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.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
Arts and Entertainment
A comedy show alumni who has gone on to be a big star, Jon Stewart
tvRival television sketch shows vie for influential alumni
Arts and Entertainment
Jason goes on a special mission for the queen
tvReview: Everyone loves a CGI Cyclops and the BBC's Saturday night charmer is getting epic
Arts and Entertainment
Image has been released by the BBC
Arts and Entertainment
Henry Marsh said he was rather 'pleased' at the nomination
booksHenry Marsh's 'Do No Harm' takes doctors off their pedestal
Arts and Entertainment
All in a day's work: the players in the forthcoming 'Posh People: Inside Tatler'

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne plays Stephen Hawking in new biopic The Imitation Game

'At times I thought he was me'

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
One Direction go Fourth: The boys pose on the cover of their new album Four

Review: One Direction, Four

Arts and Entertainment
'Game of Thrones' writer George RR Martin

Review: The World of Ice and Fire

Arts and Entertainment
Sean Bean will play 'extraordinary hero' Inspector John Marlott in The Frankenstein Chronicles
tvHow long before he gets killed off?
Arts and Entertainment
Some like it hot: Blaise Bellville

Arts and Entertainment
A costume worn by model Kate Moss for the 2013 photograph

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Len Goodman appeared to mutter the F-word after Simon Webbe's Strictly performance

Arts and Entertainment
Jamie T makes his long-awaited return to the London stage
musicReview: Alexandra Palace, London
Arts and Entertainment
S Club 7 back in 2001 when they also supported 'Children in Need'
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Bruce Forsyth rejoins Tess Daly to host the Strictly Come Dancing Children in Need special
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan plays Christian Grey getting ready for work

Film More romcom than S&M

Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

Review: The Imitation Game

Arts and Entertainment
The comedian Daniel O'Reilly appeared contrite on BBC Newsnight last night

Arts and Entertainment
The American stand-up Tig Notaro, who performed topless this week show her mastectomy scars

Arts and Entertainment

TVNetflix gets cryptic

Arts and Entertainment
Claudia Winkleman is having another week off Strictly to care for her daughter
Arts and Entertainment
BBC Children in Need is the BBC's UK charity. Since 1980 it has raised over £600 million to change the lives of disabled children and young people in the UK

TV review A moving film showing kids too busy to enjoy their youth

Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his winning novel

Books Not even a Man Booker prize could save Richard Flanagan from a nomination

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Mau Mau uprising: Kenyans still waiting for justice join class action over Britain's role in the emergency

    Kenyans still waiting for justice over Mau Mau uprising

    Thousands join class action over Britain's role in the emergency
    Isis in Iraq: The trauma of the last six months has overwhelmed the remaining Christians in the country

    The last Christians in Iraq

    After 2,000 years, a community will try anything – including pretending to convert to Islam – to avoid losing everything, says Patrick Cockburn
    Black Friday: Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

    Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

    Britain braced for Black Friday
    Bill Cosby's persona goes from America's dad to date-rape drugs

    From America's dad to date-rape drugs

    Stories of Bill Cosby's alleged sexual assaults may have circulated widely in Hollywood, but they came as a shock to fans, says Rupert Cornwell
    Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

    Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

    As fans flock to see England women's Wembley debut against Germany, the TV presenter on an exciting 'sea change'
    Oh come, all ye multi-faithful: The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?

    Oh come, all ye multi-faithful

    The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?
    Dr Charles Heatley: The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

    The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

    Dr Charles Heatley on joining the NHS volunteers' team bound for Sierra Leone
    Flogging vlogging: First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books

    Flogging vlogging

    First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
    Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show: US channels wage comedy star wars

    Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show

    US channels wage comedy star wars
    When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine? When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible

    When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine?

    When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible
    Look what's mushrooming now! Meat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector

    Look what's mushrooming now!

    Meat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector
    Neil Findlay is more a pink shrimp than a red firebrand

    More a pink shrimp than a red firebrand

    The vilification of the potential Scottish Labour leader Neil Findlay shows how one-note politics is today, says DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Tenderstem broccoli omelette; Fried eggs with Mexican-style tomato and chilli sauce; Pan-fried cavolo nero with soft-boiled egg

    Oeuf quake

    Bill Granger's cracking egg recipes
    Terry Venables: Wayne Rooney is roaring again and the world knows that England are back

    Terry Venables column

    Wayne Rooney is roaring again and the world knows that England are back
    Michael Calvin: Abject leadership is allowing football’s age-old sores to fester

    Abject leadership is allowing football’s age-old sores to fester

    Those at the top are allowing the same issues to go unchallenged, says Michael Calvin