Hungary: a grim way station for asylum seekers

In recent months, Hungary has become a gateway to the European Union for tens of thousands of migrants and asylum seekers who have already journeyed through Turkey, Greece and the Balkans in search of international protection and a better life. But Hungarian authorities are doing their utmost to close off this increasingly well-trodden route.

On Monday, Hungarian MPs passed new legislation to clear the way for fast-track deportations of “economic migrants” and construction of a 110-mile fence along Hungary’s border with Serbia - the main entry point for undocumented migrants and asylum seekers. 

The government also amended legislation classifying anyone who enters the country via “safe” third countries, including Serbia, as “economic migrants” who can be returned, without the need to examine their asylum claim. Critics point out that Afghans, Syrians and Iraqis now make up over three quarters of arrivals to Hungary and that returning them to a country like Serbia which lacks a functioning asylum system is a violation of Hungary’s obligations under the 1951 Refugee Convention. 

Amendments to Hungary’s Asylum Act passed on Monday also reiterated that asylum seekers can be detained during a fast-tracked process while even those staying in “open” centres can have their procedures terminated if they leave for more than 48 hours. The new laws could be promulgated by mid-August.

Márta Pardavi, co-chair of the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, told IRIN the new legislation fails to address overcrowding at asylum centres and will result in fewer safeguards for asylum seekers. 

A report documenting treatment of refugees and migrants in Macedonia, Serbia and Hungary, released on Tuesday by Amnesty International, explains that those who claim asylum after crossing into Hungary are routinely detained “in overcrowded and sometimes degrading conditions” while their identify is established and their fingerprints taken. 

“While the majority of asylum-seekers are later released to open reception centres, those considered at risk of absconding - at times, up to 40 percent of single males - may be detained in asylum detention centres,” adds the report.

Pardavi commented that the system had become so overloaded that some facilities were operating at 200 percent capacity. “The system is incapable of taking care of individual vulnerabilities, special needs and so forth,” she said. “We hear stories of adult siblings or families being separated, or single women being exposed to all sorts of harassment.”

Bureaucratic limbo

Hussein*, a 28-year-old asylum seeker, has spent the last seven months in Hungary waiting for a decision on his status. He is among some 2,000 asylum seekers staying at an old Soviet army base on the edge of the city of Debrecen in eastern Hungary. The facility contains both a large open camp and a detention centre with a combined official capacity of under 1,000. Debrecen is one of 10 such facilities in Hungary, all of which are run by the Hungarian Immigration Office (OIN) with significant funding from the EU. 

Hussein says he left his home country after being threatened with jail for his political activism. He crossed into Hungary from Serbia last December and was picked up by the police in Szeged, near the border. 

At the police station he was put into a three by four metre cell with many other migrants. “I don't want even to remember those blankets - used and reused - and that smell, sleeping on the floor of course. Then they came to take our personal belongings, joking that they would carry out an ‘anal inspection’ with gloves. The police officers threw pieces of bread at the Muslims, who got treated like animals,” he told IRIN.

Some weeks later he was transferred to Debrecen and has stayed there, in the “open” section, ever since. During that time he has had three asylum interviews. After the first interview, he had to wait six months for the second, and remains in a bureaucratic limbo that the new legislation seeks to eliminate. 

Asylum seekers in Hungary are entitled to free legal assistance but state-funded lawyers are rarely made available, according to Pardavi, and Hussein’s lawyer only attended the first of his interviews. Meanwhile, his interviewers admitted to knowing little about his country.

*Not his real name

Government responds to influx

According to a government statement, over 73,000 “illegal migrants” have come to Hungary so far this year. By the end of June, 61,000 had filed asylum claims. The majority of new arrivals at the beginning of the year were Kosovars, followed by a large influx of Syrians and Afghans. A third wave of new arrivals that includes many African migrants is putting further pressure on already crowded, dilapidated facilities like Debrecen where a riot occurred last Monday after a Turkish inmate stamped on a Koran. According to Hussein, many of the newest arrivals are sleeping outside under the shade of trees or in tents. 

Monday’s amendments were the latest in a series of controversial responses to the spike in migrant arrivals by Hungary’s populist, nationalist government. Last month, Hungary said it would no longer accept asylum seekers returned by other EU member states under the Dublin Regulation, which requires claims to be processed in the first EU country where they are registered. The decision was retracted the following day. 

The ruling Fidesz party has attempted to stoke anti-migrant sentiment with a nationwide billboard campaign featuring slogans such as: “If you come to Hungary, do not take the jobs of Hungarians”. UNHCR has denounced the campaign as fomenting xenophobia and government critics say Fidesz is attempting to divert attention from corruption allegations. 

The campaign appears to be having mixed results. Migszol Szeged, an NGO that distributes food and clothing to asylum seekers, reported receiving offers to volunteer from some 17,000 Hungarians in just one day last week, while a poll by television channel RTL found that 55 per cent of respondents in Hungary would be willing to help migrants in need.

However, on Monday, Facebook was forced to delete the page of the Hungarian far-right football fan group, Ultras Liberi, after receiving a large number of complaints over a post that said members had given food and drink containing laxatives to refugees at railway stations and at Budapest's Margaret Island. There have also been incidents of members of the ultra-nationalist Betyáreseg (Outlaw’s Army) intimidating migrants as well as the activists helping them. 

“Far too many people”

Most of the facilities for housing and detaining migrants and asylum seekers are in remote locations. One is just outside Bicske, a small town some 25 miles from the capital, Budapest. Although ostensibly “open”, two brothers from Somalia, aged 19 and 29, whom IRIN met near the camp gates, explain that “if the police see us talking to you, we could get three months in detention.” 

Squatting on a kerb outside a supermarket, the elder of the two rolls up his shirt sleeves to show deep scars on his forearms. “An al-Shabaab did this to me,” he explains, miming a long beard. Markedly more worry-worn than his sibling, he has a wife and two children at the camp. The brothers say they had not intended to stay in Hungary, but after being fingerprinted there, had to stay until their asylum applications had been dealt with or risk being returned under the Dublin Regulation. 

According to the Amnesty report, the majority of asylum seekers take their chances and move on to other EU countries where they will have a better chance of finding work and integrating.

A Somali mother of three tells IRIN that she made her way to Europe via Hungary from her homeland at the age of 17 while pregnant with her first child. After gaining temporary residency in Switzerland she was returned to Hungary under the Dublin Regulation.

A Ukrainian asylum seeker named Vladislav says Bicske has “far too many people” but is better than a closed facility called Nyírbátor, where he spent three months. “Nyírbátor is Hungary’s Guantánamo. They chained and handcuffed us, and gave us expired food,” he says. 

He adds that the asylum application process is slow. “For the first two months everyone lives without money. After that, if you had a positive interview, you can get 30,000 forints ($104) a month,” he says, adding that this is usually used to supplement the two bread rolls and one bowl of soup residents are given at breakfast and lunchtime. “We don’t get anything in the evening, and I can tell you now that there is no water available at the moment.”

Hussein is pessimistic about his chances of eventually obtaining refugee status in Hungary. Out of nearly 43,000 asylum applications the country received in 2014, only 508 were granted asylum despite a third of the applicants coming from Syria and Afghanistan.