Hungarian NGO considering lawsuits on behalf of asylum-seekers

Hungary has taken yet another step to make the lives of asylum-seekers more difficult. However, a recent ruling by the European Court of Human Rights suggests it might have to take a step back.

Wikimedia Commons, Author: Adrian Grycuk


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In 2016 alone, 29,432 people registered as asylum-seekers in Hungary. 1 In that same year, Hungary had Europe’s lowest recognition rate of international protection based on asylum claims. While the EU average was 61%, in Hungary only 9% of applicants got international protection. 2 This low recognition rate is particularly significant given that almost a third of the asylum-seekers in the country were under 18 and over a fifth are women. 3

67% came from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan, war and terror-torn countries. 4 However, Hungary rejected 91% of the Syrian, 87% of the Iraqi and 94% of the Afghan asylum claims in 2016. 5

As for those still waiting for an answer from Hungary regarding their asylum claim, the latest data provided by the Hungarian Helsinki Committee (HHC) shows that there are 264 people in asylum detention facilities, 105 hosted in open camps and a dozen people held in transit zones. 6

14 more people are being held in a community shelter managed by the Hungarian Immigration Office; some of them are asylum-seekers, while others are migrants who have been expelled from Hungary but cannot return to their home country. As early as the summer of 2015 Hungary started erecting fences on its Balkan borders, part of which is now patrolled by 3,000 Hungarian border hunters, volunteers whose recruitment is ongoing.

The new law

On March 7th, the Hungarian Parliament approved a bill amending five laws related to migration management. 7

The bill was signed by Hungarian President János Áder on March 15th and took effect on March 28th. The new law significantly changes conditions for asylum-seekers in Hungary. “Migration is the Trojan wooden horse of terrorism. We are still under attack and the storm has not blown itself out,” Hungarian PM Viktor Orbán said in a speech delivered to border hunters on the day the bill was approved by Parliament. 8

“The pressure on Hungary’s borders will not cease in the next few years because millions more people are preparing to set off in the hope of a better life. The people that come to us don’t want to live according to our culture and customs, but according to their own, at European standards of living,” he added. 9

Since July 5th, 2016, Hungarian police have had the right to catch anyone who managed to climb across the southern border fence within 8 kilometres of the border and take them back to Serbia. 10

Those who get caught are not questioned, registered or fingerprinted.

Under the new law, the 8-kilometre rule has been extended to the entire country. “In principle, if illegally staying foreigners are caught by the Hungarian police trying to cross the Austrian border, the policemen have the right to take them to the Serbian border and make sure they go across the fence,” Márta Pardavi, co-chair of the Hungarian Helsinki Committee – a human rights NGO – tells the V4 Revue. 11

Once in Serbia, asylum-seekers who want to apply for international protection in Hungary have to wait for their chance to be granted access to a transit zone. 12

This is where immigration and asylum procedures are conducted and where the buildings required for conducting them and housing applicants are located. These zones were intended to hold people for no longer than 4 weeks, but the new law removes that limit. Starting from March 28th, 2017, the transit zones will replace the aforementioned asylum detention facilities, open camps, and community shelters. They will become the only place where asylum-seekers are allowed to stay with the exception of unaccompanied minors under the age of 14, who will be held in child welfare facilities. That’s why the two transit zones of Röszke and Tompa, established in September 2015 on the Hungarian-Serbian border, have been expanded and equipped with shipping containers to hold people. 13

Under the new law, once asylum-seekers are allowed to enter the transit zones they will have to stay in detention for the entire duration of their asylum procedure. Only those who get a positive decision will be able to enter Hungary. Those whose asylum claims are refused will be told to go back to Serbia without any further legal procedure. As for the almost 400 people in Hungary who have been waiting for a decision on their asylum claims, “every single one of them will be transferred to the transit zones,” explains Pardavi, stressing that “the 14 to 18-year-old unaccompanied minors who are now in child welfare facilities will end up in the transit zones, as well as people who have previously been detained and had been released by the Immigration Office.”

On the Hungarian side of the fence, people who applied for asylum and have been staying in open reception centres will be escorted to the transit zones. As for the Serbian side, “We don’t know how many people per day will be allowed entry into the transit zone; it could be ten, it could be one. It’s completely arbitrary because there are no benchmarks and no criteria in the law, it’s all up to the government,” says Pardavi.

More work for the European Court of Human Rights?

Cécile Pouilly, spokesperson for the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), argued that “It means that every asylum-seeker, including children, will be detained in shipping containers surrounded by high razor wire fence at the border for extended periods of time. It violates Hungary’s obligations under international and EU laws, and will have a terrible physical and psychological impact on women, children and men who have already greatly suffered.” 14

Gauri Van Gulik, Deputy Director for the European branch of Amnesty International, also criticised the bill: “We are urging the EU to step up and show Hungary that such illegal and deeply inhuman measures have consequences,” he said. 15

According to Pardavi, “The legal breaches are clear cut for an infringement procedure against Hungary by the European Commission with the advent of this law that lets people be detained without a detention order, including unaccompanied minors between 14 and 18 years old. This is a flagrant disregard for EU law: both asylum laws and human rights law.” Therefore, the Hungarian Helsinki Committee asked President Áder not to sign the new law, but to refer it to the Constitutional Court instead. However, Mr. Áder didn’t listen to this appeal.

International criticism of the new law does not seem to worry Viktor Orbán’s government. One month before the new law was approved, Zoltán Kovács, the government’s chief spokesman, stated, “No migrants, not even those who have already issued their request for asylum, will be able move freely in the country until there is a legal decision about whether they are entitled for political asylum, refugee status or anything else.” 16

Pardavi believes that “The Hungarian government is aware that this new system goes against EU law, but they still want to go ahead with an agenda which, they say, is going to ‘save Europe’ from migration.”

Yet the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) has recently reached an important decision. Ilias Ilias and Ali Ahmed, two asylum-seekers from Bangladesh, were detained for 23 days in the Hungarian transit zone of Röszke in September 2015 and then expelled to Serbia. On March 14th, the ECHR decided that they were “deprived of their liberty without any formal, reasoned decision and without appropriate judicial review.” 17

The judges in Strasbourg also found a violation of article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights 18 as the expulsion of the two men to Serbia meant that they were exposed to a risk of being subjected to inhuman or degrading treatment. 19

The Hungarian government may try to appeal against this ruling in Strasbourg at the Grand Chamber of the ECHR. If the appeal is not upheld or is rejected, Hungary will have to pay a compensation fee of 10,000 Euros to each of the two men and a further 8,705 Euros to cover their expenses and costs under the ruling. 20

For the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, this is an encouraging decision. Pardavi says, “This decision means that what we could do is take every single person to Strasbourg, which is probably what we will have to do.’ from now on.”

Notes:

  1. ‘Hungary to detain all asylum seekers in border camps,’ BBC, March 7, 2017, http://bbc.in/2nhwrxJ (accessed on March 25, 2017).
  2. Eurostat, ‘Distribution of first instance decisions on (non-EU) asylum applications, 2016 (%) YB17,’ March 15, 2017, http://bit.ly/2nGnjCQ (accessed on March 25, 2017).
  3. Hungarian Helsinki Committee, ‘Hungary: Key Asylum Figures as of 1 January 2017,’ http://bit.ly/2j46z3R (accessed on March 25, 2017).
  4. Ibid.
  5. Hungarian Helsinki Committee, ‘Under Destruction: Dismantling Refugee Protection in Hungary in 2016,’ March 2017, http://bit.ly/2nmWujV (accessed on March 25, 2017).
  6. V4Revue interview with Márta Pardavi on March 19, 2017.
  7. The bill “On the amendment of certain acts related to increasing the strictness of procedures carried out in the areas of border management.” amends  five acts: the Act of Asylum, the Act on the Admission and Right of Residence of Third-Country Nationals, the Act on State Border, the Act on Minor Offences and the Act on Child Protection and Guardianship Management.  Hungarian National Assembly, ‘A határőrizeti területen lefolytatott eljárás szigorításával kapcsolatos egyes törvények módosításáról,’ February 20, 2017, http://bit.ly/2nkcyCL (accessed on March 25, 2017).
  8. Wintour, Patrick ‘​Hungary to detain all asylum seekers in container camp,’ The Guardian, March 7, 2017, http://bit.ly/2mA0wZ2 (accessed on March 25, 2017)
  9. ‘Hungary to detain all asylum seekers in border camps,’ BBC, March 7, 2017, http://bbc.in/2nhwrxJ (accessed on March 25, 2017).
  10. ‘The new 8km law allows to push back people to the Serbian side of the fence,’ Migszol.com, June 22, 2016, http://bit.ly/28Per8k (accessed on March 25, 2017).
  11. An interview of the author with Márta Pardavi on March 19, 2017.
  12. Asylum Information Database, ‘Border Procedure Hungary,’ March 2017, http://bit.ly/2nmVNqw (accessed on March 25, 2017).
  13. Nielsen, Nikolaj, ‘Hungary to detain asylum seekers in shipping containers,’ Euobserver, March 7, 2017, http://bit.ly/2mCg0cu (accessed on March 25, 2017).
  14. UNHCR, ‘UNHCR deeply concerned by Hungary plans to detain all asylum seekers,’ March 7, 2017, http://bit.ly/2n9Ht4p (accessed on March 25, 2017).
  15. Ibid.
  16. Wintour, Patrick ‘Hungary submits plans to EU to detain all asylum seekers,’ The Guardian, February 7, 2017, http://bit.ly/2kCaQfn (accessed on March 25, 2017).
  17. European Court of Human Rights, ‘Border-zone detention of two asylum-seekers was unlawful and their removal from Hungary to Serbia exposed them to the risk of inhuman and degrading reception conditions in Greece,’ March 14, 2017, http://bit.ly/2mSpjs7 (accessed on March 25, 2017).
  18. European Court of Human Rights, ‘European Convention on Human Rights,’ http://bit.ly/1foTq0D (accessed on March 25, 2017).
  19. European Court of Human Rights, ‘Border-zone detention of two asylum-seekers was unlawful and their removal from Hungary to Serbia exposed them to the risk of inhuman and degrading reception conditions in Greece,’ March 14, 2017, http://bit.ly/2mSpjs7 (accessed on March 25, 2017).
  20. ‘European courts says Hungary detained migrants unlawfully,’ Reuters, March 14, 2017, http://reut.rs/2nqCcGw (accessed on March 26, 2017).
Lorenzo Berardi

Lorenzo Berardi

is a freelance journalist based in Warsaw. He is a contributor for Lettera43, The Varsovian, Polonicult and former correspondent of Lettera43 from the UK.