Why some refugees do return to the hell of their homeland

Nazim is not heading to some promised land in Western Europe. He returns, broken by misfortune and disappointment. He will literally get back on his steps from Germany to Syria. His story reads like a list of all the things that can go wrong on the way to Europe.

  • Laura Balcells (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) 'We were treated like criminals, no, like animals.' Laura Balcells (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

“Welcome to Greece” a tall billboard reads in front of the hotel.

It is the first stop after the Greek-Macedonian border, the kind of place where normally tired drivers and lonely truckers halt to spend a single night in silence. Since a few months months a more unusual clientele populates the rooms and the hotel’s restaurant.

Here, the Syrian refugees reside before crossing the border with Macedonia, at least those who can afford it. The rest sleeps outside, in the fields a little bit further. In the dining room of the hotel agreements are made, information exchanged, but most of the time is spend by endless waiting.

In the corner of the dining room sits a man with his two children. He keeps himself at a distance from the rest of the crowd. Maybe he does not care about the hopes and expectations of the other refugees.

Maybe they do not want to hear his story. Because Nazim - let’s call him like that, the man wants to remain anonymous - is not on his way to some promised land in Western Europe. He is on his way back, broken by bad luck and disappointment. He literally returns back on his steps from Germany to Syria. His story reads like a list of all that can go wrong on the way to Europe.


‘I come from Daraa, a city in southwestern Syria. I left Syria behind me in July last year, along with my parents, my brother and my two children. My wife stayed behind, she is pregnant. Once in Turkey, we made the crossing to Greece immediately. A nightmare.’

‘It went wrong. The driver of my car was drunk. He got off the road, and in that accident I broke some ribs and bruised my leg.’

‘Off the coast of Samos (a Greek island in the Aegean Sea) our ship water made water. Miraculously, the coast guard rescued us. Then we were transferred to Athens. For twelve days, me and my family slept on the street, then we came here by Thessaloniki, to the border with Macedonia. After five days, a smuggler brought us to Lojane (a village on the border between Macedonia and Serbia).’

‘Once in Serbia, my family was dispersed by the smugglers in different cars that would bring us to the border with Hungary. But it went wrong. The driver of my car was drunk. He got off the road, and in that accident I broke some ribs and bruised my leg.’

‘When we arrived in northern Serbia our money was gone. The only remaining option was to cross towards Hungary on our own. A regular taxi brought us right up to the border, where we continued on foot, which was very hard after that accident. But my GPS connection faded out, and after eight hours of walking we were hopelessly lost.’

A Hungarian nightmare

‘At two o’clock in the night I saw a watchtower. We walked around it in a wide loop, but the Hungarian border police noticed us anyway. Our arrest went very harshly.’

‘As criminals, no, as animals we were treated.’

‘Me, with my bruised ribs, my brother and my father of 67 years old were handcuffed with our hands behind his back, head down. I begged the border police not to do that, not in the sight of the children, but they sneered at us to keep silent, and that if we wanted to put up a big mouth against the police, we had to do that in Syria.’

‘We were taken to a small detention centre near the border, a place where there wasn’t even a toilet. Everybody had to undress for control, my mother, my brother’s wife and children.’

‘I asked a for a doctor to examine me and my mother, but it was only possible if we paid for it. As criminals, no, as animals we were treated.’

‘When the Hungarian police wanted to take my fingerprints, I refused. I knew I would get stuck if I gave my prints in Hungary, and we definitely wanted to Germany. That did not go down too well with the Hungarians. They gave me a good thrashing and thrown into an isolation cell without food and  water. But the worst thing was that they separated me from my children.’

‘Eventually I gave up and printed.  After they registered my fingerprints we got a train ticket and the order  to go to an open camp. But instead we left the train and went to Germany.’

‘Even the immigration officers in Munich asked me what the hell had happened to me to look like that.’

Nazim pulls out a document from his folder with papers. ‘Look, this is how I looked after my detention in Hungary.’ The picture shows the same man, but with sunken cheeks and puffy eyes. ‘Even the immigration officers in Munich asked me what the hell had happened to me to look like that.’

‘In Germany, they split our family and housed us each in a different city. After four months I received  a paper with the order  to leave Germany and return to Hungary because my fingerprints were registered there and  I had to complete my asylum request in that country.’

‘Oddly enough, the applications of my brother and my parents have been approved. I made an appealed, without success. Finally, in the middle of the night, the police took me and my children from our beds and put us on a plane back to Hungary.’

All in vain

‘My car, my tv, I sold everything to pay for my flight. More than 6000 euro I have lost. The whole trip was a descent into hell.’

Nazim brings up another document, a handwritten statement that he renounces to submit a new application for asylum in Hungary.

‘Hungary is the worst country in Europe to end up as refugees. I can not spend years in detention while my wife is still in Syria. My children need their mother, and she needs us. I left the county immediately and returned to Serbia. Tomorrow I’ll go to Thessaloniki, then I’ll try to pass the Turkish border.’

Illegally again, as he came, but in the other direction, back to Syria. The European dream has become a bitter disappointment.

Also in this dossier:

‘Europe, still one country ahead’
Greece: The starting line
MO*reporter undercover in human trafficking in Macedonia
Bulgaria: Exquisite back door to the Balkan
‘I saw on TV how everyone was leaving Kosovo, so I went myself’
‘Do you know the way to Hungary?’
‘Welcome to Hungary (But not wholeheartedly)’
‘Human traffickers never keep their word’

When Nazim finishes his story, he takes out his cell phone. Photos of a bare room in a German refugee centre, with only a single mattress for both father and children. The last moments before being deported to Hungary. His son and daughter, both in tears. The last thing he wants to show a short film he made whilst returning through Serbia. The two children are on the train tracks, which seem to stretch out endlessly. A captivating image of a journey that ultimately lead to nothing.

‘My car, my TV, I sold everything to pay for my flight. More than 6000 euro I have lost, I return with 150 euro in my pockets. The whole trip was a descent into hell. The worst thing is that my wife, stuck in one of the most horrible places in the world, dreamed every day that she would join us and close her husband and children in the arms again. Now we are on our way back to here, empty-handed. Europe, it is just a lie.’

This report was produced with the support of Fonds Pascal Decroos.

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Over de auteur

  • Freelance journalist

    Toon Lambrechts is freelance journalist tegen beter weten in. Behalve in MO* Magazine en op MO.be is hij ook te lezen in onder andere Knack, EOS en Vice.