
Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who polls suggest will face his closest election in more than a decade in April, is campaigning on a strict anti-immigration platform and is keen to use the prospect of a wave of migrants amassing at Hungary's border as a means to mobilize his conservative voter base.
“Just this year we stopped and detained ... more than 100,000 people,” Orban claimed at a rare appearance before journalists in December. "If the Hungarian fence had not stood there, more than 100,000 more illegal migrants would be now first in Austria, then in Germany.”
One of the most outspoken opponents of immigration in Europe, Orban has said that migration threatens to replace the continent's Christian culture, and that illegal migrants are responsible for bringing infections like COVID-19 variants into his country.
"We do not want to be an immigrant country,” Orban said during an interview with state radio this week.
As the April 3 election approaches, he has portrayed current migration pressures as higher than in 2015, when hundreds of thousands of refugees came into the EU fleeing war and poverty in the Middle East and elsewhere, and when he ordered the construction of the country's border barrier.
But figures released by Serbian officials and the EU's border and coast guard agency suggest that far fewer individuals are attempting to enter Hungary than the right-wing leader claims.
“It’s a little bit bigger number than, let’s say, two years ago, but these are not big numbers. It’s a small rise,” said Nemanja Matejic, chief officer at a migrant reception center in the northern Serbian city of Subotica, of the current level of migrants along Hungary's border.
While Hungarian police put the number of migrants intercepted by Hungarian authorities at more than 122,000, data from EU border agency Frontex showed that there were 60,540 illegal border crossing attempts last year on the Western Balkan migration route, which includes the Hungary-Serbia border.
What's more, since most migrants are making repeated attempts to cross, the number of individuals involved is far smaller still.
Serbia's Commissariat for Refugees and Migration reports that there are 4,276 migrants residing in reception centers in Serbia and another 1,000 sleeping rough.
Frontex has noted that the majority of Western Balkan crossings “can be traced back to people who have been in the region for some time and who repeatedly try to reach their target country in the EU."
Hikmad Serat, 20, from Nangarhar province, Afghanistan, took shelter in a remote abandoned building near the Serbian border town of Horgos this month as a cold snap brought temperatures to -10 C (14 F.)
Serat said he has been in Serbia for 15 months, and has lost count of the number of times he has crossed into Hungary and been returned by police.
“Many times I try, 100 times, more than 100 times … Every time, police arrest me and deport back to Serbia,” Serat said.
This practice — where police deny migrants the right to apply for asylum and escort them back across national borders — is known as a “pushback.” It has been declared unlawful by the EU’s top court, and is in violation of international asylum treaties.
Matejic, the chief of the reception center, said that migrants making dozens of crossing attempts is “typical.”
“Sometimes a guy tries one time and goes, he has luck … Sometimes they try over 50 times ... They try and try again,” he said.
Many migrants have reported abuse by police after they leave Serbian territory for Hungary, or for Croatia or Romania. This includes having mobile phones destroyed or stolen, being made to sit or kneel in the snow for hours and receiving beatings — allegations which are very difficult to independently confirm.
Romanian police didn't respond to questions from The Associated Press. But Hungary's National Police Headquarters wrote in an email that they “strongly reject unsubstantiated allegations” of abuse of migrants.
Yet Matejic said 150 cases of broken limbs were recorded by the Subotica reception center in 2019.
“Sometimes they break their phones, the police. Sometimes they take their money. Sometimes they break their legs. It’s a different experience for everybody,” Matejic said.
Orban has asked the EU to reimburse Hungary for at least half of the costs related to building, maintaining and patrolling its border fence, which he has said have amounted to 590 billion Hungarian forints ($1.9 billion) over the past six years.
Ever at odds with the EU's more liberal member states, he has also threatened to “open up a corridor along which migrants can march up to Austria, Germany and Sweden and whoever needs them.”
Despite the dangers, Faris al-Ibrahimi, a Moroccan migrant in the Subotica reception center who intends to travel on to Spain, said he was undeterred after being pushed back 27 times by Hungarian police.
“I’m still going to try. I will not give up now … I will try until I succeed," he said. “It’s an adventure. We cross, we go, they catch us, we come back, we go again. It’s like a game for us."
Follow AP’s global migration coverage at https://apnews.com/hub/migration