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Migszol | 23.09.2017

What was before a more or less, albeit poorly,  functioning asylum system, has been turned into a carefully constructed, but unsustainable, system of detention and transit zones.  Systematic pushbacks to Serbia, and more recently to Romania, continue. The fence area has developed into a militarized zone of pushbacks and detention.

Following the format of our previous monthly updates, this brief post overlooks the main developments in Hungary in 2017 on the ground, while the next post coming up in a few days time looks at political developments. For legal developments and a monthly update on the asylum situation in Hungary, please see also the publications of the Hungarian Helsinki Committee.

Closure of camps and move towards detention

The government’s rhetoric on introducing systematic detention has been put into practice, on March 8th, when the law on detention for all asylum seekers was passed. This resulted in many people who were in the process and staying in open camps, to leave the country towards Western Europe.  The date of the parliamentary vote was changed without further notice, which made protest very difficult. At the time, we published a detailed report on what asylum detention means. There are still open camps left in Hungary, for those who have (recognized) chronic medical conditions), who are in the last days of their pregnancy and who have been recognized as refugees.

The first of the two forms of detention in Hungary is asylum detention. This is detention for those people who ask for asylum in Hungary. At the moment the asylum detention centers in operation are the ones found in Nyírbátor near the Ukrainian and Romanian border, Békéscsaba on the Romanian border, and the two transit zones in Tompa and Röszke in the border with Serbia. The asylum detention in Kiskunhalas, one of the biggest in terms of capacity, was closed, or turned inactive in March 2017, when the aforementioned new law was passed in the parliament for those who have asked for asylum in the country.

The other type of detention is the Alien Police detention centers, commonly referred to as or immigration detention. This is for those people, who are caught in Hungary and, after the same legal amendment in March, considered by Hungarian law as residing in the country “illegally”, and who do not wish apply for any type of  international protection. Also, there are people whose asylum request has been rejected. The currently operating immigration detention centers are found in Győr (near the Austrian border), Nyírbátor, and the airport in Budapest.

One main difference between the two centers is that the asylum detention is managed and run by the Asylum and Immigration Office (that operates under the Ministry of the Interior), while the latter is managed and run by the Hungarian police. There are more people, at the moment, in asylum detention than in immigration detention, when considering the transit zones on the border. Those in immigration detention are mostly single men whose asylum cases have been rejected, and who have not been able to continue towards the west.

One of the reasons why many people end up  in immigration detention is that people don’t ask for asylum in Hungary. This is because they they know that if they are recognized to be in need of international protection, they face homelessness and destitution in Hungary, and are legally allowed to work only in Hungary.

The situation in detention remains very much the same as before, except that now it applies also to children above the age of 14. There is limited internet access, no use of cellphones, and although some NGOs do have access inside, the people detained are extremely frustrated, waiting for decisions on their procedure and not knowing what awaits them. On March 18th, a demonstration by people detained), at the Békéscsaba asylum detention center took place (at the moment, the center is empty. The hunger strike lasted for one day, and the detainees wrote a joint statement describing the horrible conditions and asking for help.

There are also functioning open camps, such as Vámosszabadi, where  the authorities place adults and families with status, and are now waiting for their official documents. Their future is uncertain, given that all integration support whatsoever has been cancelled. In theory, this means that they enter the same system that exists for Hungarians, but with no support networks or language knowledge. In practice, they may turn to the NGOs who provide support for refugees who stay in Hungary, but who still have limited resources. In practice, many await for their travel documents to arrive, and then continue towards the west. With a refugee status in one EU country, they are allowed to travel within the Schengen zone for three months, but have no automatic right to emigrate for the purpose of employment, as Hungarians do.

Public debate in Hungary has, thanks to government propaganda, been hijacked by the question of the fence, and the situation in detention does not receive much attention. In addition, access to detention for groups like Migszol is extremely limited, and in reporting, we rely on information that we get directly from people who get in touch with us while inside.

Situation at the borders and the transit zone

In April, the second line of fence was completed, making it extremely difficult to cross the fence. Considerable attention was paid to the fact that the fence actually speaks, pointing to the intricate system of technology that keeps people at bay. More recently, the government has estimated that the cost of this militarized zone has been 800 million euros (half of which the Prime Minister Orbán has recently asked the European Union to cover). Despite of this, people do manage to get across while escaping the difficult situation Serbia. At the moment, the Hungarian police reports daily cirka 10-70 pushbacks of people back to the other side of the fence (see daily numbers on the official website of the police).

In the meanwhile, the transit zone has developed into a militarized zone, full of people. In the summer, the conditions under the heating sun were unbearable. Throughout the summer, several independent Hungarian media outlets have reported on the inhumane conditions on the border (see, for instance, this report from Átlátszó and in English from Index. More lately, the Hungarian government has attacked  precisely such independent media as Index  as “fake news”).

People in the transit zone may have  quality legal representation from the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, while the public free legal aid remains of extremely poor quality. The HHC has also managed to facilitate so-called positive Dublin cases, where some people from the border are directly united with their family members in other EU member states. In the meanwhile, Germany has stopped all Dublin deportations to Hungary, as has Finland. Interestingly, one of the reasons cited is poor integration prospects as one of the reasons. Hungary, however, deports people to Bulgaria under Dublin regulation. According to our information, some people staying in the asylum detention in the transit zone, rather choose to go back to Serbia than be deported to Bulgaria (this is the case also with some minors).

The recruitment for the so-called border hunters (határvadászok) has continued throughout the year. For readers interested in the daily life of a border hunter, we recommend this video prepared by the Hungarian police (no Hungarian skills needed). The police also reports regularly on the training and graduation of cohorts of border hunters.

Ever since the beginning of the summer 2016, Migszol continues to receive testimonies on violence against people trying to cross the fence. These testimonies, which we also upload on our webpage, document beating, stealing of valuables and clothing in freezing temperatures. It is difficult to know exactly who are behind the violence, as many different authorities (police, border guards, semi-official field guards) are all at the border, wearing uniforms.

As said, several Hungarian media and public personalities have condemned the abuse of people at the border zone. The border zone has, however, been adopted as the main source of election propaganda by the Fidesz government. For example, in early August the party revealed the chief message of the elections to be that the real stake of the election is the choice between Viktor Orbán and the “demolition of the fence”. Even though the massive government media holds the Hungarian public debate in a stranglehold over the question of the fence, among others the mentioned news outlets have criticized the fence. The Hungarian Helsinki Committee has, in the meanwhile, taken the Hungarian government to the European Court of Human Rights, and won cases. On one instance, ECHR ruled that the detention of Bangladeshi asylum seekers in the zone amounted to illegal detention, and on another case, the court stated that Hungary should halt the transfer of eight unaccompanied minors and one pregnant women to detention in the transit zones.

Changing routes

These observations from the ground, together with the increasing number of people caught at the Serbian and Romanian borders mean that the system, as it is, is not sustainable. As such, the Hungarian asylum system is just aspect of the asylum system about to collapse elsewhere in Europe.

The future of the EU-Turkey deal remains uncertain, and several humanitarian actors are possibly pulling out their operations from Serbia, prompting more and more people to take the risky roads – much like the dangerous land border between Bulgaria and Turkey, or the fenced border between Greece and Turkey – drives people to smugglers and to dangerous routes. While writing this, we are receiving news that more and more people attempt to cross to Hungary from Romania, and in turn many people arrive in Romania over the Black Sea.

This was the first one of two Migszol updates on the current situation in Hungary; the next one in a few days time will focus more on the political developments, governmental propaganda and attack on civil society in Hungary.

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