Reporter Richard Engel Describes the Harsh Conditions for Refugees Fleeing Syria

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The swelling refugee crisis has seen almost 400,000 people flee to Europe by sea. In July alone, 107,000 migrants illegally entered Europe, according to Frontex, an agency tasked with managing and securing borders in the European Union. The heartbreaking photograph of 3-year-old Syrian refugee Aylan Kurdi's body washed up on a Turkish shore went viral in early September and awoke the world to the extent of the crisis.

NBC chief foreign correspondent Richard Engel spoke with Mic from the frontlines of the migrant crisis on the Hungarian-Serbian border, where thousands of migrants and refugees are fleeing to Europe every day. Hungary's far-right, anti-migrant government has been less than receptive to the flow of migrants coming in through Serbia — many of whom are simply trying to reach more welcoming countries, such as Germany and Austria. 

"Hungarian police are trying to slow them down, control them, process each case but is struggling to do it, which has created many sad scenes of frustrated and desperate people," Engel told Mic. "If Hungary finishes the fence and seals the border, it will dam this tragic river and a lake of people will build up in Serbia."

The EU has vacillated on the matter of whether to insist countries accept a certain number of migrants through a quota system; member states failed to come up with an agreement Monday. "The quota system at this stage fails to address several big questions: who gets picked, how does the process work and what happens to the rest of the people?" Engel asked. And even as some countries are stepping up to take in refugees, countless more remain.

"If Germany accepts 40 or 50 or even 100 thousand, what does it do with the others? Does it round them up and deport them, if so to where? There have already been some acts of violence against refugees and migrants, history suggests there will be more," Engel said.

Amid scenes of desperation and exhaustion, Engel shared his thoughts on the wider issue at hand. 

Mic: Given all the disturbing images over the past year or two of the swelling migrant crisis, why do you think it took Aylan Kurdi for the world to stop and take notice?

Richard Engel: The image of young boy was a tipping point. Refugees have been living in parks and on the streets in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon for years. But once children started washing up on Europe's shores, it became a symbol of a world that doesn't seem to care. 

Mic: Do you think Hungary's staunchly anti-migrant stance and the fortification of their shared border with Serbia will make it more difficult or dangerous for migrants to reach welcoming countries like Germany?

RE: The refugees and migrants are flowing into Europe like a river. Thousands a day are streaming north from Greece, through Macedonia and Serbia and into Hungary. Hungarian police are trying to slow them down, control them, process each case but is struggling to do it, which has created many sad scenes of frustrated and desperate people. If Hungary finishes the fence and seals the border, it will dam this tragic river and a lake of people will build up in Serbia. I suspect they will try to find new ways into Hungary or alternate paths around the country. 

Mic: Do you believe the proposed quota by the EU of member countries having to absorb a certain number of migrants is the right solution or will it just galvanize anti-migrant sentiments in less receptive nations, thus making it a hostile environment?

RE: The quota system at this stage fails to address several big questions: who gets picked, how does the process work and what happens to the rest of the people? If Germany accepts 40 or 50 or even 100 thousand, what does it do with the others? Does it round them up and deport them, if so to where? There have already been some acts of violence against refugees and migrants, history suggests there will be more.

Mic: What was one of the most surprising things you discovered on the Hungarian-Serbian border?

RE: The whole thing is strange. I am surprised every time I see a group of people from Baghdad or Aleppo with backpacks and carrying babies walking in a field full of Hungarian dairy cows. I speak to the people and I know their neighborhoods in Baghdad. We talk nostalgically about their favorite shops for baklava. They seem so far from home. The new arrivals don't understand a word of the Hungarian language or really know where they are. An Iraqi asked me which way it is to Sweden. I pointed north and told him it's over a thousand miles from here. He said nothing and moved on.

Mic: What are the conditions like in Hungarian refugee camps and under what circumstances are refugees actually allowed to leave?

RE: In theory, people can leave the camps. In practice, human rights groups describe the conditions as poor and prison like. There has been a lot of confusion regarding the camps. A Hungarian lawyer told me even she doesn't completely understand the rules and practices.

Mic: What do you think would be an appropriate response, if any, from the U.S. regarding the crisis?

RE: The only long-term solution is for Washington and other world powers to work to end the war in Syria. In the short term, Europe needs to decide if it is going to welcome people or not because as of now different governments are speaking with different voices creating anger and disappointment.

Mic: As to a macro approach, do you believe attempts to stabilize the countries from which people are fleeing or construct a more systematic/reliable approach to welcoming said migrants is more sustainable?

RE: The only real answer to this crisis is for the international community to find a way to bring peace and stability to the war zones and the failed states that people are escaping from.