Tag Archives: transit zones

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

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

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

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