One step forward, two steps back – asylum issues in Hungary

The Hungarian government has raised eyebrows in the past few months with its intense anti-immigration campaign and plans to further restrict its asylum policy. In the years of democratic transition following 1989, Hungary welcomed tens of thousands of ethnic Hungarian refugees across its borders. But as the country became a gateway to Europe and the asylum-seeker population became more foreign and diverse, policies became more restrictive, and neither government has supported the issue unambiguously.

Photo: CreativeCommons/ Takver


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Hungarians first: asylum in the newly democratic Hungary (1989-1999)

In the years leading up to the regime change of 1989, Hungary saw a wave of refugee-driven migration with a 75% share of ethnic Hungarians who were fleeing persecution in Romania. 1 Hungary joined the 1951 Geneva Refugee Convention in 1989, initially with geographical restrictions to Europe (non-European nationals were taken care of by the local office of UNHCR). Although Hungary’s asylum-seeker numbers were the highest among Visegrad countries, 2 the general political discourse of the 1990s argued for Hungary’s limited inclusion capacity, and migration policy favored Hungarian-speaking settlers. 3 In fact, 97% of immigrants during the early 1990s were ethnic Hungarians.  4

With the passage of the asylum law of 1997, Hungary lifted the Geneva Convention’s geographical restrictions and started providing international protection for both European and non-European refugees. The country’s increased humanitarian commitment was facilitated by the start of EU accession talks. 5 The first waves of non-European refugees consisted of Afghan, Bangladeshi and Iraqi nationals.

In summary, during the early and late 1990s, Hungary was receiving more asylum-seekers than the Czech Republic, Poland and Slovakia (over 5,000 in 1993 and 1995 compared to less than 2,500 in other Visegrad countries – see Table 1). 6 With a steep decline in the early 2000s, however, the country became the least popular Visegrad country among asylum-seekers until 2007. Hungary surpassed other Visegrad countries again with a sudden nine-fold increase in asylum requests in 2013. The dramatic surge in numbers continued in 2014, when Hungary received over 42,000 applications by the year’s end – half of which were due to the Kosovar migrant crisis that continued into 2015. 7

Table 1. Asylum-seekers in Visegrad countries, 1993-2013

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Source: UNHCR (2002, 2004, 2015) 8

The years of Europeanization (2000-2009)

In the early 2000s – the pre-EU accession years – policy makers projected a strong increase in asylum-seeker numbers. However, as numbers stayed relatively low until the end of the decade, the Hungarian asylum system was not significantly restructured as planned. A 2003 analysis of the Hungarian asylum system found severe problems, including the mistreatment of asylum-seekers, the overuse of detention, some lasting as long as 12 months, lack of transparency in legislation, inadequate reception centers and inefficient legal procedures. 9

In 2002, the first Fidesz governement lost the elections to the socialist-led MSZP-SZDSZ coalition, which stayed in power until 2010. The difference between left and right wing parties regarding their attitudes towards asylum-seekers has been stronger in theory than in policy practice. While the conservative Fidesz party typically reserves humanitarian sentiments for ethnic Hungarian asylum-seekers, the left seems to be torn. A portion of the socialist politicians share conservatives’ suspicions towards strangers, while the liberals (along with some socialists) typically represent the universally humanist attitude in the asylum debate. 10

As Hungary joined the EU in 2004, the law harmonization processes brought changes in regulations. However international law scholar, Boldizsár Nagy, argued that in the end legislators were less influenced by the EU law principles and more by the institutional will for more restrictive asylum regulations. 11 One uncharacteristically refugee-friendly development was the 2007 amendment to the Asylum Act, which was justified by the necessity to introduce progressive regulations that met the standards of the international refugee law. 12 Following the country’s Schengen participation in 2007, Hungary became a popular southeastern gateway to the wider Schengen area for people seeking refuge in western Europe. However, despite becoming a EU country, integration prospects for refugees have not improved as expected, and Hungary mainly remains a country of transit to this day. 13

Detention concerns and imperfect reforms (2010-2014)

2010 marked the return of the Orbán’s conservative government, as well as a shift to more restrictive asylum policies through amendments to the asylum law. The new legislation provided little financial or housing support, while allowing for asylum-seekers’ widespread detention, which is generally meant to be a means of last resort. In the following years, a number of reports revealed inhumane conditions and abusive behavior by authorities,  14 and the system was strongly criticized by UNHCR and human rights organizations.  15 In 2012, the European Court of Human Rights found that Hungary’s detention of asylum seekers violated Article 5(1) of the European Convention of Human Rights, forcing Hungary to ease its detention policy.  16 As detentions stopped, the number of asylum-seekers grew quickly from 2,000 in 2012, 17 to over 18,000 in 2013,  18 and so by the end of 2013, Hungary returned to a stricter detention policy. This was realized through the early adoption of detention regulations outlined in the Recast Reception Conditions Directive 19 (to be implemented by member states until July 2015), which allows for the use of detention in only a narrow set of cases. 20

In January 2014, the government introduced a comprehensive reform of the refugee integration system. The new policy merged the existing types of refugee benefits into a single “integration contract”. The two-year scheme provides refugees with roughly 300 euros per month for the first six months, which is then gradually reduced. The plan brought improvements in terms of financial support for refugees – however, as NGOs have pointed out, the new system left the provision of other forms of integration support (such as teaching Hungarian) to charities that are already overwhelmed and underfunded. 21

Detentions continued to cause concern through 2014. In September, the Hungarian Helsinki Committee and the European Council on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE) noted severe gaps in the Hungarian asylum system, which currently operates six reception centers and six detention facilities across the country. According to the report, decisions regarding detentions were arbitrary and often cited illegitimate reasons, such as irregular border-crossing. Over 40% of single men applying for asylum were detained. In addition, detention centers were ill-equipped to accommodate vulnerable detainees, and inadequate age assessment procedures resulted in the detention of asylum-seekers who were under 18 years of age. 22

The war on “welfare migrants” (2014-2015)

In recent months, asylum-seekers have become the subject of a heated public debate in Hungary. The end of the year saw a sudden surge in irregular border-crossings and asylum applications from Kosovars, who filed half of all applications in 2014, surpassing Afghans, Syrians, Palestinians and Iraqis. 23 By early February, their number was already over 21,000, compared to 6,000 for all of 2013.  24 Unlike other major asylum-seeker groups in Hungary, Kosovars seem to be fleeing from poverty, not violence or political persecution – however, asylum is not given for economic reasons. Despite the current surge, Kosovars should not be expected to become a significant long-term refugee population in Hungary.

The spike in asylum-seeker numbers has shocked the country’s reception system, and the Kosovar case especially, has fueled the Fidesz government’s anti-immigration rhetoric. In August 2014 Orban declared that his goal was, “to cease all immigation whatsoever,” claiming that Europe’s liberal policies have, “broken the ethnic basis of the nation state.” 25 His now infamous remarks in January, when he blamed liberal immigration policies for France’s Charlie Hebdo tragedy, marked the beginning of an explicit rhetorical fight against migrants and asylum-seekers.

As part of its “welfare refugees” or “welfare migrants” narrative, Fidesz’ communications repeatedly confuse refugees and migrants, ultimately stereotyping asylum-seekers as economic migrants who disguise themselves as refugees in order to “make a living” on the Hungarian state’s welfare benefits. 26 Orbán’s anti-immigrant campaign has met strong criticism from human rights organizations, NGOs representing refugee rights, intellectuals, liberal media, and left-wing opposition parties including the socialist party previously in power. 27

However, the larger Hungarian public hardly disagrees with Orbán’s recent statements: xenophobia has been a recurring problem for many years. In 1995, according to national surveys, the Hungarian public gradually became less welcoming, as the typical asylum-seeker was no longer an ethnic Hungarian but Bosnian, and then after 1997, non-European. 28 In TÁRKI’s April 2014 survey, nearly 40% of Hungarian adults were found to hold xenophobic attitudes, like beliefs that no asylum-seeker should set foot in the country; 10 years earlier, this figure was 30%. As of 2014, about half of the respondents would consider giving or denying asylum, while only 10% of the adult population is unambiguously welcoming towards asylum-seekers, saying that they should all be allowed in. 29

Table 2. Xenophobia in Hungary between 1992 and 2014 (%)

fajth2 copySource: Sík (2014) 30

Asylum-seekers in Hungary: real problem or political straw man?

Recognition figures from the past 25 years, that is the number of asylum-seekers who were granted some form of protection by the Hungarian state (either refugee status or weaker forms of support such as tolerated or subsidiary protection status), seem to be surprisingly uncorrelated to asylum-seeker trends. As detailed in Tables 2 and 3, while the number of people seeking asylum in the country has fluctuated greatly since the post-communist transition, the number of those who received asylum have mostly stayed around a few hundred – especially in the last ten years. Looking at figures from the past decade, Hungarian authorities seem set on granting protection for grossly 200-400 people a year, regardless of changes in policy or asylum-seeker numbers.

Table 3. Asylum applications and recognitions in Hungary, 1989 – 2014

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Source: UNHCR (2015) 31

How severe is the burden of caring for refugees in Hungary? In 2014, only 544 people received refugee status out of over 42,000 asylum applications 32 – merely 1% of applicants. Part of this is explained by the fact that over half of the applicants moved on from Hungary before their case was closed, presumably expecting better prospects in the west, even though the Dublin regulation prevented them from re-applying for asylum elsewhere.  33Besides the low recognition rate, it is also worth noting that a large part of the country’s asylum-related expenses are in fact covered by EU funds. 34

Table 4. Refugee recognition in Hungary between 2004 and 2014*Includes refugee, tolerated and subsidiary protection status

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*Includes refugee, tolerated and subsidiary protection status
** Recipients of refugee, tolerated or subsidiary protection status over yearly number of applications

Source: UNHCR (2015) 35

In light of these facts, it is questionable whether the recent wave of asylum-seekers will have any significant long-run effects on Hungary’s asylum system, aside from the initial shock to reception facilities and a spike in statistics.

Looking back at the past 25 years, restrictive immigration policies and a flawed asylum system aren’t newfound problems; the intensity of the government’s current anti-asylum-seeker campaign, however, is unprecedented in democratic Hungary. Orbán has a history of achieving political success through the use of exclusionary nationalism – by creating enemy figures to the nation. His apparent desire to close Hungary’s non-EU borders also comes at a time when the country and all European nations, are facing international pressure to accept their fair share of refugees. Altogether the current anti-immigration stance may be read as an effort to evade international responsibility while gaining domestic popularity.

It is yet to be seen how far Orbán’s anti-immigration campaign will go. As of early March, the government was planning to introduce measures to deter asylum-seekers from the country that are likely to go against EU law. The planned legislation would enable authorities to immediately detain and return all migrants, including asylum-seekers, that have entered the country irregularly; oblige them to work while in Hungary to “earn their keep” 36; and shorten the asylum procedure to a few days by automatically rejecting asylum-seekers arriving from “safe” countries– a procedure that would threaten the international law principle of non-refoulement. 37

In February, leading Fidesz politician, Antal Rogán, acknowledged that the plans would defy EU norms: “We are preparing for a decision that applies very strict treatment to immigrants and which, in a certain sense, clashes with practices accepted by Brussels.” 38 It is yet to be seen how far Fidesz’s anti-immigration campaign will go in terms of concrete legislative changes. Orbán’s government may succeed in implementing a more restrictive immigration and asylum policy. However, as long as Hungary is bound by international, and most importantly, EU law, closed third-country borders and extreme detention policies are an unlikely option – especially in the midst of the largest global refugee crisis since World War II.

Notes:

  1. Tamás Kiss  (2007) : Demographic model and migration. The migration of the Transsylvanian Hungarians in the end of the 20th century, as cited in Ágnes Hárs: Immigration countries in Central and Eastern Europe, The Case of Hungary. IDEA Working Papers, No. 12, May 2009. 
  2.  See Table 1 
  3.  Ágnes Hárs: Immigration countries in Central and Eastern Europe, The Case of Hungary. IDEA Working Papers, No. 12, May 2009
  4.  Szőke, László: 1992. Hungarian Perspectives on Emigration and Immigration in the New European Architecture. International Migration Review, Vol. 26 (1992/2), 305–312. Szőke, 1992 as cited in Ágnes Hárs: Immigration countries in Central and Eastern Europe, The Case of Hungary. IDEA Working Papers, No. 12, May 2009
  5.  Ágnes Hárs: Immigration countries in Central and Eastern Europe, The Case of Hungary. IDEA Working Papers, No. 12, May 2009
  6.  UNHCR, Statistical Yearbook 2002: Country Data Sheets, 2 September 2004;
  7.  UNHCR data, available upon request – to be published in 2015 as part of the 2014 Statistical Yearbook
  8.  UNHCR, Statistical Yearbook 2002: Country Data Sheets, 2 September 2004; Statistical Yearbook 2004: Country Data Sheets, 21 August 2005; Statistical Yearbook 2013 2 February 2015
  9.  Tamás Virág, Menekültek Magyarországon: Jönnek vagy mennek? Magyar Narancs, 10 July 2003
  10.  Boldizsár Nagy, Hungarian refugee law and refugee affairs from the system change in the late eighties until accession to the European Union. Moral, political-philosophical and legal investigations. Theses of the PhD dissertation. December 2011.
  11.  Ibid.
  12.  Ágnes Hárs: Immigration countries in Central and Eastern Europe, The Case of Hungary. IDEA Working Papers, No. 12, May 2009
  13.  Migszol, Magyar Menekültügyi Politika, 2014
  14.  HVG ENSZ: bántalmazzák a menedékkérőket Magyarországon, 24 April 2012
  15.  UNHCR Hungary as a country of asylum: observations April 2012
  16.  Asylum Law Database The detention of asylum seekers in Hungary: exploring the impact of three judgments of the European Court of Human Rights January 2014
  17.  UNHCR, Statistical Yearbook 2012, 10 December 2013, p. 103
  18.  UNHCR, Statistical Yearbook 2013 2 February 2015, p. 105
  19.  Although detention has become a problem again since, the European Court of Human Rights has not sanctioned Hungary on the matter so far– probably partly due to the fact that the new detention policy was introduced as part of the EU directive.
  20.  Kormany.hu Emberi Jogok – Július 1-jétől bevezethetik a menekültügyi őrizetet 22 May 2013
  21.  Mandiner.hu Magyarország? Az mi? Változóban a menekültek integrációja August 25, 2014
  22.  European Council for Refugees and Exiles (ECRE) Hungary – Widespread use of detention in Hungary with no effective judicial review, 9 September 2014
  23.  The main countries of origin for asylum applications in Hungary for 2014 were: Kosovo (21,453) Afghanistan (8,796), Syria (6,857), Occupied Palestinian Territories: (875), and Iraq (497). The number of applications submitted by Ukrainian nationals remained low, with a total of 37. Source: UNHCR data, available upon request – to be published in 2015 as part of the 2014 Statistical Yearbook
  24.  UNHCR data, available upon request – to be published in 2015 as part of the 2014 Statistical Yearbook
  25.  Wall Street Journal, Hungary’s Orban bashes liberal immigration policy, 25 August 2014
  26.  Hir24.hu, Az MTI szerint szakmai okokból lettek megélhetésiek a szír bevándorlók, February 19, 2015
  27.  Stop.hu, Tüntettek Orbán gazdasági bevándorlással kapcsolatos kijelentése ellen 19 January 2015; 444.hu, Nem a gazdasági bevándorlók, a Fidesz csinálna menekülttábort az országból, 19 February 2015; Vs.hu, Kivándorlás vagy sem? Három ellenzéki párt is nekiment Orbánnak, 18 January 2015; Hirado.hu, Kósa: az összes tranzitország szerint tarthatatlan a helyzet, 21 February 2015
  28.  Ágnes Hárs: Immigration countries in Central and Eastern Europe, The Case of Hungary. IDEA Working Papers, No. 12, May 2009
  29.  Endre Sík, Továbbra is magas az idegenellenesek aránya, TÁRKI, 16 July 2014
  30.  ibid.
  31.  UNHCR data, available upon request – to be published in 2015 as part of the 2014 Statistical Yearbook
  32.  ibid.
  33.  The Dublin-III regulation attempts to control migration patterns by preventing those who have already applied for asylum in their first country of arrival from re-applying in another EU country. Source: Citizensinformation.ie, Dublin III Regulation 17 December 2014
  34.  Hvg.hu, Az EU ad pénzt a menekültek ellátására 30 January 2015
  35.  UNHCR data, available upon request – to be published in 2015 as part of the 2014 Statistical Yearbook
  36.  Hungarian Helsinki Committee, NGOs raise alarms over new plans against migrants and refugees in Hungary, ECRE bulletin, 6 March 2015
  37.  Magyarhirlap.hu, Rövidítené a Fidesz a menekültügyi eljárást, 24 February 2015
  38.  Inforadio.hu, Rogán: azonnal őrizetbe kell venni a gazdasági bevándorlókat, 10 February 2015 
Veronika Fajth

Veronika Fajth

is a former intern at UNHCR Central Europe and a recent graduate from Corvinus University of Budapest. She specializes in international development, refugee integration and corruption research.