In 2015, Hungary became one of the main entry points to the European Union for migrants and refugees. The police registered 400,000 irregular migrants and more than 177,000 of these applied for asylum. With at most 4,000 people with international protection status living in Hungary and one of the lowest rates of immigrant populations in Europe (1.4%), most people were faced with an unknown phenomenon, one that had hardly featured in Hungarian media or on political agendas before.
Confronted with a variety of very uncomfortable domestic political issues and the challenges posed by the number of arrivals, the government suddenly elevated migration to the number 1 topic on the political agenda. Right after the Charlie Hebdo terrorist attack in Paris in January 2015, it announced that migration posed a dangerous threat, from which Hungary and Europe must be protected. Moreover, it put the blame on “Brussels”, primarily the European Commission, for failing to keep refugees and migrants out of Europe.
In May 2015, the government launched a “National Consultation on Immigration and Terrorism”, in which 8 million Hungarian adults were asked to respond to a set of biased questions that portrayed migrants as abusers of European welfare systems and economic opportunities: ‘a new type of threat that we must stop in its tracks’. The consultation was accompanied by a nationwide billboard campaign, which featured xenophobic messages in Hungarian.
Over the summer, thousands of refugees arrived across the Serbian border each day, only to be met with a government-induced humanitarian crisis in Hungary. To everyone’s surprise, informal groups sprouted up instantly and hundreds of ordinary Hungarian citizens in towns all over the country spent their summer helping refugees. Thousands of Hungarians donated clothing, food and money to help where the state refused to do its part.
Later on, the legal and practical framework of refugee protection in Hungary was practically dismantled. The combined and intended effect of these steps was to deter and limit people who need international protection from accessing it in Hungary, by:
- rejecting all asylum applications from people who had entered Hungary from Serbia, which was declared a safe third country, without a real inquiry into the reasons why Syrians, Iraqis, Afghans and others had to flee their countries,
- introducing new and unfair procedural rules that result in genuine refugees being denied access to a proper asylum procedure and to the possibility of finding protection,
- sealing the borders with Serbia and Croatia with razor-wire fences,
- criminalising the crossing of the border fence and trying migrants in expedited criminal trials lacking many important due process guarantees,
- reducing the Hungarian reception system’s capacity to offer shelter to asylum-seekers by closing the largest camp and instead opening smaller, temporary tent camps,
- opening four small ‘transit zones’ on the southern border where people who wish to seek asylum in Hungary should apply and be registered, but not all would be let in the country.
Although the government is determined to keep migrants and refugees away from Hungary, wars and instability have not ended and people keep on coming via the Balkan route, though in lesser numbers than in 2015.
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Since early spring, would-be asylum-seekers have to wait for long periods in front of two of the transit zones at the Serbian border to be allowed to enter and be registered as an asylum applicant in Hungary. At first, their number was in the dozens every day, but for many months now, it is hundreds of people waiting, many children and families among them. The Hungarian immigration office only lets in 30 people each day, giving priority to vulnerable families. The conditions are dire, because the Hungarian authorities provide only a water faucet and one food package each day. Despite the fact that the people wait on Hungarian land within arm’s reach of the authorities, it is UNHCR and NGOs and volunteer groups who struggle to meet all other needs: medical assistance, clothing, shelter, hot meals, information.
Since January 2016, about 252 persons have been granted protection status in Hungary (in 2015: 508). On 1 June 2016, however, state support for refugee integration was nearly eliminated, as all financial benefits were cut and access to state health care curbed. This leaves recognised refugees and persons with subsidiary protection (who dont qualify as refugees according to the Geneva Convention but who would face serious harm if they return to the country of origin) at the risk of homelessness and destitution 30 days after they are given permission to stay. It is now only NGOs that offer integration services specifically for refugees, the funding of which comes from the EU’s Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund. Essentially, the EU and UNHCR funds are what keep the limited integration services for refugees above water in Hungary.
In recent months, UNHCR, Human Rights Watch and Hungarian NGOs and volunteers have been documenting and reporting about frequent cases of severe ill-treatment of migrants at the border. The police have refused to thoroughly investigate these reports.
Moreover, since July 5, the police can push back migrants who are apprehended within 8 km inside Hungary of the border fence to the other side of it, without any substantive procedure. People are expected to join the many hundreds waiting at the transit zones for managed entry, amid degrading conditions.
Not surprisingly, most asylum-seekers abandon their asylum claims within a few days after having finally arrived at an open centre and travel on further west, via Austria. The Hungarian government acquiesces in this as becoming more of a destination country for refugees is exactly what it does not want.
With a national referendum on “mandatory migrant quotas” set for October 2, the hate campaign against migrants and the EU is at full trottle again. Those NGOs that speak out in favour of offering protection to refugees, for solidarity with other countries and for trying to find solutions through European cooperation are few and far between and they face strong opposition. In this precarious landscape, getting European institutions and civil society to show solidarity with the safekeepers of human rights and refugee protection would be all the more important.
This column is part of a project Social Europe runs with the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung offices in the Czech Republic and Slovakia.
Márta Pardavi is a lawyer and co-chair of the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, a leading human rights NGO in Hungary. She leads the organisation's work in the field of refugee protection. She now also serves on the board of the PILnet Hungary Foundation and was a member of the board, and later vice-chair, of the Europan Council on Refugees and Exiles in 2003-2011.