Hungary border poses challenge to migrants and police

By Thomas Escritt ROSZKE, Hungary (Reuters) - For the migrants slipping across the Hungarian border, it is just one more challenge on their way to a new life further west. For the police officers sent to try and manage the influx, it's a task some find exhausting and thankless. In the small hours of Wednesday, hundreds of refugees crossed from Serbia, passing police huddling around a campfire and joining other migrants sleeping wrapped in blankets against the bitter cold. Yet more crossed over cornfields nearby in a darkness so total that they could be heard, but not seen, from a metre away. An impromptu tent city has taken shape at the point where the railway pierces the fence that Hungary has built along the border in an attempt to stem a swelling human tide of almost 170,000 migrants since the beginning of the year. The police, exhausted and cold, did little to stop the latest group of migrants, 2,770 of whom arrived on Tuesday. Few accepted the officers' offer of transport to the brand-new reception centre just down the road in the town of Roszke. Once identified, the migrants fleeing wars, persecution and poverty in countries including Syria, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Rwanda and Nigeria, would have to request asylum in their country of entry, according to European Union rules, and almost all want to continue to Germany. "I have friends and family in Germany, all over," said Sami, an Iranian Christian architect, one of many national groups that have found themselves in southern Hungary. Few are impressed by the Roszke reception centre, overcrowded and basic. "Come on man, we'll be stuck for five days," said an African man to his companion, dragging him away from the waiting bus. STARS ABOVE A hundred metres away it is dark enough on the Hungarian Plain to see the constellations above. Volunteers and refugees not yet asleep flocked like moths around the single light next to the doctors' tent. By 1 a.m., most of the migrants are asleep, with only the occasional sound of crying babies disturbing the darkened tent city. Those still awake are given sweaters and blankets to protect them from the night chill. Occasionally a policeman comes to warn Hungarian and foreign volunteers that another hundred refugees are coming up the track. At around 2 a.m., another group came down the railway line. Queuing for sandwiches distributed by German volunteers, Ahmed heaved a sigh of relief as he prepared to sleep. "I left Aleppo 20 days ago," the Syrian said. "I had to get away from the war." The volunteers who form the tented city's ad hoc staff are Hungarian doctors and activists, German and Austrian students, and British nurses. They look after migrants in need of medical help, setting bones and treating diabetics. One woman they helped had gone into labour in her sixth month as she walked the final few hundred metres down the track into the European Union's passport-free Schengen zone - a promised land through which migrants can pass unhindered on their way to Germany and other destinations. "Baby vitamin?" a heavily pregnant Syrian woman asked of the two paediatric nurses from London who had rescheduled their shifts to fly out and care for new arrivals. "His oxygen levels are low, and we think he has broken ribs," one of the nurses, Monette, said of another man. SLEEPLESS NIGHTS The few dozen police who man the camp 24 hours a day feel misunderstood by the migrants. "We want to help them, to take them to be registered, but none of them realise we're here to help," said one, whose brigade was about to be bussed the three hours back to their barracks in Budapest after a shift that had started 16 hours before. "None of us has seen our family for three weeks," he said. "Families are falling apart over this." Police and other authorities are struggling to cope with a refugee influx that has expanded relentlessly over the summer. Hungary's defence minister resigned earlier this week after delays in completing the border fence and a police lawyer told Reuters that officers were so overburdened that authorities were considering deploying an elite anti-terrorism and close protection unit to reinforce them at the border. As she bedded down for the night alongside her husband Reza, Sami clutched a water-damaged bible and the pink shawl she used to bail out their motorboat as it took on water during the eight-hour crossing from Turkey to Greece and then waved to attract the attention of the Greek coastguard. "I'm keeping this," she said, "It's lucky." (Reporting by Thomas Escritt; Editing by Giles Elgood)