By Anna Romandash
On March 7, Hungarian government passed a new law that significantly changes the asylum procedure in the country. The law says that all the refugees who want to stay in Hungary will have to wait in transit zones in Serbia as Hungary will admit only ten people per day to apply for an asylum. The law violates the EU principles and goes against human rights in general. Orange has spoken with Marta Pardavi, co-chair of the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, on the recent developments in her country. Her organization is a human rights NGO, that works on refugee protection, criminal justice, and rule of law. It provides free legal assistance to asylum seekers and does a lot of strategic litigation such as taking cases to the European Court of Human Rights. Pardavi explains: the law should be a signal for the European Commission to respond to Hungarian developments, which create a general threat to the EU principles and democracy.
Can you explain the new law?
The law is a major change for the Hungarian asylum system. It was proposed and submitted in the government in the mid-February without public discussion. The law itself is the exact embodiment of Hungarian government’s asylum and migration policy the officials were pursuing for two years. It will enter into force in eight days after the president signs it, so we still have to see if it happens.
The law means that every person who comes to Hungary to seek asylum will be taken out of the country, to a transit zone in a border fence with Serbia and Croatia. These zones are managed points of entry, where an individual can submit an application for asylum. Thus, asylum seekers will physically have to go to Serbia and walk for many kilometers before reaching a transit zone where they can try to gain access to asylum procedure. A similar system has been in place for 18 months, but the new change will mean that everybody, even those physically in Hungary, will be put out and pushed back across the fence to wait until they can be allowed to the transit zone. The Hungarian government has limited the number of people who can go into the transit zone to 10 people per day. This means that only ten people can apply for asylum in one day.
Besides, to go to a transit zone, a person will have to stay in de-facto detention, where the asylum procedure will be carried out. The only exception is unaccompanied minors under fourteen, but the families with little children or teenagers over fourteen will have to stay in the transit zones like everybody else. The only way that people can enter Hungary afterwards is if they receive protection status (which means that Hungary recognizes them as refugees) or subsidiary protection. This, however, is very unlikely because the only kind of asylum procedure in the transit zone is called border procedure. This means that the officials only look at the cases when another party is responsible for reviewing the asylum case. So it will be difficult to get one’s asylum claim looked at, and this means that all asylum seekers will be told to leave the country. This goes against all human rights’ norms in Europe and the EU Asylum Law.
Hungary creates a situation that is bad for asylum seekers, but it also disregards the principle of responsibility sharing and solidarity of other EU member states. It is clearly an intentional move of Hungarian government to make it impossible for asylum seekers to come to Hungary. Hungary has become extremist recently, but the law is taking this to a new level, which should lead to reactions from European countries and European institutions.
What happens when there are more than ten people per day who want to apply for asylum?
There are always more people, and there is a waiting list with those in Serbia, registered to apply for asylum in Hungary. Last year, there were several thousands of people waiting in front of the transit zones, in completely nomadic shelters, without being given any services by neither Hungarian nor Serbian authorities. The number of the people in these camps has decreased; most people are now in the reception centers in Serbia.
Over time, Hungarian government has been decreasing the number of people it allows into transit zones. A year ago, it was 100, then, it was 50, then 40, 30, and 20. Now, the number is only 10. There is no binding rule that compels the government to let more people in, so the government can decrease the amount to one person per day. It has spent more than a billion Euros on building a very high fence on the border with all the equipment and man power just to keep the migrants out. On March 7, Hungarian prime minister said that Hungary is facing an immense threat of migrants coming to the country. To protect itself, the government wants to strengthen the border even more and keep people out. It is a clear message from the government that it does not want to give anybody any protection.
Recently, Hungary experienced an anti-migration PR campaign. How did people respond?
In 2016, just before Hungarian referendum on migration quotas, there was an expensive campaign saying that the country needed to keep migrants away for security reasons. Even before, the population was quite fearful of foreigners, but the campaign increased xenophobia. In Hungary, there are only 1.4% people without Hungarian passports, and they are mostly white and live in big cities. There are very few foreigners, who can be recognized, so there was always fear of the unknown. The government realized that the fear had a huge potential, so it spent forty million Euros on public campaigns to boost xenophobia and distract society from other problems. The money comes from taxpayers, and is officially used for the purposes of government’s communication with the people.
Now, Hungarian population is among the most xenophobic in the EU, and the amount of those against refugees increased. This also reinforced the hardline governmental policies. The situation affects the minorities in Hungary and integration prospects for people with refugee status. There are around four thousands of them, which is very little for a 10-million nation. However, it is hard for refugees to find housing and jobs, so many consider moving elsewhere because the public perception is so negative.
Does the EU have a legal mechanism to influence Hungarian refugee laws?
There is a clear framework in the EU about the standards that are applicable in each member state. Common European asylum system has resulted in many rules. If these are being disregarded or not fully complied with, the European Commission has a duty to start infringement procedures. It happened in December 2015: the European Commission started this procedure against Hungary on account of asylum changes. The infringement procedure has many stages, so first, the Commission enters into a dialogue with the member state’s government. Then, if there is no agreement or progress, the Commission can give a reasoned opinion, after which it takes the government to the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg. Now is a high time for the Commission to move forward and speed up this process.
However, we’ve seen political constrains that prevent Commission from moving with the issue. Hungarian government is acutely aware that the European Commission at the political level is not interested in pursuing the infringement procedure against it. Now, with the latest move, the government is provoking the European institutions to test how far it can go without any real sanction.
I believe European Commission should respond strongly to this because it cannot accept a member state after its complete disregard for the law. We have yet to see the reaction, and I hope it would not be a hesitant or soft approach.
What is it like to work for a human rights NGO in Hungary?
The government has been waging a campaign against human rights and pro-democracy NGOs for about two years. The campaign is focused on discrediting independent voices critical to governmental policies, and it is similar to what’s happening in Russia, Turkey, Azerbaijan, or any other autocratic country. We have not seen anything like it in the EU member state. Hungarian government has plans to introduce legislation that follows Russian example; besides extremely harsh language from senior officials labeling us as foreign agents working against Hungary, we will see legislation that will probably require some sort of registration for foreign-funded NGOs. There was no public consultation about the legislation, so we don’t know what to expect. However, potential registration will stigmatize foreign-funded NGOs, and it is a part of government’s goal to discredit anybody who has a different view on public affairs. This affects NGOs working on very important human rights’ issues such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Helsinki Committee, and other organizations. For example, the vice chair of the government’s party said that we “should be swept out of Hungary”, and this aggressive language may be put into law.
The situation, again, is a signal of clear disrespect for European values, so this should worry EU member states. The changes in asylum law would not have happened if there was more attention to rule of law in Hungary from the start. In the past six years, the EU institutions did not take a strong approach against the national phenomena, which enabled the extreme policies to become reality. We see how Hungarian policies are being exported to other EU countries, especially in the Eastern. If there is no stop to that, it can become a big threat to European democracy in general.
How does this “policy export” work?
There is a strong friendship between Hungarians and Polish governments, and many of the recent developments in Poland are identical to the Hungarian, but the Polish changes take place on a faster scale. There is a playbook that could be exported about media and governmental control over the economy.
Although society is rather against migrants, how many Hungarians migrate themselves?
300, 000 Hungarians have decided to leave the country and live in another EU member state. This is a huge loss for Hungary because these people pay taxes and contribute to labor market abroad. It is very likely they will not return. This outward migration has many other demographic consequences and contributed to labor shortages in the country. For examples, the country experiences a huge lack of doctors because the local healthcare is not as attractive as elsewhere. The national labor market demonstrates a clear need for migrants, but the government does not see them as a solution to the problem. Our prime minister said that he wanted all the receptionists in the country to be Hungarians. Sadly, we are in a situation where we have many jobs and lack of people to fill them. Also, Hungary has developed a very racist reputation, so people who were considering coming here would not choose it because of its image.