BUDAPEST, Hungary (AP) — When Jean-Paul Apetey thinks of all he has endured, he finds it hard to believe he made it to Europe.
The 34-year-old from Ivory Coast piloted a migrant-packed boat from Turkey to Greece; lost his backpack evading police in Macedonia; escaped from Bangladeshi smugglers; stared down knife-wielding thugs in Serbia; and made it through thanks to an act of kindness from a French tourist who fancied his dreadlocks.
Now he's in Hungary, an increasingly popular back door for migrants to break into the European Union. Their journey is full of dangers, but not typically the mortal peril of a sea crossing to Italy — a journey that has produced more than a thousand dead in the southern Mediterranean this month alone.
Nor does the so-called Balkans route typically end in deportation. Instead, migrants like Apetey who make it this far usually get what they're after, because Hungary does little to stop migrants from heading west. Most bolt within a week to Germany or France.
"I am in Europe!" Apetey exclaimed. "I can start to become a human being again."
But a journey by a group of West Africans — followed for two months by Associated Press reporters — showed that hardship, heartbreak and brutality lurk on the road to European dreams.
The EU's rules for immigrating legally are strict. But as Hungary shows, they also are impossible to enforce consistently when each country prefers to make migrants their neighbor's problem.
Migrants must normally claim asylum in the first member state they enter. Greece, however, won an exception because the European Court of Human Rights ruled its asylum system a shambles. The Greek anomaly means that migrants who make it to Hungary should, in theory, be sent back to Hungary when caught in other EU states.
This rarely happens. Last year, while nearly 43,000 migrants arrived in Hungary from the Balkans, other EU members in the west deported just 512 migrants back to Hungary.
In the past two years, as enforcement on Spanish routes tightened and deaths multiplied in boat crossings, human traffickers have focused on Hungary. Today, Hungary faces record-breaking arrivals — more than 33,000 in the first three months of 2015.
Sandrine Koffi and her 10-month-old daughter Kendra were among the West Africans who set out in February from northern Greece on foot. A former soldier escorting them charged most of his clients $500 apiece to reach Macedonia's border with Serbia.
They hiked in rain and snow, mostly at night to avoid detection. Food and water ran low. After 10 days Macedonian police chased them down, deporting most to Greece while others scattered.
In the melee Koffi, a 31-year-old Ivorian, became separated from Kendra. Police dumped the mother in Greece, while escaping migrants carried the infant to Lojane, a Macedonian town bordering Serbia where smugglers hold migrants.
Desperate, Koffi made two more attempts to cross Macedonia on foot, evading police on the third try.
When she reached Lojane, Kendra was gone — already carried by other migrants through Serbia to Hungary.
It took Koffi another week to cross Serbia and reach Hungary's refugee camp in Debrecen, where she found Kendra underweight from diarrhea and wailing with baby teeth coming in.
Koffi is hoping to reach Paris where her husband and sister live. But her ordeal has taken its toll.
"I fought to come here because of my baby. I want her to have more chances in life," she said. "But otherwise it's not been worth it."
Lojane is a hub for Bangladeshi-led smugglers, who operate "safe houses" outside town. In reality, if the migrants arrive with little money, their crowded safe house can become a torture chamber.
Apetey found himself imprisoned in one for 10 days. Guards, he said, imprisoned him and beat him. One friend had his arm broken, while "another got his head bashed in. Another got his teeth knocked out."
"I had to escape," he said. "Otherwise I was dead."
He lied to his captors, saying he had to walk into Lojane to telephone relatives for money. When smugglers confronted him, Apetey found out how fast he could run.
"I charged them," he said, "furious like a lion." Soon, guards were behind him, losing ground and crying "Stop!"
Apetey walked into Serbia. There a gang posing as police whipped out knives and demanded money. He stood his ground. They picked on another group of migrants.
Walking through Serbia, Apetey heard a honk and turned his head. The motorist was French, staying at a hotel up the road — and she admired Apetey's dreadlocks.
Minutes later, he was in her car discussing whether she would drive him all the way to France. She thought this was a grand idea, but he didn't want a romantic entanglement.
He spent two days with the woman, who eventually agreed to deliver him to just inside Hungary.
"We kissed," he said. "I needed to encourage her to drop me off."
Pogatchnik reported from London. Associated Press reporters Raphael Satter in London and Pablo Gorondi in Budapest contributed to this report.