THESSALONIKI, Greece (AP) — Migrants from Africa, Asia and the Middle East take many routes to cross illegally into the European Union, and all are fraught with likely disappointment and occasional danger. The newest path, through the EU’s Balkans back door, comes with a cruel twist: an epic 250-kilometer (150-mile) walk that is surging in popularity even though most who try it fail.
This month, The Associated Press traveled for 10 days and nights with a 45-member group of West African migrants trying to reach Germany and France via Hungary, the terminus of the Western Balkans route.
Many trekkers have faced years of failure to reach the heart of Europe by other sea and air routes, and soon discover the new path makes its own peculiar demands on those who try it.
Here is the migrants’ story from their February 27 assembly in the northern Greek city of Thessaloniki through 10 days of mounting agony and, for all but a lucky handful, defeat.
The 32 men and 11 women packed into a two-bedroom basement apartment have left West Africa in search of a better life in Europe. It’s taken them months, some even years, to reach this moment of hope. Two of the women have brought along 10-month-old children born during the journey — the boy in Greece, the girl in Turkey.
Most have come via Turkey and, after paying smugglers around 1,000 euros ($1,100) each, sailed to the nearby Greek islands to claim asylum on EU soil. But none of them wants to stay in Greece, with its unending debt crisis and high unemployment.
To escape means heading north to Hungary via the former Yugoslavia, and a key link in the journey — Macedonia — must be covered on foot because of stiff criminal penalties for traffickers.
The smuggler, a former soldier who provided AP access to the group on condition of anonymity, sternly tells his clients to be ready for a challenge that will require tents, sleeping bags, cold-weather gear, good shoes and plenty of socks. He promises to deliver them to the Serbian border in 10 days for a price averaging $500 a head. A few are sent to shop for last-minute supplies. All sleep fitfully on the floor.
To the border
It takes half a day for the entire group to board buses at a Thessaloniki central station full of rival groups of Asian and Arab migrants — and a large contingent of immigration police checking IDs. Two of the 45 Africans fall at this first hurdle, facing arrest for failing to carry papers identifying them as asylum-seekers.
The rest start their long walk an hour north in the Greek border town of Polikastro. They follow an active rail line over a rickety wooden bridge through woods for 10 hours, reaching the frontier with Macedonia shortly before midnight. It’s deemed too late to cross. The weather is cool but fine, and they sleep in the open air.
The next night — most hiking will be done after dark to reduce the risk of detection, arrest and deportation back to Greece — they cross the border under the noses of a hilltop police observation post. After running in small groups across a major highway, they pitch 10 tents in Macedonia amid high spirits.
Path to perdition
Infighting begins as one migrant, an aide to the smuggler, loses his phone and demands everyone be searched. The group traverses a mountain ridge, a road junction, cabbage fields and streams during a 40-kilometer trek that concludes at 4 a.m. under a freeway overpass. A 34-year-old Malian woman with leg pain forces the group to stop midway. Men carry her for a half-hour, then say she must walk or be left behind.
The next morning, suspicions of theft among migrants explode into shouted insults. The smuggler warns he’ll march them all back to Athens if they don’t make peace. They do. The weather turns increasingly harsh as heavy rains turn into snow. The two 10-month-old infants cannot be consoled in the nighttime cold and, as the group falls two days behind schedule, mounting hunger gnaws at morale.
The group is reduced to 42 as a 41-year-old Ivorian, who uses a cane, cannot keep walking and is left near a village to be sent back to Greece.
On the sixth night of walking, the group finally reaches the town of Nogotino, still less than halfway to the Serb border. Morale is rock bottom, with many questioning why they had attempted the trip. Some blame the women and children for slowing them down.
Two days later, the snow has worsened and some tents have broken. Afghan and Syrian migrants have beaten the Africans to abandoned buildings for shelter, and the groups don’t mix for fear of being robbed.
Casualties and chaos
On the ninth day, the Cameroonian mother of a 10-month-old boy says she cannot go on and they are left at night at an Orthodox church. The remaining 40 continue to follow the Vardar River north to the first large town on the route, Veles. The smuggler says they must wait until late and stick to the train tracks.
But after 145 kilometers (87 miles) on foot, their luck runs out. Youths spot the Africans and shout abuse at them. Two policemen appear and, once they see the large numbers of migrants, use their clubs on the stragglers. Five are arrested, including the mother of the 10-month-old girl. Amid the melee, the child is carried away by another migrant. Another woman breaks her ankle as she flees and is hospitalized.
The next day, the smuggler and all but 13 of his group are in Macedonian custody and are shipped, with scores of Asian and Arab migrants, back to Greece in trucks.
As soon as the migrants are unloaded at the border and ordered to walk back into Greece, many of the Arabs and Asians make a prompt U-turn, dissolve into the woods and try their luck again in Macedonia. Their resilience illustrates the migrants’ maxim on this trail: Every time you fall down the map, get climbing up again.
The demoralized Africans retreat to their Thessaloniki safehouse to reorganize. A few, including the mother of the 10-month-old boy, quit and return to Athens.
Ten days after the Veles debacle, the smuggler sets out again with 33 clients, including the mother of the 10-month-old girl. The child is waiting on the Serbian border, part of the 13 migrants from the first trip who reached a safehouse on the border with Serbia. Without children to carry, the second mission makes better time — until police arrest all of them south of Veles.
The smuggler this week has begun a third attempt involving at least 20 veterans of the first two failures. The mother separated from her child is coming. It’s her third try in three weeks to reach her husband, mother and other relatives in Paris.
As the hike resumes, a handful of the migrants who evaded police at Veles have sent messages of triumph to their friends: They paid traffickers 100 euros ($110) a head to be smuggled through Serbia and are in Hungary, gateway for borderless EU travel.
Given enough chances, the smuggler says, all of them should make it.
Copyright 2015 The Associated Press