A couple of days ago Chancellor Angela Merkel, while explaining the reasons for her humane refugee policy in an interview with ZDF (Zweites Deutsches Fernsehen), recalled that she couldn’t have left Greece in the lurch and that she certainly couldn’t have treated the refugees as badly as Hungary did. Her remarks reached the Hungarian media in record time.
One of ATV’s reporters decided to sound out “the people on the street.” Did the Hungarian government treat the refugees badly? I know that answers from randomly stopped pedestrians don’t tell us much about the public mood, but I suspect that their rejection of Merkel’s remarks most likely reflects the thinking of the majority of the population. At least seven people out of ten claimed that Hungary had done its very best in providing humanitarian assistance to the refugees.
And yet the non-government Hungarian media is full of horror stories about what’s going on along the Serb-Hungarian and Croat-Hungarian borders. As we just learned, 10,000 soldiers and policemen are chasing those refugees who breach the fence to eject them. Those who opt to follow the proper procedure wait for weeks on end on the other side of the fence. The process is painfully slow. Hungarian authorities admit only 15 people a day to the transit zones. The others–without food, shelter, or basic hygienic facilities–are staying on a narrow strip of land which is commonly referred to as “no man’s land,” a misnomer because it is still part of Hungary.
Just to give you a sense of the assistance given to these refugees, when Gábor Iványi, the Methodist minister known for his humanitarian work, arrived with a few portable toilets he was forbidden to set them up. The reason? They would obstruct the officers’ view of the terrain. Iványi received a more honest answer from Sándor Pintér, minister of the interior, who explained to him that “because they want to avoid permanent settling near our borders” he can allow Iványi to set up the toilets only farther away from Serbian territory. To do what with them?
Building the fence was a costly affair (perhaps as much as 100 billion forints was spent on it), but it didn’t secure the border. Just this year 17,000 refugees managed to get through the fence. I suspect by now they are safely out of Hungary. Of the 7,182 official arrivals between January 1 and May 7, 2016 only four people were accepted to settle in Hungary, 39 received refugee status, and 109 subsidiary protection. In brief, for those who play by the rules, the chance of receiving refugee status or permanent admission to Hungary is close to zero.
According to Eurostat, in 2015 Hungarian authorities granted asylum to 170 Syrians, 100 Afghans, and 75 Somalis. In stark contrast, 104,000 Syrians were able to settle in Germany. In light of these disparities, the European Commission decided to try a different system that would restrict the discriminatory treatment of refugees by certain countries. Hungary, I’m sure, was uppermost on the mind of First Vice-President Frans Timmermans and Dimitris Avramopoulos, the commissioner responsible for migration policy.
Today’s announcement by the European Commission is bad news for the Hungarian government because “the Commission is proposing to replace the Asylum Procedures Directive with a Regulation establishing a fully harmonized common EU procedure for international protection to reduce differences in recognition rates from one Member State to the next, discourage secondary movements and ensure common effective procedural guarantees for asylum seekers.” The reform as spelled out by the European Commission seems quite thorough. And it will perhaps force Hungary to change its ways.
Just last week, on July 5, the Hungarian government introduced a new regulation to stop illegal entry into the country. If an illegal immigrant is caught within eight kilometers of the border, he can be sent back to the other side of the fence to wait to be admitted to the transit zone.
On the day the new regulation went into effect, 1,060 refugees attempted to get through the fence. Only 300 were successful, but even they were caught. Since then, another 600 migrants got through the fence while “the police and the soldiers prevented the entrance of 1,300.”
The legality of all this is questionable. In fact, on July 5 the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights expressed concern that the law may result in law enforcement agencies not respecting the human rights of migrants and the violation of international law by expelling them by force without any legal procedure. Moreover, when one reads that policemen and soldiers “prevented the entrance,” one can’t help thinking that physical force might have been involved.
And indeed, Human Rights Watch just published a detailed description of alleged abuses at Röszke, at the Serb-Hungarian border. Here Lydia Gall, Balkans and Eastern Europe researcher for Human Rights Watch, found that “people who cross into Hungary without permission, including women and children, have been viciously beaten and forced back across the border.” Interviews were conducted with 41 asylum seekers and migrants, some of whom claimed that “officials often used spray that caused burning sensations to their eyes, set dogs on them, kicked and beat them with batons and fists, put plastic handcuffs on them and forced them through small openings in the razor wire fence, causing further injuries.” Some of the claims may be exaggerated, but I have no doubt that members of the police and the army have been told to use force if necessary to make sure that no one gets beyond that 8 km zone.
That some beating was going on is certain because the Human Rights Watch activists could see wounds on some of the migrants “consistent with marks caused by baton.” There is a telling exchange between a group of migrants and the officers. The refugees told the police that they want to stay in Hungary and that they love Hungary, “but the police just told them, ‘We love Hungary, not you.” Later they were taken to one of the gates: “they pushed us through and said ‘No Hungary, just Serbia.’”
The treatment of the few thousand refugees who are already in Hungary is horrendous. In the Körmend camp they live in tents that leak when it rains and that were unbearably hot during the last few weeks when a heat wave gripped Hungary. All three meals for the day are distributed at once, at noon, and as a result of the intense heat, dinner and the next day’s breakfast were normally spoiled before they could be eaten. Many of the refugees leave Hungary at the earliest opportunity to try their luck in Austria and beyond.
On June 23 Hungary unilaterally suspended the Dublin III Agreement, which obligated Hungary to take back refugees who had been originally registered in Hungary “for technical reasons.” János Perényi, Hungarian ambassador to Austria, and Zoltán Kovács, government spokesman, informed the Austrian ministry of interior of the government’s decision. Kovács insisted that “we all want to have a European solution, but we must defend Hungary’s interest and the Hungarian population.” Hungary can look after 2,500 refugees and, as it is, it has 3,000. “The boat is full,” Kovács told Die Presse.” Of course, it is full when the Hungarian government refuses to provide decent accommodations for the refugees and even refuses to accept international help. The intent seems to be to make the refugees’ lives so miserable that no one would ever opt to stay in Hungary permanently.