Cross at your peril: tough justice for refugees in Hungary

By Kristina Jovanovski

IRIN Contributor

Abdul says he fled Iraq after his father was killed by so-called Islamic State (IS). But now Abdul is in handcuffs.

The 18-year-old was caught by the Hungarian authorities crossing the Serbian border, which was sealed off by a razor-wire fence in September. He is being charged with breaking a new law that makes it a criminal offence to cross or vandalise the fence. 

Less than a week after being detained, he is in court in the nearby town of Szeged, breaking down as he talks about his father’s death.

His lawyer passes him a packet of tissues, then starts crying. Soon the judge’s eyes are also welling up. She orders a short break, and after resuming asks Abdul why IS, formerly known as ISIS, killed his father.

“Because if you don’t join ISIS, [they] will kill you,” he says through a translator.

Abdul made his way to Serbia from Macedonia and Greece after crossing the sea from Turkey. It’s the same route more than 400,000 refugees and migrants have taken this year, the majority of them having fled conflicts in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.

Abdul’s plan was to reach Austria, where he has a friend. He paid smugglers $1,800 for the trip from Turkey to Serbia, but then ran out of money. His lawyer tells the court that Abdul crossed the fence on his own, not knowing it marked a border.

Fear of strangers

A bottle of hand sanitiser and boxes of disposable gloves sit on the judge’s desk. Declining to give her name, she tells IRIN that other judges have refused to preside over these trials because they are afraid of getting sick. 

“They don’t want to deal with it. This is very new for the whole country,” she says. “It’s very scary for Hungary.”

The law criminalising the breaching of the new fence, which took effect on 15 September, carries a maximum penalty of three years in prison.

Within the first 10 days of it coming into effect, the court in Szeged heard 176 cases, most of them involving people from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq. There have been no acquittals. After being found guilty, defendants are supposed to be taken to detention facilities before being expelled from the country. This means being sent back to Serbia, which Hungary has deemed a “safe third country”.

But according to Gabor Gyozo, a lawyer with the Helsinki Committee in Hungary who has represented some of the refugees in court, Serbia is refusing to accept the deportees.

A prosecutor, who did not want to use her name, told IRIN that the detention facilities are now full, and that since last week people found guilty under the new law are instead being sent to two open camps near the Austrian border where they are free to leave. 

Gyozo called for those still being held in detention facilities to be immediately released. “Right now, there is no prospect for their deportation to Serbia,” he told IRIN, adding that his organisation is considering bringing a case before the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) alleging that two families are being detained without the interests of their children being taken into account.

The Hungarian government did not respond to a request for comment from IRIN.

Who is breaking the law?

The UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, says the new law contravenes the 1951 refugee convention, to which Hungary is a signatory and which states that individuals cannot be prosecuted for crossing borders irregularly in order to seek asylum.

“These are worrying developments for UNHCR and we have been raising our concerns,” said spokesman Babar Baloch.

For now, the new legislation does not extend to Hungary’s border with Croatia, where a fence is still under construction. More than 100,000 people have crossed via the Croatian border since Hungary sealed off the Serbian frontier and implemented the new law.

For those found crossing the Serbian fence, their fate is still uncertain.

In Abdul’s case, he was given a reprimand – the lightest possible punishment – and ordered to pay about $70 in court fees. The judge suggested he seek asylum in Hungary, which he agreed to do, then ordered the police to remove his handcuffs. 

It is now up to the immigration office to decide if Abdul will get asylum. In 2014, Hungary approved just nine percent of asylum applications, one of the lowest rates in Europe.

See: Playing the EU asylum lottery

As with other similar cases, the trial lasted about an hour and the judge took 10 minutes to reach her decision. Her relative leniency is rare. Most defendants receive expulsion orders from Hungary for periods of a year or more.

For those who are handed expulsion orders, the path into Europe’s free movement Schengen Area becomes narrower. If they try to legally enter any Schengen country, it will automatically flag up on the system that they have an entry ban from Hungary. They then need Hungary’s permission to proceed, or the country in question can give them a more limited visa to other Schengen states.

“It’s very, very difficult to foresee what’s going to happen with them,” said Gyozo.