Tag Archives: Human Rights Watch

“Border hunters” join soldiers and policemen at the Serbian-Hungarian border

It was about a month and a half ago that I wrote two posts dealing with the abominable circumstances along the Serbian-Hungarian border where hundreds of refugees wait for admittance into Hungary but authorities process only fifteen people a day. The authorities could easily handle ten times that number, but they purposely slow the process to discourage those waiting on the other side of the fence. In addition, a new directive now allows Hungarian soldiers and policemen to catch and forcibly remove anyone who gets through the fence illegally and is found within eight kilometers of the border. This government order can easily lead to violence.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) published a detailed description of the alleged abuses at the Serbian-Hungarian border. The organization found that “people who cross into Hungary without permission, including women and children, have been viciously beaten and forced back across the border.” A few days later Nick Thorpe of BBC paid a visit to the area and confirmed the findings of HRW. What followed these reports was a furious denial by the Hungarian authorities of any and all wrongdoing.

Given the bad publicity, one would have thought that the ministry of defense and the ministry of the interior would make sure that soldiers and policemen along the border would be extra careful and would handle the deportation procedures without any unnecessary violence. But, according to an Afghan refugee, this is what happens if a refugee is caught by an officer. “First, they use pepper spray, after which they beat him, handcuff him, and then they let the dogs loose on him. After all this he will be taken back to Serbia.” And, he added, “Only God can help us!” A Syrian man drowned, even though he was a strong swimmer, when Hungarian soldiers or policemen attacked him and his companions with pepper spray and rocks. The Hungarian authorities are allegedly investigating this case. Most of the refugees who complained got nowhere. The Hungarian police didn’t think they had a case.

Medical urgency. The young man almost died.

Medical emergency. The young man almost died.

Yesterday, for the first time, Károly Papp, the national police chief, admitted that there have been several instances in which policemen mistreated refugees. In fact, criminal proceedings have been launched in four cases. We’ll see what happens. I wouldn’t hold my breath.

Meanwhile the Hungarian government decided that the Serbian-Hungarian border defense must be reinforced, and so it launched a campaign to recruit an additional 3,000 men and women. These people will constitute a special unit within the police force, specifically trained for duty along the border. They will be called “határvadászok” (border hunters) instead of “rendőrök” (policemen).

During the Rákosi and Kádár periods, when the borders were hermetically sealed, the military had a separate unit whose members were called “határőrök” (border guards). This special military force ceased to exist with the arrival of democracy and open borders. For years, however, the extreme right political party Jobbik has been demanding the re-creation of this force, which up until now the Orbán government has resisted. Finally, pressured by the flood of refugees whom they want to keep out of Hungary, the government obliged.

Naming these new border guards “border hunters” is significant. A guard is passive until whatever he is guarding is attacked. A hunter actively pursues the game. Orbán’s wordsmiths are exceedingly clever and know how to manipulate the linguistically unsophisticated public.

The reinforcement of the borders has already cost a small fortune, and adding this special unit to the police force will also be very expensive. According to the information provided by Károly Papp, seven units have been trained so far for border duty. Plans call for an additional eight units. That also means enlarging police facilities in several cities, like Budapest, Győr, Szombathely, Debrecen, Szeged, Orosháza, and Kiskunhalas.

The recruiting program is substantial because, I suspect, serving along the border is not exactly a cushy job. I have read horror stories about the primitive circumstances the soldiers and policemen must endure. The government’s hope is that unemployed white collar workers and those who are currently employed as public workers will be willing to become hunters. It seems that by now the police force is ready to hire even those who had been rejected earlier. The training will take six months. By next May an extra 3,000 men and women will be able to serve along the southern border.

All this frantic defense of the country from the refugees is totally senseless because the people who are waiting in Serbia for legal entry or who illegally try to break through the fence have no intention of remaining in Hungary. It is also unlikely that unwilling migrants would be forcibly settled in Hungary. Or, even if there was such a joint decision in Brussels, the numbers Hungary would have to deal with would be small. Moreover, as it stands now, Hungary is letting the few already registered refugees quietly leave the country. Those who until now have been living in closed camps are given a railway ticket and a map to find their way to Körmend, a town close to the Austrian border, from where they disappear across the Austrian border within a couple of days.

But if that is the case, why did the Orbán government insist on sealing Hungary’s southern border? The answer is simple. It is only for domestic political reasons. The overwhelming majority of the population supports Orbán’s migration policy and doesn’t mind the billions spent on the fence or on the manpower to hunt down the refugees. On the contrary, they welcome it. And Viktor Orbán is ready to sacrifice everything, including the reputation of the country and the country’s relationship with the rest of the democratic world, for political gain. Unfortunately, for the time being at least it seems to to be working.

August 25, 2016

Furious denial of any wrongdoing and rejection of a European solution to the refugee crisis

I would like to continue with yesterday’s theme for at least two reasons. One is that the report of Human Rights Watch on the brutal treatment of refugees along the Serb-Hungarian border has been confirmed by Nick Thorpe, Budapest correspondent of BBC, who paid a visit to two camps at Horgos and Kelebia where the conditions are, he said, appalling. Apparently, the Hungarian authorities could easily handle the registration of 100 people a day instead of the 15 they do now, so it is obvious that the aim is to slow the process to discourage people from crossing into the European Union through Hungary. A physician from Doctors Without Borders also confirmed “cases of intentional trauma that can be related to excessive use of force.” And Thorpe reported cases where refugees were already as far as 25 km from Budapest and yet were forcibly moved back to beyond the fence hundreds of kilometers away.

As for some of the most brutal acts of violence, they may have been committed by far-right members of paramilitary organizations patrolling the border on their own. This is speculation because the activity of such groups along the border is not officially acknowledged. And yet, although the Serb-Hungarian border is 175 km long, it is hard to believe that if such groups do indeed patrol the border and beat up refugees who cross illegally, officials are unaware of this fact.

The second reason for continuing this theme is that today the parliamentary undersecretary of the Ministry of Interior, Károly Konrát, denied any and all wrongdoing. Human Rights Watch’s accusations are baseless. In fact, Hungary should be praised for its vigorous defense of the borders of the European Union. As for the humane treatment of migrants, again Hungary can only be praised. The government spends 140,000 forints a month on each refugee, more than the average Hungarian worker makes. Refugees receive three meals a day, a hygienic package, and medical treatment and medicine if needed. Of more than 17,000 illegal migrants, only eight filed complaints, and all eight cases turned out to be bogus.

As for the refugees whom Hungary doesn’t want, according to Nick Thorpe “the unofficial leader of the camp” at the border is a 25-year-old Afghan doctor who negotiates with the Hungarian Office of Immigration and Nationality. Then there is the 23-year-old Syrian refugee who, after spending five days in a Hungarian jail, is now studying computer programming in Berlin in a program called ReDi. But it seems that the Hungarian government finds the idea of admitting desirable immigrants “inhumane and contrary to the European ideal.” János Lázár, for example, described such a practice as a “market place for human beings” where each country picks the “desirable” ones. He fears that Germany and other western countries will pick the best, leaving “the rejects” for the East Europeans.

As expected, the Hungarian government is both denouncing and falsifying the European Commission’s proposed reform of the asylum system, released yesterday. In the interest of truth, I think I should summarize its main points.

The overall procedure will be shortened and streamlined, and decisions will be made in a maximum of six months. Asylum seekers will be guaranteed the right to a personal interview as well as free legal assistance and representation during the administrative procedure. A guardian will be assigned to unaccompanied minors. New obligations to cooperate with the authorities will be introduced. All asylum seekers must have the same protection regardless of the member state in which they make their applications. In order to achieve this harmonization, the member states will be obliged to take into account guidance coming from the European Agency for Asylum. As bruxinfo.hu, a Hungarian internet site reporting on the affairs of the EU, pointed out, there is no talk here of compulsory quotas or punishment for non-compliance. Each year member states would announce the number of refugees they could accommodate. They would receive 10,000 euros for each refugee accepted.

rejection

So, let’s see how this was translated into Orbanite Hungarian by János Lázár this afternoon at his regular Government Info. In his reading, according to Dimitris Avramopoulos’s suggestion “Hungary would have to undertake the complete integration of immigrants forcibly brought into the country.” This is a preposterous idea, which “goes beyond the notion of compulsory settlement quotas.” While he was at it, he reminded his audience that the European Parliament accepted a proposal that would include heavy financial penalties if refugees were not accepted. Moreover, George Soros’s scheme of imposing extra taxes and/or other financial punishment on countries that refuse to participate in the program is “still on the table of the European Commission.” Lázár is referring to Soros’s speech, discussed here earlier.

Lázár is convinced that the “leftist delegations” of the European Parliament, together with the European Commission, work daily on their settlement schemes and keep coming up with new suggestions. That is why there is a need for the quota referendum, to be held on October 2. Lázár finds it impossible to believe that the European Commission will simply ignore the results of “direct democracy.” The referendum, instead of decreasing European integration, will actually strengthen it. It will be “a stabilizing factor.” Unfortunately, he didn’t elaborate on this claim. I would have been curious to see how our maverick Fidesz double-talker could possibly make his case.

Lázár, in talking about fines, repeated a piece of disinformation that the Hungarian government has spread far and wide in the last few days. Fidesz accused MSZP, DK, and LMP members of the European Parliament of voting in favor of a motion to fine states that refuse to participate in the migrant quota scheme. In fact, the report the European Parliament adopted says only that “a European approach is needed based on solidarity and a just distribution of the burden to resolve the migration and refugee crisis.” And, as it turned out, not only “leftist” members but also the vast majority of the European People’s Party, to which Fidesz belongs, voted for it.

You may recall János Lázár’s statement last week that he wouldn’t vote for Hungarian membership in the European Union today because of its migration policies. Of course, he said, this is his “personal opinion,” but a high government official, especially the man who is in charge of the disbursement of billions of euros received from the European Union, should not publicly share a “personal opinion.” Today he followed up, saying that “we didn’t secede from the Soviet Union in order to become a member of another union, but we left the Soviet Union so at least we can be independent and sovereign.”

Well, I don’t want to sound like a schoolmarm, but Hungary was never part of the Soviet Union. That, of course, is the least of the difficulties here. Hungarians desperately wanted to belong to the European Union, and at a referendum well over 80% of them voted for membership. Today, 75% still want to remain in the Union. With their vote at that referendum the Hungarian people authorized their government to give up some of the country’s independence and sovereignty. If Lázár, the second most important man in the Orbán government, insists on full independence and sovereignty, he should discuss it with his boss, and they should start making preparations for a Hungxit. And, while they’re at it, for their retirement from politics.

July 14, 2016

Hungary’s “humane treatment” of the refugees

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.

The fifteen lucky ones who got to the "transit zone"

The fifteen lucky ones who got to the “transit zone”

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.

July 13, 2016

“Unless blood flows”: Human Rights Watch’s report on Hungary

Lately I have been struck by the high number of incidents, often resulting in death, involving relatives or people living in the same household. A daughter kills her mother, an 85-year-old former high-ranking police officer kills his 79-year-old wife, a professional soccer player kills his partner and her son in a family dispute. These are only three cases I remember from the last two weeks or so.

In addition, it was only yesterday that the public at last learned that it was not the blind komondor that knocked over “Terike,” the domestic partner–since then wife–of József Balogh, mayor and member of parliament (Fidesz). Balogh admitted that he hit her in the face several times, grabbed her by the hair, and hit her head on the porch railing.

domestic violence2I’ve dealt with the subject of domestic violence, a very serious problem in Hungary, several times. The first reference I found on Hungarian Spectrum is from January 2009 when a bill was adopted by parliament which introduced the widely used practice outside of Hungary of a restraining or protective order. At that time President László Sólyom refused to sign it and instead sent it to the Constitutional Court. His objection was based on a section in the Constitution [58. § (1)] that guaranteed the right to choose one’s place of residence. I guess that needs no additional comment. The Constitutional Court naturally found the president’s legal opinion brilliant. After all, he was the chief justice of the court between 1990 and 1998.

In September 2012 the question came up again after Fidesz initially refused even to consider the issue. When public opinion forced the government party to act, they tried to make the law as weak as possible. Zoltán Balog, minister of human resources and in his former life a Protestant minister, was upset about the opposition’s “bluestockings attitude” and objected to talking about “violence within the family” because the family is sacred. Instead of family, the government insisted on “violence within the confines of partnership or relations.”

Eventually, after a long and rather fruitless discussion, the bill became law in July 2013, but it has serious shortcomings. For example, an assault against an intimate partner will be classified as an instance of domestic violence only if there are at least two separate occasions of abuse. Moreover, the new legislation does not cover non-cohabitating partners.

All in all, the Hungarian situation was considered to be so serious that Human Rights Watch (HRW) decided to issue its findings in a lengthy situation report. It was written by Lydia Gall, researcher on the Balkans/Eastern Europe in the Europe and Central Asia Division of the organization. Those who are interested in the details should read the report itself. Here I will concentrate on the official Hungarian reaction to it.

First, it is evident that the Hungarian government received a copy of the report before November 6, the official release date, because they were prepared to combat HRW’s “allegations” within hours after the appearance of the report. The very first reaction, a legal rebuttal, came from the Hungarian police. In my opinion it is almost certain that the author of the rebuttal is not a policeman. I rather suspect that it is the work of some government lawyer in the Ministry of Administration and Justice. In it the Hungarian government complains about “the several factual errors” and “the lack of sources.” From the document it becomes clear that the representatives of HRW did pay a visit to the Hungarian police headquarters, but it seems they were not convinced by the assurances of the policemen they met. The police’s “Communication Service” spent the rest of its document listing all the government resolutions to battle domestic violence, starting in 2003. Even this glowing report on the excellence of the Hungarian law, however, had to admit that charges against someone who commits domestic violence can be brought only by the victim.

The Hungarian police are especially sensitive about the issue of their officers’ preparedness in cases of domestic violence. The document states that there are “several forums” where a victim can complain in case the policeman refuses to act in the manner expected, but it doesn’t identify any of these forums by name.

A couple of hours after the release of the police communiqué, Zoltán Balog’s ministry also raised its voice against HRW’s claims that the Hungarian government’s system of handling domestic violence “simply doesn’t work.” The HRW report contends that because of police inaction and the lack of legal safeguards, women who are victims of domestic violence don’t get proper protection. Naturally, the Hungarian government doesn’t accept this verdict. Moreover, the ministry spokesman pointed out that too little time has passed since the law took effect and therefore no meaningful evaluation of the system can be undertaken. The ministry also said that the representatives of Human Rights Watch had assured the ministry earlier that the report would not be a comprehensive picture of the Hungarian situation but would only mention the most flagrant cases in order to inspire the Hungarian government to take further steps. I might add that throughout its reply, Balog’s ministry refused to refer to domestic violence by its common name (in Hungarian családon belüli erőszak) but instead used “kapcsolati erőszak,” a word combination cooked up by Balog in order to avoid the word “család” (family).

Then came the official spokeswoman of Fidesz, Gabriella Selmeczi, who charged that the criticism of Human Rights Watch is not really about the shortcomings of Hungary’s handling of domestic violence. In this case, as usual, Selmeczi continued, “we are witnessing an artificially generated international pressure” on Hungary. She can’t help thinking of the relationship between HRW and George Soros, the American financier with Hungarian roots. After all, last year Soros gave 20 million dollars to the organization. Selmeczi also added that the same Soros “has given millions to Gordon Bajnai’s foundation and has business dealings with Ferenc Gyurcsány’s firms.”

It doesn’t seem to matter to the Fidesz propagandists that Gyurcsány’s firms have nothing to do with the finances of the party. Moreover, the so-called millions given to Bajnai’s foundation turned out to be a small grant for a few thousand dollars from one of Soros’s foundations. The same is true about the money Gyurcsány’s firm got. Soros has been since 2010 financing projects aimed at Roma integration throughout Europe. Altus, Gyurcsány’s firm, is involved with such projects in the Balkan region and this received $13,800 toward the financing of the project.

So this was yet another Fidesz attempt to discredit a respectable NGO, this time Human Rights Watch, by claiming that it is an instrument of George Soros aimed at bolstering the political chances of the opposition. Gabriella Selmeczi most likely forgot that in 2010 George Soros and Viktor Orbán actually, after many years, met again to discuss his Roma integration project. At this meeting Soros offered one million dollars to the Hungarian government after the red sludge accident in 2010. Soros apparently also offered financial assistance for the Orbán government’s efforts at Roma integration. I don’t know what happened afterward. It is possible that Soros changed his mind once he realized that Roma integration was transformed into Roma school segregation with the active assistance of Zoltán Balog.

In brief, the Orbán government’s commitment to seriously combating domestic violence is lukewarm at best. I highly doubt that the government will try to improve the existing ineffectual laws as a result of Human Rights Watch’s indictment of their shortcomings. I also doubt that the police’s reluctance to interfere in domestic disputes will change any time soon.