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Hungary’s transit zones are actually prisons where even pregnant women are handcuffed

This post is the English translation of a Hungarian-language article that originally appeared in Index on June 12. The staff of The Budapest Sentinel translated this report, which gives us an inside look at life in these notorious transit zones. I’m grateful to the editor of The Budapest Sentinel for permission to republish it here.

Background

  • The Hungarian government set up transit zones along the border as a place for those fleeing war to request international protection.
  • These transit zones operate as though they are located in a “no man’s land”. In other words, Hungarian law does not necessarily apply at these locations. Until now, we had no knowledge of what happens behind the gates of these transit zones because the public access to these areas is restricted.
  • We found two families in Serbia who fled the Hungarian transit zones. The respective heads of these families, Labib (L) and Mohamed (M) spoke to us of humiliating treatment, prison-like conditions, and starving children.
  • Tímea Kovács, an attorney with the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, met with asylum-seekers in one of the containers at a transit zone. Kovács spoke to us about handcuffed pregnant women. United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees workers are allowed access to the transit zones. UNHCR press officer Ernő Simon helped us reconstruct what is happening behind the barbed-wire fence.

Prison conditions

Labib: There were five sectors at the Tompa transit zone. You could not travel from one sector to the other because a four-meter-high barbed-wire fence enclosed each sector and there were cameras in every corner. We had a small, ten-by-ten area where we sat all day.

Mohamed: There were two families in one container. Seventy to eighty people in one sector, of which about twenty were children, with one pregnant woman and a woman suffering from cancer. The police never talked to us. All the officials were women. They spoke harshly to us. If I asked them for a diaper, they just yelled “no” back at me. There was only one normal person there, a blonde lady, who treated us as human beings. She would greet us, smile at the children, and ask us them how they were doing. The children had one swing, and they would argue [over who gets to sit on it] all day long. Adults would sit in a small area in between the containers, looking at the barbed-wire or the sky. We would cry inside so the children would not see.

Labib: Upon arriving [at the transit zone], everyone was happy. But after a few days, everyone felt like a criminal. The conditions broke us. We were not allowed to go anywhere. The guards and police did not concern themselves with us. My 11-year-old son was kidnapped when we lived in Iraq, he was seriously traumatized, but no one concerned themselves with him. They didn’t have a kind word to say to him. My wife was sick but they did not care.

Ernő Simon – UNHCR: There are four sectors, each sector is bordered by a high, barbed-wire fence. The containers are placed in a manner to prevent people from moving from one sector to the other. The containers used by [the authorities] are air-conditioned, but there is no air-conditioner in the containers where the asylum-seekers are kept. The containers heat up as the day grows hot. The open areas of each sector are practically prison yards for the condemned. The white gravel makes it very dusty. There is no shade. This is no place to keep humans.

Tímea Kovács – Hungarian Helsinki Committee: The people kept in the transit zones feel as though they live in a prison, not a camp. A mother’s story about what her child asked her is very telling: “What have you done, mother, to deserve being locked in a prison?” The gates, armed guards, police with rubber batons, and restricted movement only reinforce the feeling that this is prison. The situation grows worse in that no one knows just how long they will be locked up.

Malnourishment, starving children

Mohamed: It was problematic that we were only offered four spoons of baby food per day. It didn’t matter that we asked for more, they wouldn’t give it to us. If a hungry child cried at night, we had to notify the police, who then notified an employee there who then looked through paperwork for the child’s name. It was a long process.  The child would constantly cry. At the end of this process, the child would receive two spoons of food, and they told us that we would not be able to ask for food until noon the following day.

We were given two diapers a day, and there was no bottled water. We had to mix the baby food with tap water. We would have heated the water but that was forbidden.

Labib: The feeding was very monotonous. There was no fruit, no vegetables. For breakfast, we received canned food and bread. For lunch, noodles and chicken. For dinner, canned food and bread. Poor medical attention and pregnant women in handcuffs.

Mohamed: Our two-month-old son became sick in the transit zone. The doctor was less than ten meters away from our zone, separated from us by a big fence. With my child in my hands, they escorted me — two police in front and two behind. Two police came into the doctor’s room with us. I felt as though my child and I are criminals.

Labib: If you had to visit the doctor, you were escorted by five police officers. On your way to the doctor, you could see people locked in cages, but you were not allowed to speak to them. You could see police and fences everywhere. This was psychological warfare. The doctor really only provided first aid. They just gave you a pill and that was that.

Tímea Kovács – Hungarian Helsinki Committee: The situation for pregnant women is especially hard because there is no assistance for them. They do not even receive vitamins, nor are they fed vegetables or fruits. And it’s especially hot inside the containers.

Last month, there was a woman who was escorted to the doctor in handcuffs. Because her stomach was large, they did not handcuff her from behind, but from the front. We haven’t seen instances like these in the past few weeks. But there was one mother who should have been taken to the hospital. Because she insisted that her child not see her in handcuffs, she declined to go to the doctor.

Ernő Simon – UNHCR: The sick are escorted to the doctor by police. There was one individual that was escorted 25-30 meters to the doctor by five armed guards. If someone must be taken to the hospital, they are handcuffed and escorted by police. All this despite not being guilty of anything. They came to Hungary to receive asylum.

Psychological warfare

Labib: After arriving, everyone is immediately taken to be interrogated. This took our family about 9-10 hours. We were interrogated one at a time, and were locked in a container for an entire day.  When we needed to use the restroom, we were escorted by police as though we were criminals. The purpose of these interrogations was to break us. They tried to upset us. They asked us religiously-sensitive questions — for instance, whether I would be open to changing my religion. I told the interrogator that I would switch to the Christian faith if she converted to the Muslim faith. She laughed, then continued asking questions.

Mohamed: My wife and I were each interrogated for four hours. They tried to corner us into answering questions in a certain way, and asked us questions for which we did not know the answers. For instance, why is there an eagle in the Iraqi parliament? I don’t know this because I am Kurdish and lived in the Autonomous Kurdish Region. I have never been to Baghdad. We didn’t even learn about Iraqi things in school.

Labib: The questions presupposed that we are in Hungary because of money. For instance, why didn’t we just stay in Iraq and live off the money we spent on our journey here. It didn’t matter that I was once a successful businessman and that we left because my 11-year-old child was taken by kidnappers for ransom. The kidnappers gave my child back when I paid them 50,000 dollars. Later they kidnapped me and shot me, and only let me go after I gave them 70,000 dollars. It was then that we sold everything we had and fled. It did not matter [to the interrogator] that I said I would never recoup the money it cost to flee [Iraq] even after working for five years, or that we fled not because of money but because of terror.

Mohamed: We did not receive water or food during the four-hour interrogation. And there was no restroom. By the end of it, I almost wet myself. That is when I told them that I must go outside. Two police escorted me to the restroom and stood next to me as I relieved myself. The interrogator asked me things like, “Say five negative things about Serbia.” This is where I had to say bad things about Serbia because if I would have said anything nice, they would have sent me back. I told them that Serbia does not care for human rights, they mistreated us, and they did not care for us adequately — but this is more true for Hungary.

Tímea Kovács – Hungarian Helsinki Committee: For families, these interviews take a long time and they are not offered any food or drink, nor do they know that they can use the restroom if they need to. They are not informed that they can request that an attorney be present, so they never have that opportunity. We also found out that the Hungarian authorities give no consideration to documents presented by these people, copies of such documents, threatening letters, or any documents clarifying their situation.

Retreat to Serbia

Mohamed: My child was very sick — choking. I took my child to the doctor every day but it didn’t matter that I said the medication wasn’t helping, we were only offered one spray and nothing else. By the end, the situation was so bad we were afraid our child would die. Our child could not keep milk down and vomited, nothing would stay in the stomach. We asked the Hungarian authorities to deport us back to Kurdistan. They said they would but first they would take us to Budapest, lock me in jail, separate me from my wife and child — who they would lock up somewhere else. We would not be able to see each other and only after that they would decide when and how we would be deported. They intimidated us. That is why we decided to come back to Serbia. Our child received medical care here and became better. We are given an entire box of baby food and even five diapers per day if we need it.

Labib: We were there for fifteen days. My wife was sick and it didn’t matter that I told them she needs to be taken to the doctor because she needs an operation. I wrote a letter to the [managers of the transit zone] telling them that this is a prison, not a camp, and that we would go back to Serbia if they did not take my wife to the hospital. Half an hour later, a supervisor arrived accompanied by two police officers. They gave me a plastic bag, told us to gather our belongings and to head back to Serbia. We told them that it is nighttime and asked whether we could just leave in the morning so that we could have a place to sleep. They told us to leave immediately. My family – myself, my four children and my sick wife – were put out on the border at night. I asked for them to give us a document showing that we asked to go back [to Serbia] on our own will. They told us we would get nothing. I asked for an attorney but they didn’t care.

Here in Serbia, I asked them to deport us. My wife would have been operated on in Serbia, but we waited to gain entry into Hungary because we thought that Europe would be better. I now have a different opinion of Europe. Disappointing. If we die, we might as well die at home.

The UN says all of this is unlawful.

“Not only are transit zones in critical condition but the entire system has problems,” the UNHCR’s top representative tells Index.

“It’s absurd and unacceptable that children and adults have their freedom of movement restricted and are locked behind bars by Hungarian authorities. This is especially a problem for the children, who should never be locked behind bars. On top of all this, we just don’t know how long children and adults are being locked up. The asylum procedures can last months, even up to a year,” says Ernő Simon.

“These children and adults did not commit crimes. They exercised a fundamental right that is guaranteed by international treaties: they have asked for asylum. What’s more, these people are not climbing over fences, they have done what the Hungarian authorities have asked of them and registered at the transit zones. Nothing justifies their detainment, except that they officially submitted their asylum request in Hungary. Hungarian authorities are punishing those who choose to exercise their right to asylum.”

The Office of Immigration and Nationality says none of this is true

We asked the immigration authority why they keep innocent people in prison-like conditions, why they handcuff pregnant women, and why the provide poor care. They told us that there is no truth to what our sources – asylum-seekers independent of one another, the lawyer, and the UNHCR – have said. Our questions and the immigration authority’s unabridged responses are the following.

  1. Parents with small children have said that they receive limited amounts of food, and that if a crying child asks for more, then they will receive less the following day. Why do the children not receive enough food?

This statement is simply not true. There are no limits to the amount of food for toddlers. The baby food is prescribed by a pediatrician and the food is ensured for babies and toddlers. Baby food and fruit sauce is provided in unlimited quantities for children aged four to six-months-old, respectively.

  1. We were informed of two pregnant women that were taken to the hospital in handcuffs when they needed medical attention. Why was it necessary to handcuff these pregnant women?

Without knowing the dates of the transport of these women, we must refute these statements. Documents in our possession show that six expecting women were placed in the transit zones, and none of them were transported to a health-care facility in handcuffs.

  1. Why is it necessary to handcuff those asylum-seekers who depart the transit zone to visit the doctor or for other reasons?

It is not necessary, and is only done in certain rare instances when justified under the law, for example when the person poses a risk to themselves or others.

  1. Which law lays out the circumstances under which it is justified to handcuff someone when that person is not being charged with any crime?

The curtailing of personal freedoms is established by the 1994 CCCIV law on law enforcement. (Index writes this is not justification).

  1. Asylum-seekers are afforded limited movement, having only a 10×10 m yard without shade if they choose to move around. Do you plan on changing this?
  2. Does [the immigration] authority not consider the restriction of movement to be inhumane treatment?

A solution to provide shade is under way. The opportunity to move around is not restricted for any asylum-seekers. What’s more, on April 6, 2017, you could have personally seen that asylum-seekers had access to sporting equipment.

  1. An individual we interviewed states that his wife – who needed hospital care – was only allowed to visit the camp’s doctor despite having documentation that indicated she may need surgery. Who decides whether someone is in need of a specialist physician?

The doctor decides whether a specialist physician is needed in every case.

  1. An individual we interviewed claims to have written a letter pointing out the lack of adequate medical care and stating that [they] would leave the camp and return to Serbia if they do not receive care from a doctor. Half an hour after submitting the letter, they were removed from the transit zone at night — a family with four children. They asked to be allowed to stay until the morning, but were not afforded the opportunity. Why were these asylum-seekers and families needing medical attention treated so strictly?

The authorities do not force anyone to leave the transit zone. The asylum-seekers leave the transit zone for Serbia when they so choose.

  1. Does [the immigration authority] plan to improve conditions at the transit zones? If so, what kind of changes can be expected?
  2. If there will not be any changes, is that because [the immigration authority] is satisfied with the conditions?

When designing the transit zone, we paid special attention to the divided sectors (separating single men from single women, and unaccompanied minors over the age of 14 and families) to make conditions as comfortable as possible. All sectors have ecumenical prayer rooms, wifi is provided, as is the ability to watch television with several Arab-language stations. Sports equipment is provided, and the family sectors have playrooms. Social workers from the the Immigration and Refugee Affairs Agency organize activities for the children during the day (drawing, painting, etc.).

  1. Is it true that asylum-seekers lose their right to submit asylum claims in Hungary if they return to Serbia?

It is not true. According to the regulations, the applicant who chooses to leave the country is not restricted from applying for asylum in Hungary again.

A Kurdish news agency even reported on the inhumane conditions

At the end of May, several asylum-seekers began to protest the poor conditions at the camp. They asked their children to hold up signs calling attention to the prison-like conditions. The protest made it all the way to Iraqi Kurdistan, where local papers reported on the Hungarian situation.

The Hungarian Consulate responded to the article, refuting the claims of the asylum-seekers and the UN. According to Csaba Vezekényi, the conditions at the transit zone are ideal, there are sports, and the children can spend the entire day on a playground.

Vezekényi also said that the transit zone was built for those who illegally enter Hungary. He misled the foreign newspaper’s reporter because the transit zones are used by the Hungarian state to treat cruelly all those who – acting in good faith – legally sought entry into Hungary after waiting in Serbia for months.

June 14, 2017

The Hungarian government was caught again: Police brutality was not fake news

Two days ago I quotedThe New York Times editorial that harshly condemned the Hungarian government’s inhumane treatment of the refugees. The Orbán government never leaves such criticism unanswered. In the past ambassadors or government spokesmen responded directly. This time, however, Zoltán Kovács, head of the international communication office, chose a different route. He published an article on an English-language site called About Hungary, which is pretty clearly the product of his own office. By the way, the amount of propaganda aimed at foreign audiences is staggering. There is already an internet website called Hungary Today, which is allegedly a privately funded publication but in fact is being financed by the government. Just today I learned of a publication called Globe’s Magazine, allegedly published by a company called Globimpex. As far as I can ascertain, it is actually financed by the Hungarian ministry of foreign affairs and trade.

The content of About Hungary deserves further investigation, but for the time being let’s just concentrate on Kovács’s answer to The New York Times. In the article Kovács explains to the editorial board of the paper that they don’t know what they are talking about. He assumes total ignorance on the part of Americans, who need to be told that inside the Schengen Area freedom of movement across borders of member states is unrestricted. “You’ll never hear [the word] terrorism from The New York Times and their ilk. Yes, it’s politically incorrect, but it’s today’s reality.” This last sentence in particular was music to the ears of the editors of Breitbart News. They promptly published practically the whole letter. In this way, given the large readership of Breitbart, Kovács’s lecture to the ignorant liberals who don’t want to talk about terrorism received a wide, and I assume receptive, audience.

Interestingly enough, Kovács didn’t try to deny the cruel treatment of the refugees. On the contrary. “It is easy to be charmed by the human rights nonsense when you’re penning editorials from an office in Midtown Manhattan. But we’re running a government responsible for the safety and security of our citizens—as well as the citizens of Europe—on the front lines of this crisis, and we see this struggle differently.”

This was not the earlier position of the government. On March 7 György Bakondi, Viktor Orbán’s adviser on internal security issues, gave an interview to ATV in which he denied any police abuse of the refugees at the Serbian-Hungarian border. During fairly aggressive questioning by Egon Rónai, Bakondi exclaimed: “Can you imagine that our soldiers and policemen beat these people? Can you imagine that our men lie? Dog bites? There are dogs but they all have muzzles on. Don’t we trust our own soldiers?” They know nothing about any abuse ever happening at the border and therefore there is nothing to investigate, Bakondi announced.

A couple of days later János Lázár and Zoltán Kovács at their joint Thursday performance repeated the same line. They categorically denied any wrongdoing on the part of either the policemen or the soldiers. It’s the refugees who lie. Viktor Orbán basically said the same thing during the press conference he gave in Brussels when he claimed that “we don’t know anyone who became injured in the territory of Hungary.” All injured persons were registered in Serbia. The media again wants to “confuse the policemen and the soldiers.”

A telling drawing by a refugee / Source: migszol.com

It was inevitable that the truth would emerge sooner and later. In fact, on the very next day Magyar Nemzet learned from the chief prosecutor’s office that since September 2015, 44 abuse cases had been reported, most of which were dropped “in the absence of a crime.” In five cases the police are still investigating. Who reported these cases? Sometimes the plaintiffs themselves or their lawyers. Doctors Without Borders reported at least nine cases, the United Nations Refugee Agency presented at least one case, and even the Hungarian police came forward with a number of cases. I assume in this last category a superior officer reported on a subordinate.

Once Magyar Nemzet was on the case, they kept going. The paper soon found out that at least two policemen were convicted in an accelerated procedure of abusing immigrants on the southern border. One of them was fined 130,000 forints, which, given these policemen’s salaries, is a fairly hefty sum. This particular brave policeman, of whom we should be proud according to Bakondi, fired teargas straight into the faces of refugees who were standing on the Serbian side of the fence. His excuse was that the refugee in question was hurling abuse at the policeman’s family and “behaved in a threatening manner.” I guess from across the fence. Moreover, given the language skills of the Hungarian police, the story doesn’t ring true.

The other case was even more serious. This particular police sergeant was found guilty of maltreatment and assault of a refugee, who happened to be sitting on the ground. Without any provocation, the policeman kicked the man’s face with his right knee. He was fined 300,000 forints. So much for the gallant Hungarian policemen Bakondi talked about. And so much for the trustworthiness of the Hungarian government and its spokesmen.

The cruel treatment of refugees The New York Times’s editorial wrote about isn’t limited to physical abuse at the border. It extends to the treatment of those few refugees who have received asylum in Hungary. The Orbán government’s chief argument against accepting Middle Eastern and North African refugees is their radically different culture and religion, which prevents their integration into the European majority culture. The two don’t mix. The Hungarian government certainly makes these people’s integration as difficult as possible. Without some initial assistance, integration will not take place easily. The refugees need shelter, some clothing, and, most important, language instruction. As long as they cannot communicate, they cannot find a job. But since June 2016 the government provides none of the above. Prior to that date a legal immigrant received a monthly stipend and some rudimentary language instruction. Right now they get nothing. Some of them must sleep in homeless shelters where they are not welcome. In this way the Orbán government can prove a point: they cannot learn the language, they don’t even want to, and naturally they don’t want to work.

I did hear about a language course offered by a Hungarian Reformed group. The Hungarian Catholic Church, however, has no intention of lending a helping hand to these poor people. The one notable exception is Miklós Beer, bishop of Vác. He suggested that each family that can afford it should “adopt” a refugee, whom they would help get through the first difficult months. He himself took in two young men. His fellow bishops are horrified. And the government newspaper, Magyar Idők, published an editorial in which György Pilhál, one of the most objectionable hacks in the government propaganda machine, intimated that the bishop must have been drunk to have suggested such an unheard-of act. The title of his piece was “I hope it wasn’t the wine for mass.” It seems that this was too much even for Magyar Idők, whose editor-in-chief apologized a week later.

All in all, Hungary’s treatment of the refugees, both those who are already inside the country and those who are locked up in the transit zone, is shameful. There is no other way of describing it.

March 17, 2017

The Hungarian government’s shameful treatment of asylum seekers

On Sunday, March 5, 2017, a report from Belgrade was published in the Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet. It claimed that refugees “with visible traces of Hungary’s brutal policies” had told the Swedish journalist about severe beatings with batons by Hungarian policeman. The officers also used attack dogs. Their stories were confirmed by Andrea Contenta of Doctors Without Borders. According to him, the number of incidents has multiplied of late. There was at least one day when 20 people needed medical attention. One of the asylum seekers ended up into the emergency room of the nearby hospital. Accompanying the story were photos of the men with visible wounds and bruises.

In no time all the major newspapers of Europe and the United States picked up Aftonbladet’s story, which was followed by a worldwide condemnation of the Hungarian government’s treatment of asylum seekers. A day later the Hungarian ministry of interior released a statement that Magyar Nemzet described as an “ill-tempered personal attack.” In it, the ministry “categorically repudiated the unproven accusations that appeared in the international and domestic media” leveled against the Hungarian government. The ministry called attention to the fact that such accusations usually occur when “Hungary is forced, in the defense of the European Union and its own citizens, to strengthen its borders.” The press release also noted that Doctors Without Borders is supported by George Soros. As for the few possible incidents, Hungarian prosecutors have already investigated eight cases, six of which turned out to be bogus. The denial of these reports continued today when Zoltán Kovács, a government spokesman, declared that the report of Doctors Without Borders is nothing more than a pack of lies.

But that was not all. On March 7, two days after the Swedish newspaper story, the Hungarian parliament passed a new piece of legislation that will force all asylum seekers into detention camps. UPI’s report specifically recounted that “although [the law] was fiercely criticized after its submission last month, the legislation won near-unanimous approval … by a vote of 138-6.” This lopsided vote was the result of the abstention of MSZP members of parliament, a sign of their usual ambivalence when it comes to the migrant issue. While their cases are being decided, asylum seekers, including women and children over the age of 14, will be herded into shipping containers surrounded by a high razor-fence on the Hungarian side. These camps will be wide open on the Serbian side. Therefore, Hungarian government officials can declare with some justification that the people inside these camps are not incarcerated; they just can’t step onto Hungarian soil.

On the very same day that Fidesz-KDNP and Jobbik members of parliament voted for the bill that was to receive worldwide opprobrium, Viktor Orbán delivered a short speech at the swearing-in ceremony of 462 new “border hunters.” In the speech he called the new recruits’ job a “calling” in “the service of the country and the defense of the Hungarian people.” He pointed out that even if there is at the moment no migrant pressure at the borders of Europe, Hungary must be prepared for repeated onslaughts of migrants. It is for that reason that the Hungarian government will build a new fence which, according to some reports, might be attached to a source of low-voltage electricity. He described “migration as a Trojan horse of terrorism,” which assumes that all migrants are potential terrorists. Or perhaps one could go even further and interpret this sentence as akin to the contention of those American Islamophobes who say that Islam is not really a religion but rather an ideology of terrorism.

Another memorable Orbán line from this speech addressed the dichotomy between human rights and the law. Those migrants who cross Hungary’s border break the law. “This is reality which cannot be overwritten by all that rarified claptrap about human rights.” Orbán certainly doesn’t beat around the bush. Human rights are not something he worries or cares about. In fact, he is ready to transgress them in the name of “reality.”

A day later Magyar Nemzet reported that Nils Muižnieks, the Council of Europe’s commissioner for human rights, expressed his “deep concern” over the detention of asylum seekers in guarded camps which, in his opinion, violates the obligations spelled out in the European Convention of Human Rights. And he is not alone. Two rapporteurs of the Council, Tineke Strik and Doris Fiala, asked János Áder to refuse to countersign this new law that most likely is in violation of international agreements. Zeid bin Ra’ad al Hussein, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, considers it “a far cry from international norms” and recommends its withdrawal.

As far as the European Commission is concerned, there seems to be a shift in its position toward this latest outrage. At first Margaritis Schinas, the chief spokesperson of the Commission, informed inquiring journalists that the Commission would not make a statement now but would wait until the law comes into effect. A day later, however, another spokesperson, Natasha Bertaud, told Népszava’s correspondent in Brussels that Dimitris Avramopoulos, EU commissioner for migration, will be dispatched to Budapest “to conduct serious negotiations with the Hungarian authorities about the amendments to the Asylum Act.”

By now I don’t have much hope that any international organization, be it the United Nations, the Council of Europe, or the European Commission, will be able to influence Hungarian policies either on the migrant question or on the transgression of democratic norms. Here and there one can hear from European politicians that the Hungarian government’s behavior should at least have financial consequences, but so far Brussels has been unwilling to punish Hungary for the actions of its government.

There are times when Viktor Orbán, despite all his bluster, quietly falls into line. Like today, when he cast his vote for the reelection of Donald Tusk as president of the European Council. Orbán abandoned his best friend and comrade Jarosław Kaczyński and voted for “the icon of immorality and stupidity,” as the Polish foreign minister called Donald Tusk. There are steps which even Orbán is reluctant to take.

March 9, 2017

Amnesty International: Devastating report on Hungary

A few days ago Amnesty International (AI) released its 2015-16 report “on the state of the world’s human rights,” which includes a scathing analysis of Hungary’s record. Since the refugee crisis dominated public discourse in the European Union during this period, AI paid special attention to Viktor Orbán’s policies regarding the refugees who gathered at the southern border of the country. AI describes Hungary as a country that “led the way in refusing to engage with pan-European solutions to the refugee crisis” and opted instead to seal its borders. The report stresses the anti-Muslim rationale for Hungary’s refusal to admit refugees.

AI’s report deals with four problem areas: (1) refugees, (2) freedom of association, (3) discrimination against the Roma population, and (4) freedom of religion. The space devoted to Hungary is fairly long. It begins with the statement that, according to a report compiled by the Eötvös Károly Institute, the Hungarian Helsinki Commission, and the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union, “the replacement of judges of the Constitutional Court and the 2010 constitutional amendments undermined the Court’s independence.” Thus, the whole legal foundation of the country is flawed.

The report traces out the stages of fence-building and the amendments to the Asylum Law. AI comes to the conclusion that “the application of the law could lead to the violation of Hungary’s obligation of non-refoulement,” a practice of not forcing refugees or asylum seekers to return to a country in which they may be subjected to persecution.

The AI report also points to the fact that “NGOs critical of government policies faced harassment and threats of losing their registration.” The section on discrimination against the Roma lists several court cases, including the so-called “Numbered Streets” neighborhood in Miskolc, which is still pending because of the municipality’s appeal. As far as freedom of religion is concerned, the Hungarian government, although it should have changed the 2011 Church Law to comply with a 2014 European Court of Human Rights judgment, has done nothing and therefore “freedom of religion continues to be restricted” in Hungary.

It’s not a pretty picture, and Júlia Iván, director of Amnesty International Hungary, expanded the list of complaints by pointing out that the Hungarian government in the past six or seven years has done everything in its power to deny assistance to and protection of refugees. Moreover, the Hungarian government incited a level of xenophobia in its citizens that is becoming something of a record in the western world. “Trump, Orbán, Erdoğan, and other similar populists dehumanize whole groups of people and make them scapegoats,” says Salil Shetty, secretary-general of Amnesty International, as quoted in Magyar Nemzet.

I’m sure that those of us who are familiar with the refugee record of the Hungarian government could have anticipated the findings of AI. So I will move on to the Orbán government’s reaction to AI’s assessment.

No more than a couple of hours after the Hungarian media began reporting on AI’s analysis of the Hungarian situation Magyar Idők published an article about Amnesty International which, according to the Government Information Center, encourages “the violation of the law of illegal immigrants.” This is especially unacceptable because “the government is only trying to defend the rights of European citizens and Hungarian families.”

A few days later Magyar Idők continued its attack on Amnesty International. It repeated Fidesz’s accusation that George Soros, who helps fund AI, was behind the negative report on Hungary. It also speculated about another reason for AI’s negative view of the Hungarian situation. The bad report card was expected because the Hungarian parliament will soon debate the government’s new proposals on restricting the free movement of migrants whose status is still pending. Of course, this is a ridiculous accusation since such a lengthy report cannot be put together in a couple of weeks and the new government proposals are of fairly recent vintage.

Röszke, September 8, 2015 / Source: Magyar Nemzet / Photo: Béla Nagy

Today Magyar Idők once again returned to the topic of Amnesty International, arguing that last year the organization inundated the office of László Székely, the Hungarian ombudsman, with complaints. In one year the poor man had to deal with 7,500 complaints. Of that number 2,600 dealt with immigration. Only ten of these complaints came from Hungary, the rest arrived from abroad. Surely, Magyar Idők wrote, AI is behind this deluge of mail. Associates of the ombudsman’s office said that among the letters there were even some written in English, German, French, and Spanish. The associates proudly announced that all the complaining letters were answered in the appropriate language.

Reporters from the government paper confronted Áron Demeter, who deals with human rights violations for Amnesty International Hungary. Why does Amnesty International encourage its followers to write such letters? Demeter’s explanation was that HHC had asked the ombudsman to turn to Hungary’s Constitutional Court on the question of the government’s criminalization of irregular border crossings. They hoped that as a result of receiving so many letters the ombudsman would be moved to act. But the letters didn’t change the ombudsman’s mind. Magyar Idők’s reporter didn’t hide his disapproval of such “pressure tactics.” Demeter explained that ever since its foundation AI has undertaken letter-writing campaigns to authorities that keep innocent victims incarcerated. In many cases, he added, this tactic had proved to be successful.

That explanation didn’t impress Magyar Idők’s reporter, who kept repeating that the behavior of AI was unconscionable. Their letter writers burden the already overworked ombudsman, who is supposed to represent those citizens who have grievances and who seek remedies from the offending authorities.

Finally, I would like to call attention to a short video that records complaints of police brutality along the Serbian-Hungarian border.

If the stories are true, and I fear they are, one can only be ashamed of what’s going on in the “center of Europe,” as Hungarians like to refer to their country’s geographic position.

February 25, 2017

Viktor Orbán is back: his views on migrants, NGOs, and the Trump administration

In the last two days Viktor Orbán gave a short speech and a longer interview. He delivered his speech at the swearing-in ceremony of the newly recruited “border hunters.” It was exclusively about the dangers migrants pose to Hungary and Hungarians. The interview was conducted by one the “approved” state radio reporters and ranged over many topics. I decided to focus on two: the Orbán government’s current attitude toward non-governmental organizations and the prime minister’s thoughts on the coming Trump administration.

The migrant question

A few days ago we had quite a discussion about the Hungarian penchant for viewing Hungary as the defender of the West, the protector of Christianity during the expansion of the Ottoman Empire. In the last few decades Hungarian historians have done a tremendous amount of work on Hungarian-Ottoman relations, and today we have a very different view of this whole period than we had even fifty years ago. First of all, scholars no longer believe the traditional story of Hungary as a bulwark of European civilization against the Porte. Yet the traditional interpretation of Hungary’s role prevails, and since the beginning of the refugee crisis it has been recounted repeatedly, largely because the Orbán government can use the historical parallel to its advantage.

It was therefore no surprise that Viktor Orbán’s address to the border hunters began with this theme: “you today swore to defend the borders of Hungary, the security of Hungarian homes. With this act you also defend Europe, just as has been customary around here in the last 500 years. To protect ourselves and also Europe: this has been the fate of the Hungarian nation for centuries,” he told his audience.

Although this is certainly not the first time that Viktor Orbán has announced that, as far as he is concerned, all those millions who in the last two years or even before arrived on the territory of the European Union are “illegal immigrants” who “cannot be allowed to settle in Europe,” this is perhaps the clearest indication that for him there is no such thing as a refugee crisis or, for that matter, refugees. No one can force any nation “for the sake of human rights to commit national suicide.” Among the new arrivals are terrorists, and “innocent people have lost their lives because of the weakness of their countries.” In brief, he blames western governments for terrorist acts committed on their soil. “They would have been better off if they had followed the Hungarian solution, which is workable and useful.” In brief, if it depended on Viktor Orbán, all foreigners would be sent back to where they came from.

The rest of the speech was nothing more than pious lies, so I’ll move on to the interview.

Transparency and non-governmental organizations

Let me start by reminding readers that, in the 2016 Global Competitiveness Index of the World Economic Forum, among 138 countries Hungary ranked ahead of only Madagascar and Venezuela in the category of government transparency. Yet Orbán in his interview this morning gave a lengthy lecture on “the right of every Hungarian citizen to know exactly of every public figure who he is, and who pays him.”

But first, let’s backtrack a bit. The initial brutal attack by Szilárd Németh against the NGO’s, in which he threatened to expel them from Hungary, was somewhat blunted a day later (yesterday) when János Lázár, head of the prime minister’s office, assured the Hungarian public that Németh had gotten a bit carried away. The government is only contemplating making these organizations’ finances more transparent, although he added that “the national side” must feel sympathy for Németh’s outburst because it is very annoying that these NGOs, with the help of foreigners, attack the Hungarian government. Németh was told to retract his statement, and for a few hours those who had worried about the very existence of these watchdogs over the activities of the Orbán government could be relieved.

This morning, however, Zoltán Kovács, one of the prime minister’s many communication directors, made an appearance on ATV’s “Start.” He attacked these organizations from another angle. He claimed that they have been assisting migrants and thereby helping terrorists to pour into Europe. If possible, that sounds like an even greater threat to me than Németh’s unconstitutional suggestions regarding the expulsion of NGOs.

So, let’s see what Orbán is planning to do. The reporter asked about “the work of civic organizations that promote globalization.”  Orbán indicated that he finds these NGOs to be stooges of the United States. During the Obama administration, he said, the United States actively tried to influence Hungarian domestic affairs. “Some of the methods used were most primitive,” he remarked.

He is hoping very much that in the future nothing like that will happen. His duty as a prime minister is “to defend the country” against these attempts, but all Hungarian citizens have the right to know everything about NGO’s, especially the ones that receive money from abroad. The people ought to know whether these organizations receive money as a gift with no strings attached or whether there are certain “expectations.” “And if not, why not?” So, what Orbán wants is “transparency.” This demand from Viktor Orbán, whose government is one of the most secretive in the whole world, is steeped in irony.

Viktor Orbán on the future Trump administration

Although initially Orbán tried to be cautious, repeating that it is still too early to say anything meaningful, he is hoping for “a change of culture” after the inauguration. This “change of culture” for Orbán means first and foremost that the Trump administration will not raise its voice in defense of democratic values. Earlier, Orbán didn’t dare to attack the NGOs across the board, and most likely he would have thought twice about doing so if Hillary Clinton had succeeded Obama. With Trump, he feels liberated. Whether he is right or not we will see.

What kind of an American administration does he expect? A much better one than its predecessor. The Obama administration was “globalist,” while Trump’s will have a national focus. It will be a “vagány” government. “Vagány” is one of those words that are hard to translate, but here are a few approximations: tough, brave, maverick, determined, and fearless. Trump’s men “will not beat around the bush, they will not complicate things.”

Orbán also has a very high opinion of the members of Trump’s cabinet because “they got to where they are not because of their connections. They are self-made men.” These people don’t ever talk about whom they know but only about what they did before entering politics. “They all have achieved something in their lives; especially, they made quite a few billions. This is what gives them self-confidence.” These people don’t need any political training. “They are not timid beginners. They have ideas.”

Most of us who are a bit more familiar with the past accomplishments of Trump’s cabinet members have a different assessment of their readiness, at least in most cases, to take over the running of the government. Orbán, just like Trump, is wrong in thinking that because someone was a successful businessman he will be, for example, an outstanding secretary of state. Put it this way, Rex Tillerson’s performance at his confirmation hearing yesterday only reinforced my doubts about his ability to run the State Department.

Orbán might also be disappointed with the incoming administration’s “new culture,” which he now believes to be a great asset in future U.S.-Hungarian relations. What if all those virtues of the tough, plain-talking, down-to-earth businessmen Orbán listed turn out to hinder better U.S.-Hungarian relations instead of promoting them? What if those resolute guys in the State Department decide that Viktor Orbán is an annoying fellow who has become too big for his britches? What if the strong anti-Russian sentiment of Secretary of Defense James Mattis prevails and the U.S. government gets suspicious of Vladimir Putin’s emissary in the European Union? Any of these things could easily happen.

January 13, 2017

Hatemongers in their own words

With three weeks to go until the Hungarian referendum on refugees, the government campaign has intensified. A host of politicians and government officials, from ordinary backbenchers to the president of the country, the president of the parliament, and all the cabinet ministers, have been mobilized to spread fear of the “migrants” at town meetings. Members of the pro-government media have also been enlisted to support the government’s efforts to achieve a valid, successful referendum, which allegedly would thwart the plans of the European Commission to foist masses of unwanted people of an alien culture on Hungary. And Viktor Orbán is ready to employ the basest instruments of coercion, including blackmail.

Let’s start with his speech at the opening session of parliament on September 12. After accusing the European Union of planning to relocate “migrants” to cities under socialist leadership, he warned local politicians that “it will be decided [by this referendum] whether there will be and, if yes, where the migrant settlements will be, so [local leaders] should watch out and make sure that large numbers of people go and vote.” He added that if the local politicians don’t like this message, they shouldn’t blame him because he is only relating the words of Martin Schulz. Of course, this is not at all what Schulz said when he visited Szeged in March, one of the few socialist strongholds in Hungary. He simply said in an interview with Stern after his return from Hungary that there are places in the country which, unlike the Hungarian government, do not reject migrants. He brought up Szeged as an example of a city where “any migrant would be safe to go.” But then came an op-ed piece in the right-wing Magyar Hírlap by Ottó Nagy, who charged that László Botka, the socialist mayor of Szeged, had made a secret pact with Jean-Claude Juncker and Martin Schulz, promising them that if and when he becomes prime minister he will accommodate migrants in Szeged.

Orbán emphasized that this nationwide referendum is also thousands of local referendums, meaning that the government will judge each city, town, and village according to the outcome of the referendum. If they don’t manage to turn out the (correct) vote, they will see what will happen to them. In plain English, he is blackmailing local leaders, who in turn will most likely blackmail the inhabitants, who already fear the migrants more than the devil himself. The word is spreading: if you don’t go and vote “no” or if there are too many spoiled ballots, your city, town, or village will have thousands of migrants who will rape your girls and blow up your churches.

Not surprisingly, local governments with left or liberal leaderships were outraged, especially because the story was immediately picked up by the pro-government media. Even Fidesz mayors found it too bizarre for words. Others, often Fidesz-supported independents, objected to the pressure coming from Fidesz to add their names to the government’s locally distributed campaign literature.

I’ve already written about the pressure being applied to the Roma population, who are told that if Hungary has to admit refugees they will be deprived of government assistance. In the first place, by now there is hardly any government assistance given to anyone. Most unemployed Roma do public work for a meager salary. So, that is an idle threat. But what is a serious matter is that their eligibility for public work is determined by the mayors, who can easily pressure the local Roma to make sure they vote the right way. Otherwise, no public work. As usual, the Orbán government found its man, Attila Lakatos, the Gypsy “vajda,” a kind of leader-judge within the community, who was willing to put out the call to his fellow Gypsies “to defend our children, families, work, and the country in which we live.” He is convinced that if the “immigrants come here we will have to worry about our daughters, wives, and children because they will be unsafe.” Soon enough a number of anti-government Roma mayors got together to reject the government’s hate campaign, but I’m afraid their voices will be drowned out in the din of government propaganda reaching the majority of the Roma population.

Among the journalists of the pro-government media Zsolt Bayer is the most popular. Every locality wants him to deliver one of his inspirational lectures. His first stop was in Kecskemét, the city where Mercedes-Benz has its plant. Ironically, he delivered his hate-filled speech in the auditorium of the Piarist high school. The place was filled to the brim with people who greeted him with extended applause. After delivering the government’s favorite conspiracy theories about the forces behind the recent migration, his parting words were: “Those who don’t go and vote or who vote “yes” are traitors who cannot be called Hungarian.”

hate

Bayer’s fellow extreme right-wing journalist, András Bencsik, editor-in-chief of Demokrata, a far-right weekly, is another important spokesman for the government. Bencsik’s paper is not a Jobbik publication, though you would never know it by reading the articles published there. Bencsik and his staff are steadfast supporters of the Orbán government and Fidesz. He, alongside Bayer, was one the chief organizers of the Peace Marches staged in defense of Viktor Orbán, whom foreign governments allegedly wanted to remove from power. The marches, which were supposed to be spontaneous affairs, turned out to be government-sponsored, government-organized demonstrations to which thousands of people were bused from all over the country. Viktor Orbán was extremely grateful. He later claimed that without the organizers he would have been unceremoniously ousted. Bayer, Bencsik, and a few others saved him. So, we are talking here about an important Fidesz and Viktor Orbán supporter.

Bencsik wrote an op-ed piece titled “Where shall we put them?” He begins by explaining that if the referendum is valid and successful, there is a good likelihood that regardless of how much the Brussels bureaucrats “resort to subterfuges, they cannot disregard the highest expression of popular sovereignty.” So then the migrants will not be coming to Hungary.

But what if there is not a sufficient number of votes and the referendum is not valid? We will find ourselves in an interesting situation. According to the plans of the Union’s bureaucrats, in the first round Hungary will have to settle 13,000 people, but they have already put forward another proposal which doesn’t specify an upper limit. So, if the referendum is not valid and the judges in Strasbourg [where Hungary attacked the decision of the settlement of the 1,294 migrants] decide against us, then whether we like it or not, the migrants will be coming. Yearly at least 13,000.

How will they be divided among 3,000 Hungarian localities? These people cannot be locked up in camps because they are citizens of the Union. Clearly, they will be dispersed according to how the people in each locality voted. The towns where many people went to vote and the ratio of “nays” was high may not receive one single migrant or perhaps only a few. But where this question was not important enough for the inhabitants and they didn’t bother to answer the referendum question, in those places surely the people will not mind the arrival of happy Muslim families. There will be plenty of them.

In those towns the girls will not go out after dark. Or, if they do, they will have to be followed by three male members of the family with pitchforks in hand. Girls will not go to discos; they will not bicycle in shorts; they will not leave the house on New Year’s Eve. They will celebrate the new year in the cellar; they will not dare go to the swimming pool, but if they do, they will not wear a bathing suit. Young boys will not walk alone on the street because, after all, it is a different cultural milieu and one never knows.

All this is no joke but is taken from daily occurrences in Western Europe. There will be parts of towns where first at night, but later even during daytime it will not be advisable for a Hungarian to enter. And in time there will be explosions, assassinations, constant tension, jitteriness, and so on.

This is what’s at stake in the referendum that will take place in three weeks. Either Europe will be the victim of forcible change of epic proportions and a thousand-year-old civilization will irretrievably fade away or Europe will resist the pressure and defend itself.

This is a typical anti-refugee message of the Orbán government. It is one thing to read in general about the intensity of Hungarian government propaganda and an entirely different thing to be confronted with an example of the message the Orbán propagandists have been delivering for well over a year. Whipping up hatred day in and day out on state television and radio, even during the Olympic Games, the government has succeeded in gripping the population in a state of mass hysteria. And the effects of this indoctrination will not disappear after the referendum. They will linger for many years to come, reinforcing and amplifying an already lamentable Hungarian xenophobia.

September 18, 2016

Orbán’s new super fence

It took less than an hour after Viktor Orbán said that a second “more massive” fence will soon be built along the Serbian-Hungarian border for all the major newspapers in the world to report his announcement. If we can believe the Hungarian prime minister, practically everything is ready for the work to begin. This new structure, he claims, is necessary in case the present arrangement between Turkey and the European Union unravels for one reason or another. It could easily happen that 100,000 migrants would storm the existing fence, which couldn’t withstand that kind of pressure. But the one the Hungarian government is going to install will be so advanced technically that “it will be able to stop several hundreds of thousands of people at one time.”

The text of the interview that took place during the early morning show of Magyar Rádió, Hungary’s state radio, is still not available on the prime minister’s website, so I have to rely on summaries that appeared in the Hungarian media. According to them, Orbán assured his audience that “not even a bird will be able to fly into Hungary without control.” He continued: “The borders cannot be defended with flowers and stuffed animals. The borders must be defended with fences, with policemen, with soldiers, and with weapons.”

Commentators immediately questioned the need for another fence because the present one has reduced the flow considerably. And, as I noted yesterday, the few who get through leave the country at the very first opportunity. Some observers are convinced that the announcement of a second fence was designed solely to serve Orbán’s domestic political agenda. He desperately wants to make sure that the October 2 referendum is valid, and the prospect of hundreds of thousands migrants attacking the country’s border might make voters more eager to cast their votes in the referendum.

Others pointed out that fences, no matter how many there are, are never foolproof, especially if we are talking about the more than one hundred thousand people Orbán envisages. Index, in an article titled “One fence is no fence but sometimes not even three are enough,” told the story of the fences at Melilla, a Spanish autonomous city located on the north coast of Africa, sharing a border with Morocco. A migrant must first climb a six-meter fence, then a three-meter one, followed by another six-meter one. A daunting but not impossible task. From the thousands who storm the triple fence a not insignificant number succeed. See the video. In 2014 February about 200 managed to enter the town of Melilla. In 2015, 50 people made it.

The infamous triple fence at Malilla

The infamous triple fence at Melilla

László Toroczkai, the Jobbik mayor of the border village of Ásotthalom, who himself organized irregular volunteers who went to hunt for refugees, is naturally quite pleased with the announcement. He believes that the new fence will be 2.0-2.5 meters from the existing one and that it can easily be patrolled, especially since thermographic cameras are already installed along the border. On the other hand, engineers are convinced that only a reinforced concrete wall could withstand the pressure exerted by crowds of that size. Experts questioned by Népszabadság could think only of the Berlin Wall as something allegedly foolproof, but even that couldn’t withstand a crowd of one hundred thousand.

The government has kept plans for this new structure a secret from the parliamentary committee dealing with defense and police matters, according to Ágnes Vadai, DK member of the committee. She said that members of the committee should have been notified if there is a danger of the arrival of a hundred thousand people, but no such information reached the committee. In her opinion, there is a very good possibility that this particular issue will never get before the committee because Hungary has been under a nationwide state of emergency ever since March and therefore the law governing public procurement has been suspended.

Months ago Magyar Nemzet asked the prime minister’s office for a detailed list of expenses in connection with building the fence along the Serbian-Hungarian and Croatian-Hungarian borders. What they got the other day was difficult to decipher, mostly because the details were sketchy and sloppy. The documents do suggest, however, that approximately 12.6 billion forints ($45.7 million) have been spent so far. If Orbán actually carries out his announced plan to build a more massive fence or wall, the cost will rise sharply. It is an enormous waste of money.

The Hungarian government likes to parade as the defender of Christian Europe from the Muslim hordes, but the fact is that Hungary’s fences haven’t deterred refugees from entering the territory of the European Union. If they can’t enter through Hungary, they will find some other route. Surely, a fence or a wall a few hundred kilometers in length will not solve the problem. Countries that act individually to protect their own borders only force other countries to pick up the slack. Unfortunately, Viktor Orbán refuses to endorse any common policy to resolve this serious human and political crisis. If it depended on him (and if so much money weren’t at stake in the form of EU subsidies), he would abolish the institution of the European Commission and would place all the power in the hands of the 28 leaders of the individual member states. That would, of course, be the death of the idea of a United Europe.

August 26, 2016