These families are survivors of a savage civil war. They're also an excellent business opportunity

People smuggling is Eastern Europe's new growth industry.

It was midnight on the Hungarian bank of the Danube. Ibrahim, an Albanian from Kosovo, waited nervously, hidden in the trees, pulling his wife and children closer. It was a summer night, warm and balmy. The waters flowed fast in front of them, running dark and high in the pitch blackness. Austria was just a few yards away.

As they huddled together, the only sounds the Albanians could hear were their own breathing, and the hoot of owls in the nearby forest. A few yards away stood a group of friends and neighbours, from their village in Kosovo. They waited for the fleet of boats the people-smugglers promised would soon arrive and spirit them over the river, to Austria and the West, which they hoped would provide them with a new life far from the Serb army that was laying waste to their homeland.

It was, they hoped, the end of a long journey overland from Kosovo, heartland of the Balkans. Ibrahim had sold everything he owned to pay for his family's illegal passage to be West. The people-smugglers had brought the families up through southern Serbia, negotiating a passage through checkpoints and road blocks, until they reached Hungary.

Ibrahim's family was one of several that had paid thousands of deutsche marks, the only currency of worth in Kosovo, to be transported out of Yugoslavia and then illegally on to Austria and Germany. There Ibrahim's brother and his family were waiting for them. Once they had crossed the riverbank they would be in the West, and the lack of internal border controls within the EU would aid their passage on to Germany. At least, that was the plan.

Torches flashed in the night, beckoning them forward just a few yards across the swirling waters, thought Ibrahim. He waved his wife and children forward, looking out for the promised flotilla of boats.

Except that these were not the people-smugglers. Instead, the men wore the uniform of the Hungarian border guards. The Albanians were arrested and taken, not across the Danube, but back inside Hungary, to a refugee camp in the border city of Gyor. Ibrahim and his family had got so near, but were still so far.

The Hungarian-Austrian border is now Europe's front line in the immigration war. Chaos in the Balkans, the war between Turks and Kurds, even the onward march of the Taliban across Afghanistan have released an international human tide, trying to cross the final frontier before the glittering lights of Vienna, Frankfurt and Berlin.

On one side of this divide are the people-smuggling networks set up by organised crime, which use state-of-the-art communications technology and highly sophisticated computer equipment to forge documents and papers to move tens of thousands of migrants across the globe.

Based across eastern Europe, the former Soviet Union and Turkey, people- smugglers use routes and networks originally set up to move drugs and weapons. Now human beings are a more profitable cargo.

"The people-smugglers have built up a hi-tech network, stretching from the departure country to the organisers based in Budapest, their contacts on the Hungarian border and then through to Germany and Austria," explains Major Nemes Zoltan, of the Hungarian Border Guards Criminal Intelligence division.

"Convoys are organised with military precision. Each vehicle is equipped with mobile telephones. With its driver using night-vision goggles, a forward reconnaissance unit scouts the path ahead, looking for border guards while continually reporting back to the convoy leader. A rear-guard vehicle watches the back of the convoy. At the border the local members take the convoy over. They either cross through the green [ie, open countryside] border, or use forged documents or secret compartments in the vehicles."

Lined up against these powerful international criminal networks are the Hungarian border guards, with their rickety Lada jeeps and obsolete computer equipment.

"The people-smugglers are professional businessmen and they want to preserve their business. They steal the emigrants out of the camps, and sometimes even give them their money back if they don't get through. They are highly organised, using the best technology, the most modern transportation networks and information systems," says General Balazs Novaki, chief of the Hungarian border guard.

In the middle of this battle are caught the migrants themselves, dazed and confused after days-long journeys, who have been stripped of their papers and possessions by the people-smugglers before being abandoned to the authorities. It is a black trade in human misery.

"I wanted to take my children out of the war in Kosovo," says Ibrahim. "There is no war in my village yet, but there is already fighting nearby between the KLA and the Serbs."

Conditions at the Gyor camp have been condemned by UNHCR inspectors from Vienna. Inmates live in cramped and stuffy rooms, and must use dirty toilets and bathrooms. About 170 foreigners are currently held at the centre, 140 of them Albanians from Kosovo. Staff say they are overwhelmed by a wave of refugees and lack proper facilities to process and house them.

Dressed in a grimy vest and track-suit trousers, Ibrahim, 32, is on the edge of breaking down as he tells his story at the Gyor camp. The air is filled with the smell of unwashed bodies, the bawling of babies and a despair that is almost tangible. It is the smell of war in the Balkans, a stench that has for years wafted up over Europe from Sarajevo and Vukovar, and now from Pristina.

"There were about 40 of us, trying to get to Germany. They brought us first in a van to Budapest, and then we were taken to a forest outside Gyor. Then three Hungarians appeared and led us to the Danube. The Hungarians disappeared and we were divided into two groups. Some went away in a minivan but we were left behind," says Ibrahim, his voice cracking.

Once at Gyor, refugees are fed and clothed, if necessary, before being processed by the Hungarian authorities. Some claim asylum, setting in motion a process that allows them, in effect, to stay in the country indefinitely; others just walk out of the camp, since they cannot be legally detained, before trying again to get into Austria. Cases have been reported, however, of some Albanians being deported back across the border to Serbia against their will.

"Some of the refugees don't even know where they are; they think they have already arrived in Germany or Austria," says Lt Col Ferenc Baudentisztl, of the Gyor camp. "Most of them don't even know where Hungary is, and they are shocked to discover that they are here. They are very depressed. The people-smugglers are abusing the vulnerability of their victims, who are fleeing from war-zones."

People-smuggling is the latest growth industry of international organised crime, second only to drugs in the amount of money it can earn, say officials. The forthcoming expansion of the EU to take in Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic has made the three central European nations increasingly attractive destinations for refugees and economic migrants.

This summer Budapest hosted an international conference on illegal migration through eastern Europe, attended by delegations from more than 30 European and nearby countries. But while officials discussed how to stem the human tide, the people-smugglers signed up ever-more desperate refugees, promising them safe passage to the West.

More than 25,000 illegal immigrants a year

pass through Hungary. In 1994 border guards arrested 138 people smugglers. By July of this year they had detained 226. The Hungarian press is daily filled with reports of dozens of victims of failed-people smuggling operations, mainly Albanians from Kosovo.

"International organised crime realised the opportunity in this wave of migration. Now people smuggling is organised like a package tour, using tourist agencies as cover organisations," explains General Balazs Novaky, of the Hungarian border guard.

"Say there is a Turkish person who wants to go to Germany. They are given a telephone number in Istanbul or Ankara. They call it, and the whole process of illegal emigration begins. They say which city they would like to go to; they are told how much they must pay, what are the conditions of travel and where and when to go, usually as part of a group."

Many citizens of developing world countries such as Russia, Ukraine and Romania do not need visas to enter Hungary, so Budapest, just an hour and a half's drive from the Austrian border, is a natural collection point for the people-smugglers.

"They can come as far as Hungary legally, but from here they cannot enter Austria," says General Novaki. "Once they get to Budapest the people-smuggling organisation takes over. Most of them don't know anything about where they are; they are handed from person to person and put into hotels.

"From Budapest they are taken to the border in taxis, trains or buses, and there are people waiting to take them across. The people-smugglers take their papers and these are returned if they are successful. They take their papers, because if we catch refugees without papers we cannot prove who they are, and so cannot prove that people-smuggling is going on.

"The emigrants get different levels of help according to their financial background. The rich ones get high-quality forged documents; the poorer ones have much less security. The amateurs try to cross the Danube in boats."

Many of the refugees, who are often drawn from poor and isolated villages, have little idea about how difficult life can be in the West. But still it draws them like a magnet, says Istvan Dobo, of the Budapest Office for Refugees and Migration. And if Vienna is out of reach, then life in Budapest is certainly pleasanter than Kabul or Pristina.

"Hungarian law is much more liberal," he explains, "in the sense that all applications for asylum have to be properly considered. About 10 per cent of applications are granted, and the rest go to court. Even if the decision in court is rejected, the asylum-seeker can stay on, in effect, indefinitely, as the appeal process suspends the rejection."

Whether or not illegal immigrants claim asylum, Hungarian officials and border guards are preparing for a massive increase in the number of migrants, as EU membership draws closer. Then the front line in the war against people-smuggling will shift to Hungary's borders with Romania, Yugoslavia and Ukraine.

"When Hungary joins it will have borders with non-member states, so of course a lot more people will head for Hungary, partly because our standard of living will rise. And then once someone enters Hungary they will be able to travel freely in the EU."

It is ironic that back in the summer of 1989 it was the same stretch of border that Ibrahim and his family tried unsuccessfully to sneak through, which was torn open by the then Communist government. That opening released an outpouring of tens of thousands of East German refugees, and spelled the end of the Iron Curtain, the Communist bloc and, ultimately, the Soviet Union itself.

But now that border is, for many fleeing refugees, the final, uncrossable frontier.

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