Hungary hopes to ratchet up Europe's barriers to refugees

Hungary hopes to ratchet up Europe's barriers to refugees
Under EU rules EU laws asylum applicants can only be detained under “clearly defined exceptional circumstances”.
By Blanka Zoldi in Brussels February 16, 2017

The Hungarian parliament will shortly discuss a bill aimed at tightening the country’s already strict asylum rules, including legislation to allow the detention of refugees in container camps, the governing Fidesz party announced on February 16.

Hungary has long been one of the loudest critics of the EU’s migrant policies, bashing the bloc for what it says is a failure to protect the borders of the passport-free Schengen zone against an uncontrolled influx of refugees. In turn, Budapest had been criticized for its increasingly vicious stance – although it is not the only European country to resist accepting refugees.

According to the new bill, proposed by Viktor Orban's populist rightwing government, all refugees above the age of 14 seeking asylum in Hungary will be detained in “transit zone” barracks built from shipping containers at the border until their asylum claim is processed. The processing takes several months.

Budapest has repeatedly linked refugees to terror over the past two or three years. The government argues that the proposed measures are aimed at protecting the country and Europe from “people with unknown identity and unknown aims, posing security risks”.

“We have seen that asylum seekers have been abusing Hungary’s and the EU’s legal framework. Instead of waiting for the final decision [on their asylum claim], they head for Germany and the Nordic countries. Within Schengen, it is impossible to stop this,” government spokesperson Zoltan Kovacs said.

Critics point out, however, that the proposed measures breach EU laws stating that applicants can only be detained under “clearly defined exceptional circumstances”.

“Rounding up all men, women and children seeking asylum and detaining them for months on end in container camps is a new low in Hungary’s race to the bottom on asylum seekers and refugees,” remaked Gauri van Gulik, Amnesty International’s deputy director for Europe.

Hungary, however, is not the only European country with an increasingly strict stance on migration. Budapest argues that the election of Donald Trump has contributed to “a change of mood in Europe”, one that was illustrated at the recent EU summit in Malta. A €200mn package of measures to combat migration and protect the EU’s external borders was announced at that meeting.

That offers vindication to Hungary’s stance on migration, Kovacs claims. Orban has long insisted that his bitter fight against welcoming refugees was formerly seen as extreme, but is now becoming mainstream. The authoritarian leader is well known to harbour ambitions to build a reputation as an international statesman rather than just the leader of a small Central European state.

Hungary faced fierce international criticism as it built a 175-km fence on its border with Serbia and Croatia during the peak of the migrant crisis in 2015. The government, however, pointed to the “efficiency” of the measure as the number of refugees arriving to the country decreased, arguing that the fence could serve as an example for other European countries.

The barrier was not the first built by a European country to prevent immigrants entering its territory illegally, however. Spain built fences around its North African enclaves in the 1990s; barriers were also erected in 2012 on the Greece-Turkey border, shortly followed by a fence between Bulgaria and Turkey.  

The closure of the Hungarian border in 2015, previously one of the major points of entry for those migrants arriving via the Western Balkan route, forced the flow to divert through Croatia, Slovenia and Austria on their way north. Struggling to handle the numbers arriving, those countries eventually sealed off their borders.

Austria put up a fence on its southern border last year, and limited the number of asylum applications it would accept to 80 a day. Slovenia recently started erecting wire fences on two border crossings with Croatia, and adopted controversial legislation that makes it possible to shut the border to migrants.

Not only fences, but violence against refugees also seems to be increasingly common. Following various reports on the use of excessive force by Hungarian police last year, Human Rights Watch recently called attention to cases in which refugees have been violently pushed back to Serbia from Croatia, making sure migrants have no opportunity to lodge a claim for protection. Both the Hungarian and Croatian authorities have dismissed the claims

The detention of asylum seekers is also not only proposed by Hungary, but in fact is an existing practice in other EU countries. “The line between open accommodation and confinement often becomes difficult to draw in practice,” the European Council of Refugees and Exiles (ECRE) pointed out in a report published in 2016.

In Italy and Greece, NGOs have denounced “hotspot” facilities for confining refugees to an essential state of detention. Similarly to Hungary’s plans, some of these hotspots also provide accommodation for asylum seekers in shipping containers. Detention upon arrival is also structurally embedded in the reception systems of Bulgaria and Malta, the ECRE points out.

The difference, however, is that Hungary is much less likely to grant refugee status to applicants once they've served their time in detention. In 2016, Budapest rejected around 92% of applications; Bulgaria accepted 44%, according to the Asylum Information Database. Greece rejected 64.6% of applications in January-August 2015, Italy 55.2% between January-September 2016 and Malta just 17% between January-August 2016.

Besides planning detention, the Hungarian government said it intends to build a second line of fencing. The number of border guards should also rise to as many as 8,000.

Orban, who has made political hay for years from fighting the EU bogeyman, is counting on criticism from Brussels. “We already know the way of thinking of Brussels bureaucrats, so we are prepared for a fight with the EU concerning the planned measures,” a Fidesz spokeman said.