Tag Archives: asylum seekers

Life in the Hungarian transit zones

The other day I happened upon an opinion piece in Magyar Idők written by Georg Spöttle, one of the many somewhat mysterious national security experts attracted to the Orbán government. He is allegedly a retired German army officer who has permanently settled in Hungary. His background is murky, as one can see from an interview he gave to Magyar Nemzet in 2002.

Spöttle’s op-ed piece was supposed to quiet the hysteria created by Magyar Idők, a Fidesz MP, and three mayors in the Lake Balaton area over the vacation plans of Migration Aid for a few asylum seekers. But Spöttle spent about half of the article on the conditions in the two by now infamous transit zones set up by the Hungarian government for refugees waiting for an official decision on their cases.

Access to the zones at Röszke and Tompa is severely limited. In addition to organizations of the United Nations, six aid organizations can visit the camps. Spöttle, due to his privileged position, had no problem paying a visit and gave a glowing report on the circumstances that exist there. If he had to choose between “a transit zone in Berlin and Röszke,” he would choose the latter. Let’s not quibble over the fact that Berlin has no transit zones like the ones the Hungarians set up along the Serbian-Hungarian border. The Hungarian accommodations are actually prisons, from which the only escape route leads back to Serbia. According to Spöttle, the mostly Afghan families who currently live there are enjoying the few weeks they have to spend in containers enclosed by a barbed-wired fence and under heavy guard. He saw many smiling and waving children playing football.

This description is in stark contrast to what others who are familiar with the conditions in these transit zones report. A couple of refugees who, after spending some time in the Tompa camp decided to return to Serbia, described the conditions there. Apparently, this particular camp has five separate “sectors” sealed tight with a four-meter barbed-wire fence around each. Inhabitants of one sector cannot cross to another. Each sector has about 70-80 people, including 20 children who had to share a 10×10 m area. The metal containers are not air-conditioned and are therefore unbearably hot, especially given the sweltering weather this year in Hungary. There is no shade, not even any grass, only white gravel. Each person is heavily guarded. A UN official described a scene where a sick man was escorted 20-30 meters to the doctor in the other sector by five armed guards. People who had to visit a hospital are handcuffed. All in all, the conditions are horrendous and, what is more important, illegal. Also, apparently the quality and quantity of food is inadequate, especially in the case of children and pregnant women. Add to all this uncaring officials and guards. The two men could recall only one decent person in the whole bunch, a blonde woman who would actually say hello and smile at the children. Of course, the Hungarian authorities deny these charges and claim that there are all sorts of amenities the former inmates and UN observers failed to notice, like the availability of Arab-language television channels and playrooms for the children.

Source: Index / Photo András Földes

All this sounds pretty bad, but the story Index reported about a week ago is truly hair-raising. It is about an Iranian-Afghan couple with three children and a fourth on its way. The wife’s first husband was killed by members of the Taliban and she was raped, but eventually she managed to escape to Iran where she married an Iranian. The family for political reasons left Iran and ended up in Greece, where a human trafficker insisted that they split up. The woman and the children went by car and the husband hid in a truck. The husband made it, but the wife and children were caught in Macedonia.

In our technologically advanced age the husband knew precisely the whereabouts of his family and decided to go to Macedonia to pick them up. He made the mistake of traveling through Hungary on his way south and was caught and placed in a sealed refugee camp. In order to get out of the camp as soon as possible, he decided to seek asylum in Hungary. After four months spent in what amounted to jail and having been denied asylum, he crossed the Serbian-Hungarian border on his way to Macedonia, where he was reunited with his family. They turned north and in April 2017 reached the Hungarian border, where they were placed in one of the transit zones. But then came the real surprise. Since the husband had been denied asylum by the Hungarian authorities, he is not entitled to food rations while locked up in the transit zone. So, he must live on the leftovers of the rations his wife and two older children receive, which are meager. The smallest child gets powdered milk. In the last three months he received three food packages from the Red Cross, the Hungarian Reformed Church, and the Hungarian Ecumenical Aid Organization.

The paddy wagon / Photo taken by the Iranian husband

The wife, seven months pregnant, would need regular medical checkups, but the only means of transportation is a paddy wagon travelling on a dirt road. She is afraid to sit down on the very narrow wooden seat, fearing injury, but standing is not exactly a safe solution either. She is fearful of losing the baby and is getting more and more distraught. According to the husband, “one of the officers told us that if we want a car in which she can sit down they will bring one for 50 euros, which we don’t have.” How absolutely disgusting.

I haven’t found this particular story yet in the foreign media, but news of the cruel treatment of asylum seekers by Hungarian authorities has been spreading all over the world. Although it is the current Hungarian government that in the final analysis is responsible for this inhumane treatment of the refugees, unfortunately there are just far too many enablers who are ready to lend assistance and support to the government. The powers-that-be have been inculcating fear in the citizens, which by now has morphed into widespread hatred of all outsiders. Index asked at the beginning of its article on the Iranian-Afghan family: “What do you think of a country, dear reader, which treats a family with small children this way?” Indeed, what do you think?

August 17, 2017

Hungarian politicians and Migration Aid’s “migrant resorts”

By now, I’m sure, many readers of Hungarian Spectrum who regularly follow the English- or Hungarian-language news from Hungary have heard the story of those refugee families who were offered the opportunity to spend a few days in a village at the edge of Kis-Balaton, a huge wetland habitat. As is clear from the name, the place is only a few kilometers from Lake Balaton. An Austrian benefactor offered three cabins to Migration Aid International, an Open Society Foundation-supported organization that is helping both the refugees who are still being kept in transit zones along the Serbian-Hungarian border and those who have been released and have been granted asylum and are currently under the “protection” (oltalom) of the Hungarian state. In the rest of this post you will see what this “protection” means in the current harsh reality of the Orbán regime.

Cutting to the chase: a Fidesz member of parliament, three mayors in the vicinity of those three cabins, and some of the less than charitable and enlightened inhabitants of the three towns swore that no refugee can have a vacation near them. They don’t care about these people’s legal status. They don’t want them nearby. In fact, as one of the mayors said, they don’t want them anywhere in Hungary.

Source: abcug.hu / Photo: András Hajdú

Many articles have been written on the subject in Hungarian, and yesterday The Budapest Beacon published a detailed summary of what happened in Keszthely, Hévíz, and Zalavár, three towns located in one of the busiest tourist areas of Hungary. Since the disgraceful story can be read elsewhere, I will approach the topic from a different angle. I wanted to discover its genesis.

It looks as if the journalists of Magyar Idők regularly check Migration Aid’s Facebook page. There they learned, most likely on August 2, that the organization’s activists were planning to spend the weekend getting the three cabins ready to receive the first three families. The journalist who got the job of inciting public opinion against Migration Aid and its plans was Áron Nagy, who subsequently wrote five articles on the unacceptability of allowing “migrants” to vacation anywhere near Lake Balaton.

The very first article was, most likely purposely, misleading. According to Nagy, “Migration Aid International in the outskirts of [Keszthely] is planning to give temporary accommodations to asylum seekers let out of the transit zones.” Migration Aid’s Facebook page was very specific about the status of the refugees. They were not asylum seekers. They already received asylum in Hungary. Migration Aid was equally clear about using the cabins for the purpose of providing short vacations for people in desperate need of some normalcy. The total news value of this article was the sentence I just quoted. The rest of the 450-word article was filler that besmirched the reputation of Migration Aid and made sure everybody knows it is connected to George Soros’s foundation.

The news spread quickly and naturally reached the local internet news site, Zalai Hírlap Online (zaol.hu), which got in touch with András Siewert, the operative coordinator of Migration Aid. Zaol.hu’s handling of the story was a great deal more professional than Magyar Idők‘sThey went to Migration Aid’s Facebook page and accurately quoted the description of the organizations’ plans for the cabins. Siewert explained that these people want to stay in Hungary and the organization is trying to acquaint them with Hungary’s history and culture. Zaol.hu asked whether Migration Aid was concerned about any negative local reaction, to which Siewert’s answer was that since the neighbors are mostly Austrians and Germans they don’t anticipate any trouble. What a sad commentary on the state of mind of Hungarians after two years of hate mongering.

By that time it became known that the three cabins are situated in the outskirts of Zalavár, a village of 1,000 inhabitants. Ildikó Horváth, the mayor of the village, learned about the refugees from Magyar Idők but found out only from zaol.hu that the three cabins are situated in Zalavár. Her reaction was swift: “As soon as this information reached me I took the necessary steps,” which “will serve the interests of the villagers.” What the mayor of Keszthely, a city 13 km. away, had to do with three cabins in Zalavár is hard to fathom. But it was clear from the zaol.hu article that by that time the mayors of the whole region had been in touch with one another, and they swore that they would use “all legal means” to prevent the families from vacationing anywhere nearby. Jenő Manninger, the Fidesz member of parliament representing the district, admitted that the visit of these families doesn’t mean permanent settlement, but this scheme of Migration Aid is dangerous nonetheless because it is part of the “Soros plan.” He added that “the authorities are already investigating the legal possibilities of preventing the organization of such camping holidays.”

In the next few days Magyar Idők did its very best to further incite public opinion against the migrants and their “vacationing.” Áron Nagy got in touch with Ferenc Ruzsics, the mayor of Keszthely, who said that these people have no place anywhere in the country. He accused Migration Aid of being underhanded, although we know that the organization announced its plans on Facebook. Magyar Idők also got in touch with Manninger, who announced that “in no way can the migrants settle, even if at the moment their camping is legally possible.” Quite a claim by a legislator who ought to know that these people have the legal right to settle wherever their hearts desire in the territory of Hungary.

Two days later Áron Nagy was at it again. In his article dated August 5 he complained that Migration Aid persists on going through with the original plan despite the outcry of the locals. In order to fill space, he went on and on about the exact location of the three cabins and tried to find contradictions in different journalistic accounts of the events. The whole article was a pitiful attempt at blackening the name of Migration Aid.

On the same day Áron Nagy also published an opinion piece titled “Migránssimogató” (Migrant Stroking), in which he proudly took credit for “exposing” Migration Aid. As a result of his first article, “those Hungarians who are considered by Brussels to be retarded folks disposed to fascist ideas cried out from Zalavár to Keszthely: not one of them here.”

And if that weren’t enough, Áron Nagy with a colleague, Kriszta Gidró, wrote another article on August 7 in which the duo repeated all their objections to Migration Aid as well as to “migrant resorts” anywhere in Hungary. They were especially infuriated by András Siewert’s insistence that migrants can live wherever they want and that in the future Migration Aid will continue to organize vacations for those who have already been granted asylum. Siewert also said that they have no obligation to ask permission to organize such outings. The journalists found it upsetting that “Migration Aid will continue to pursue its refugee advocacy actions.”

This story, I believe, is a good example of the way the Hungarian population is being indoctrinated, with the assistance of the government media in the service of Viktor Orbán’s policies. It is a shameful story of manipulation and duplicity.

August 9, 2017

European Court of Human Rights on Hungary’s refugee policy

The European Court of Human Rights handed down a decision yesterday that may affect part of Viktor Orbán’s solution to the refugee crisis. He might not be able to continue incarcerating asylum seekers in so-called transit zones.

The case involved two refugees from Bangladesh, Ilias Ilias (24) and Ali Ahmed (27), who arrived at the Serbian-Hungarian border on September 15, 2015 and were subsequently detained in the transit zone for 23 days. The transit zone toward Hungary was fenced in and guarded. After two sets of asylum proceedings, they were expelled from Hungary on the strength of a government decree that lists Serbia as a safe country. Yesterday the Court declared that the Hungarian authorities handling the case had violated the rights to liberty and security as well as the two men’s right to an effective remedy. The court also found that “the Hungarian authorities failed to carry out an individual assessment of each applicant’s case; disregarded the country reports and other evidence submitted by the applicants; and imposed an unfair and excessive burden on them to prove that they were at real risk of a chain-refoulement situation.” The decision was unanimous. “As just satisfaction, the European Court held that Hungary was to pay each applicant 10,000 euros in respect of non-pecuniary damage and 8,705 euros for costs and expenses.”

Already in 1996 the European Court of Human Rights had handed down a ruling, not involving Hungary, that it was illegal to keep asylum seekers in “detention camps.” A couple of years ago the Hungarian government agreed to abide by that ruling, presumably in the hope that most of the refugees, once free to move about, would leave Hungary for greener pastures. That is exactly what happened. But once the Hungarian government realized that it was unable to handle the flow of refugees, Orbán decided to build a fence to prevent refugees from entering the country. The few who were allowed through the fence were subsequently kept in so-called transit zones while their applications were reviewed. The government’s legal experts believed that these transit zones were different from the detention centers the Court found illegal because these “container” zones were open toward Serbia. The Hungarian government maintained that these zones have extra-territorial status, i.e., they are not situated within the borders of Hungary. Viktor Orbán likened them to airports. The judgment of the European Court of Human Rights, however, stated that the Hungarian transit zones are under the jurisdiction of the Hungarian state and are not “extra-territorial institutions.” In brief, there is no difference between detention centers in the middle of the country and transit zones at the border.

Hungarian civil rights activists are encouraged by the Court’s decision. They find this judgment especially timely because the latest amendments to the Law of Asylum, just passed by parliament and countersigned by President János Áder, envisage these container transit zones as the sole means of handling all asylum applicants.

What is the Hungarian government’s reaction to the verdict? There’s no official word yet from the government itself, but Fidesz announced that it was an absurdity. “For Hungary to pay when it observes and complies with EU rules and protects not only the country but also the borders of Europe” is incomprehensible. They stand by their belief that the migrant crisis can be handled only with a forceful defense of the borders, and they will withstand all the pressure coming from Brussels and Strasbourg. To ensure that Hungarians’ hatred of the refugees doesn’t wane, they will have a new “national consultation” so “the people will be able to tell their opinion of the immigration policies of Hungary and Brussels.”

Meanwhile major international newspapers are critical of the Hungarian government’s treatment of the refugees in general, especially since there is increasing evidence that some of the policemen serving along the borders mistreat those who illegally try to enter the country. In addition, about 80 asylum seekers in a detention center in Békéscsaba began a hunger strike on Monday protesting their incarceration. On March 13 The New York Times in an editorial harshly condemned the Hungarian government’s inhumane treatment. The editorial begins with these words: “Hungary’s cruel treatment of refugees has reached a new low.” The editorial justifiably points out that while “Mr. Orbán derides the European Union’s values, Hungary has no trouble taking its support, having received 5.6 billion euros from the union in 2015.” The final verdict is that Hungary treats “desperate refugees with incredible cruelty.”

To round out this post, let me say a few words about the celebrations on Hungary’s national holiday in remembrance of the 1848-1849 revolution and war of independence. The little I saw of the crowd gathered in front of the National Museum, where Viktor Orbán spoke, was disgusting. There was a confrontation between Fidesz loyalists on one side and followers of Együtt’s Péter Juhász, with whistles, on the other. During the encounter the loyalists hurled all sorts of obscenities at the whistlers. They also claimed that the Együtt protestors were “members of the AVH,” the dreaded state security police that was dismantled after 1956. The reporter for ATV was called a Jewish stooge. All in all, just another terrible national holiday.

I haven’t yet read Viktor Orbán’s speech in full, but one sentence caught my eye. According to Orbán, the nations of Europe are in a state of insurrection. As he put it, “the winds of 1848 are in the air.” In 1848 one revolution after the other broke out in Europe against the European monarchies, beginning in Sicily, spreading to France, Germany, Italy, and the Austrian Empire. Orbán Viktor blithely compared the democratic revolutions of 1848 to the dark forces of the extreme right on the rise today. He is keeping fingers crossed for victories by Geert Wilders and Marine Le Pen, after his favorite Donald Trump won in the United States. Well, I’m happy to announce that Mark Rutte’s People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) won the election, getting 31 seats in parliament, against Wilders’s Party for Freedom (PV) with 19 seats. This is the second disappointment for Viktor Orbán. The first was the Austrian presidential election, which ended in a victory for a Green candidate, Alexander Van der Bellen, instead of Orbán’s favorite, Norbert Hofer of the far-right FPÖ. And as things stand now, it is unlikely that Marine Le Pen will be the next president of France. What a disappointment for the Hungarian leader of the far-right Fidesz.

March 15, 2017