Tag Archives: transit zones

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