The Guardian | 19.03.2017
Migrants waiting in Serbia face new barriers including an electrified fence
Behind a high metal fence topped with loose curls of barbed wire, the newly positioned blue shipping containers lined neatly along Hungary’s southern border at Röszke provide a glimpse of the new plans of the prime minister, Viktor Orbán, to detain thousands of asylum seekers, including children.
Construction on Hungary’s new detention camps and a second electrified fence, which stretches 108 miles along its border with Serbia, are now under way despite virulent opposition from the UN, human rights groups and a European court ruling which it was hoped might halt the country’s determination to imprison refugees.
President János Áder signed the bill, which will allow all asylum seekers to be locked up in detention camps, and will also permit police to return asylum seekers from anywhere in the country back to Serbia. Orbán, leader of the rightwing populist Fidesz party, has described migration as the “Trojan horse for terrorism” and considers Muslim migrants a threat to European identity and culture.
More than 7,000 asylum seekers trying to reach western Europe are stuck in Serbia, outside the EU, following Hungary’s decision last summer to introduce strict limits on the number of refugees allowed to enter and began patrolling the borders with a controversial new wing of its police force known as Határvadász, or border hunters.
At an open transit camp in Subotica, Serbia, 15 miles from the border crossing, where families and unaccompanied children wait to have their asylum claims processed in Hungary, officials say the new law will cause trouble for Serbia and more hardship for people here. “We are like storage for the Hungarians,” said Nikola Ljubomirovic, coordinator at the camp, run by Serbia’s commissariat for refugees and migrants. “The problem is that Hungary only receives five each day to the transit zone nearest here, in Horgos. We have 153 people here, with a capacity of 128. People here are very sad and some are angry. Families can spend a year in Serbia. There are a lot of kids who speak Serbian here,” said Ljubomirovic.
In a courtyard in the centre of the camp, Arizu Barotsada, 25, a heavily pregnant mother of two from Afghanistan, is scared. “Is it true they are going to lock us in containers?” she asked. She and her family have now been in Serbia for eight months at different camps.
“We are having problems here. Many people have killed themselves in other camps in Serbia. Nothing is clear. How long do we have to wait? Maybe tomorrow, maybe three weeks, maybe months. Our children have no future, no education. When we heard about the new law, everyone was crying,” she said.
The majority of families at this camp are fleeing conflicts in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. They have made arduous journeys but are out of funds which would enable them to try other routes to Europe. Their only option is to claim asylum in Hungary. They face a long wait. Hungary has reduced the number of asylum seekers it accepts per day from Serbia from 200 in 2015 to 10 in January this year. The decision as to which 10 people can enter the country every weekday via two transit zones, Horgos and Kelebija, is arbitrary, far from transparent, and appears to be managed in part by refugee community leaders, leading to uncertainty and confusion among already desperate families.
Ljubomirovic predicts an outbreak of demonstrations and hunger strikes in Serbia, similar to the one staged by migrants in Hungary last week: “Serbia is a very poor country and we have a lot of migrants here. They are going to stay here longer and they are going to be more desperate. All the mess is going to be here in Serbia.”
Hungarian television broadcast images of hunger-striking asylum seekers at a closed detention centre in the city of Békéscsaba holding up a sheet through a barred window saying: “We are refugees, not terrorists”.
Such protests are likely to fall on deaf ears. Against a backdrop of anti-migrant rhetoric, Hungarians are less tolerant, more fearful and see refugees as more of a burden than other Europeans, according to a Pew poll last year. Figures from the UN refugee agency UNHCR show that 29,500 people claimed asylum in Hungary last year, 90% via Serbia, a fraction of the 177,000 in 2015, before the closure of the Balkans route. Last year Hungary took in 425, compared with the 280,000 accepted by Germany. Nevertheless Orbán insists his country is under “attack” from migrants. His government spent huge amounts on a six-month campaign condemned as xenophobic by human rights groups, before Hungary’s failed referendum on EU migrant quotas last October.
Hostility to migrants has taken a more sinister turn in recent months. Last week Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) called on Hungary to investigate an increasing number of allegations of “widespread and systematic” violence by police after reporting it had treated 106 migrants, including 22 minors, for injuries caused by beatings, dog bites and pepper spraying over the last year.
Christopher Stokes, MSF general director, said: “We’re present in other countries on the Balkan route and in Greece. These are the worst allegations of border police brutality today.” The Hungarian authorities have rejected allegations of refugee mistreatment and described the MSF report as “baseless”.
Among migrants, living near an unofficial camp in a former brick factory in Subotica, mostly single men and unaccompanied minors, such allegations are common. Zarar Ulhaq, 23, who fled Pakistan with his two brothers claiming he faced death threats from radical groups, said he was beaten by men in uniform in Hungary on each of four occasions he had successfully cut through the border fence and made it across. “They beat us and set dogs without muzzles on us,” said Ulhaq. “They took off all of our clothes and made naked pictures of us.”
Human Rights Watch and the Hungary Helsinki Committee, who have independently documented similar reports of violence, including some against migrant children by people in uniforms similar to police, have written to the European commissioner Dimitris Avramopolous asking him to take action against the alleged abuse and the new, blanket detention of asylum seekers as a breach of EU and international law. Avramopoluos is expected to travel to Hungary to discuss the issue, according to a European Commission spokeswoman.
The ruling by the European court of human rights could pave the way for every asylum seeker in Hungary to seek recourse in Strasbourg. The court awarded two Bangladeshi men, detained and deported illegally in 2015 by Hungary, €10,000 each in compensation. The asylum seekers had been held in a transit zone at the border with Serbia for 23 days, which the court ruled had amounted to being “deprived of their liberty without any formal, reasoned decision and without appropriate judicial review”. It also found the Hungarian authorities had failed to carry out an individual assessment of each applicant’s asylum case. The Hungarian government may appeal.
Tímea Kovács, a lawyer for Hungary Helsinki Committee, said that it had spoken to 25 people at an open camp who wanted to be represented. “They are afraid of the new rule, that they will be taken back to the transit zone,” she said. “We have started to prepare against this inhumane situation.”