As Hungary rushes to complete the first phase of a controversial fence along its Serbian border, migrants – mainly refugees from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq – are desperately trying to reach the country, which marks the beginning of the European Union’s passport-free Schengen zone. When the fence is up, entry will become much harder.

Story by Dan Nolan, pictures by András D Hajdú 

In the past month, the numbers of migrants intercepted daily at the border has risen to about 1,500, up from around 1,000 a day in the previous month, and 500 a day during June, according to police statistics. 

 Hungarian soldiers construct a razor-wire fence at the Serbian border as Syrian refugees about to enter the country emerge from the fields behind

Hungarian soldiers construct a razor-wire fence at the Serbian border as Syrian refugees about to enter the country emerge from the fields behind

The country is bracing itself for a further spike in the number of crossings as thousands of migrants broke through police lines at the border between Greece and Macedonia at the weekend. 

The Macedonian government declared a state of emergency last week and sealed off its border with Greece, causing a temporary bottleneck at the southern end of the Western Balkans route, which an unprecedented number of refugees are using to reach the EU. By Sunday, Macedonia had relented, and the migrants were free to move north towards Serbia once again.

Late last week, IRIN witnessed a face-off between a group of around 50 Syrians – many of them women and children – and officials at the border in Röszke, a remote Hungarian village that has become the main entry point for migrants crossing into the country from Serbia. 

 Among the group in a stand-off with border officials are seven sisters, aged between six and 24, who have travelled from Damascus with their parents

Among the group in a stand-off with border officials are seven sisters, aged between six and 24, who have travelled from Damascus with their parents

A father cradled his feverish son, while another Syrian man, just metres away, called over to IRIN: “Should we cross over or not? We don’t know.” 

A jeep from the EU border authority Frontex, which has helped beef up border controls in Roszke, quickly arrived at the scene to offer back-up. “If they step over the border, they are breaking the law,” a Hungarian border guard said. 

But with no better option, the group crossed the frontier, which was marked by no more than a ditch.

The father of the sick child asked for a doctor. “My son is very ill, his clothes are wet and we have been walking for three days,” he said. 

 A Syrian father opts to cross the border so that his ill son could receive medical treatment

A Syrian father opts to cross the border so that his ill son could receive medical treatment

Within minutes another group of Syrians had been rounded up to join the first group. They waited together in weary anticipation of what was to come. 

 The second group of Syrian refugees are escorted over the border

The second group of Syrian refugees are escorted over the border

Hungary hopes to reduce illegal entries into the country by 85 percent with the six-foot razor wire fence. Teams of soldiers are constructing it just 200 metres away from where the Syrians have crossed. 

 Soldiers are constructing the fence in six-hour shifts, 12 hours a day. The wire is made by convicts in the steel town of Dunaújváros

Soldiers are constructing the fence in six-hour shifts, 12 hours a day. The wire is made by convicts in the steel town of Dunaújváros

Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has set a 31 August deadline for completion of the first phase of the fence, which will stretch along the entire length of its 175-kilometre border with Serbia. An additional 12-foot barrier is set for completion by November.

The Orbán-led government has already passed a slew of anti-immigration laws under which all claims made by those arriving from Serbia will be automatically rejected. In addition, a new penal code will impose prison terms of "up to four years" on those who damage the fence. Critics have described the new legislation as a violation of Hungary’s obligations under the 1951 Refugee Convention. 

From the border, the Syrian migrants were marched with a police escort to a field about a mile away, where they were told to wait. When the rain stopped, some set fire to plastic bags and huddled around them. Several groups of migrants trudged along a train track in the distance. 

 The intercepted refugees wait for a coach to transport them to a temporary camp for asylum seekers in nearby Szeged

The intercepted refugees wait for a coach to transport them to a temporary camp for asylum seekers in nearby Szeged

Mazwah, 22, was the second-eldest of seven sisters who had travelled from Damascus with their parents. She was anxious to reach her husband in Austria but unsure what to do next. “I don’t want to be fingerprinted here, but if I refuse they will send me back over the border, and I want to stay with my family," she told IRIN.

The coaches that eventually came and collected the migrants took them to a temporary camp for asylum seekers outside Szeged, around 16 kilometres from the border.

 The coach departs for Szeged. The authorities say they try to keep families together

The coach departs for Szeged. The authorities say they try to keep families together

Some locals are deeply sympathetic. For the past two months, around 200 regular volunteers from the organisation Migszol (Migrant-Solidarity) have been providing food, water, travel information and even free wifi to migrants outside Szeged train station. 

Migrants who can afford it employ the services of smugglers who hang around the station with offers of cars to drive them to Budapest or Austria or even further west. The rest take their chances on the trains.

Outside the station, Rashit, 23, told IRIN that he had been “walking day and night” since leaving Damascus a month ago. He said he was planning to go to Belgium to join his uncle who has been living there for six years. 

 “Syria has big problems, it is full of terrorists,” says Rashit

“Syria has big problems, it is full of terrorists,” says Rashit

Hazem Alali, 27, had been working in a car parts factory when war broke out in Syria. He had travelled here with his mother and brother from Damascus, but said his father was missing, while his brother and sister-in-law were in prison. “Why? I don’t know," he said.

 Hazem still has a wound above his left eye from a beating by Syrian police officers over a year ago

Hazem still has a wound above his left eye from a beating by Syrian police officers over a year ago

On the Szeged-Budapest train, a group of men from Pakistan told IRIN they encountered no problems crossing the border.

 This group of Pakistani men say they have been travelling for three months and had no problem getting over the fence

This group of Pakistani men say they have been travelling for three months and had no problem getting over the fence

They may be among the last to gain such easy entry into the country. Construction of the razor-wire fence is proceeding on schedule, according to Hungary’s interior and defence ministers, who visited the border at the weekend.