An anti-immigration campaign poster by the Fidesz party during the election campaign in Hungary in April 2018 | Photo: Picture-alliance/Martin Fejer
An anti-immigration campaign poster by the Fidesz party during the election campaign in Hungary in April 2018 | Photo: Picture-alliance/Martin Fejer

Hungary's refugee and migrant policies have been in breach of international human rights conventions as well as EU regulation for years. Along the country's border with Serbia there's now a new, underreported trend affecting migrants: deliberate starvation.

Near Hungary's two major border crossings of Röszke and Tompa, two so-called transit zones have been set up in response to the onset of the so-called refugee crisis in 2015. These fortifications are basically container barracks that resemble high-security prisons. Surrounded by wire fences, these are the only places in Hungary where refugees can currently apply for asylum.

Every day a maximum of 10 people are admitted through their iron gates to file their applications. However, the vast majority is rejected following what looks like a quick trial and must then leave the transit zone immediately. But authorities are now reportedly trying to employ inhumane methods to make migrants give up on their cases before they're even heard.

Starving asylum seekers into submission

According to reports, asylum applicants rarely receive any meals during their stays in the transit zones at all. They are kept behind bars while their applications are being processed having no access to food. The objective behind this practice appears to be the intention to force asylum seekers to leave these transit zones voluntarily out of sheer hunger.

According to Hungarian law, leaving the transit zone would automatically result in rejection without ever being allowed to submit an asylum application again — in case the same asylum seekers were to return. In 2019, there have been 27 cases recorded cases of asylum seekers being left without food to eat so far. Independent Hungarian media organizations have taken to referring to this practice as "starvation."

In a number of cases, the migrants were only given some food after urgent decisions taken by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) had to be applied, forcing Hungarian authorities to feed them.

Hungary's controversial transit zones along the Serbian border are policed by military units | COPYRIGHT: picture-alliance/Photoshot/A. Volgyi

Underage, underfed, underrepresented

No Hungarian politician is more familiar with this situation than independent opposition MP Bernadett Szél. For years, she has been tirelessly criticizing Hungary's asylum policies and the outright disregard for certain human rights when it comes to migrants and refugees.

In recent months, she has been researching this practice of starving refugees in transit zones, and has recently published her findings. Being a member of parliament, Szél was able to visit the transit zones — unlike lawyers or civil rights activists, who are routinely denied access.

"The transit zones are practically prisons," Szél told InfoMigrants. "Most of the applicants inside are minors. They have no access to regular education and are only entitled to medical care in urgent cases."

No due process – even for Hungarian politicians

At the beginning of August, Szél sued Hungarian authorities for abuse of power and physical assault against asylum seekers in the transit zones because of the starvation practices. However, her allegations were thrown out of court as being "unfounded."

Authorities said that there was no such practice as "starvation," highlighting that those who felt affected by any such alleged practice were free to voluntarily leave the transit zone at any time.

For Bernadett Szél, the ruling in favor of the starvation tactics marks a new low point in the country's attitudes towards refugees and migrants: "There has been virtually no fairness in Hungary's asylum system based on fair procedures since 2015," Szél said, "even though we joined the Geneva Convention 30 years ago."

Bernadett Szél during an anti-government demonstration in front of the Hungarian Parliament building on January 5, 2019 | Photo: Picture-alliance/AP Photo/M.MonusEmergency powers

In the spring of 2015, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán turned the issue of migration into a major political campaign issue. Many Hungarians felt a sense of unease about the thousands of refugees who were crossing the Hungarian border each day mainly on their way to Austria, Germany and other EU nations.

Against this backdrop, Orbán promised to deliver a crackdown on "illegal migration" and to protect the country against Islamic terrorism, mass immigration and cultural alienation. In the early summer of 2015, Orbán's government built a fence along the border with Serbia. By September 2015, the country further sealed off that border hermetically, and has since deployed thousands of border guards to the area.

At the same time, the Hungarian parliament adopted a set of special laws relating to migration after announcing a "state of emergency." These have been in force since the beginning of 2016. The provisions of the "migration emergency" give law enforcement officials and the military wide-reaching operational powers across the country. For example, civil rights such as freedom of movement or freedom of assembly can unduly be withdrawn, and homes can be searched without a legal warrant.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban | Photo: ANSA/Fabio FrustaciSpecial refugee courts

Márta Pardavi, the co-chair of the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, which provides legal assistance to refugees and migrants, has criticized the repeated extension of the so-called "migration emergency" laws since 2016, saying that there is "no real and fact-based reason for this."

"(It) only provides the government with the framework for its inhumane action against refugees," Pardavi told InfoMigrants.

As part of the emergency measures, the government also introduced a special court to deal with cases involving refugees and migrants: judges carry out expedited proceedings at the court in the southern city of Szeged, focusing on issues like migrants who illegally crossed the border or committed other offenses, including damaging the border fence.

Proceedings usually last only one or two hours and contravene various constitutional and other legal standards. For example, any indictments and verdicts delivered by the court do not need to be translated in writing into the mother tongue of the defendants. It is not even required to identify the defendants sufficiently. The court also treats minors aged 14 and over as adults.

No practical avenues left to qualify for asylum

Orbán's government has also tightened the country's asylum legislation in numerous ways in 2017 and 2018 to reflect his iron-fisted approach to immigration. Hungarian immigration laws are now considered to be the most restrictive within the European Union.

Under current regulations, migrants entering from a third country deemed to be a safe country of origin are no longer entitled to asylum at all; their applications are automatically rejected. However, as all of the neighboring countries have been deemed to be such safe third countries and nearly all migrants and refugees pass through these neighboring countries on their way to Hungary, it is now practically impossible for refugees to obtain asylum status in Hungary.

Furthermore, the new laws stipulate that refugees can only apply for asylum in the transit zones at the national borders, which they are not allowed to leave for the duration of the proceedings. Asylum procedures can also be terminated immediately and without appeal if the applicant leaves the transit zone at during this process or is deemed to not cooperate with the authorities.

However, a small number of asylum seekers still manage to receive asylum or a temporary protection status in Hungary. In the first eight months of 2019, there were only 35 people admitted into Hungary — out of a total of 476 applicants. The explanation for this is that Hungarian authorities proceed according to the Geneva Refugee Convention, as a government spokesman told InfoMigrants.

Márta Pardavi of the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, however, explains that judges sometimes overrule the decisions made by the immigration authorities, thereby forcing the Hungarian state to grant asylum to the applicants. "This shows that some judges still dare to oppose the official party line, despite the massive pressure put on the judicial system and asylum procedures."

A police officer patrols the temporary border fence along the Hungarian-Serbian border near Roszke, 180 kilometers southeast of Budapest, Hungary | Photo: EPA/ZOLTAN GERGELY KELEMANPopulism, nationalism, xenophobia

In addition to introducing new laws targeting potential asylum seekers directly, the Hungarian government has also launched a series of campaigns to gang up support among Fidesz voters against migrants as well — or as the government calls them "national consultations." These so-called consultations appear to have been designed to fuel anti-refugee sentiments among the population and by presenting Orbán's government as protectors of the country against the backdrop of a perceived threat of unmitigated immigration.

The first such campaign took place in the early summer of 2015, when the government launched a nationwide billboard campaign with a controversial slogan saying "if you come to Hungary, you can not take away the work places from Hungarians." Other posters followed that were billed as part of the campaign, containing slogans like "if you come to Hungary you have to respect the culture of the Hungarians."

Stop Soros law

Another government-sponsored campaign that came up as part of the overall anti-migrant rhetoric was the so-called "Stop Soros" drive, which featured some not-so-hidden anti-Semitic undertones: the campaign was targeted against Hungarian-American stock market billionaire George Soros, a Holocaust-survivor, who has since become a divisive figure in Hungary on account of the government's ongoing campaign against him.

Large parts of Soros' immense fortune have been transferred to his Open Society Foundation which since the late 1980s has supported democratization processes, the rule of law and civil society initiatives across Eastern Europe. Orbán, once an Open Society scholar himself, has now taken to accusing Soros of planning to settle millions of migrants in Europe in an alleged bid to undermine his government and destroy the "European way of life" — echoing sentiments that during the Nazi rule of large swathes of Europe had been brought against other Jewish people of influence.

At the end of the campaign against Soros, the Hungarian government passed the so-called "Stop Soros" law, which targets mostly non-governmental organizations supported by Soros. The law calls for the penalization of all acts of "promotion of illegal migration" — be they big or small. Under the law, even small information events about current trends in migration could be penalized.

Mon-governmental organizations deemed to be engaged in such alleged promotion of illegal migration will also now be subject to a 25% tax on all income and donations, effectively limiting the funds that organizations like the Open Society Foundation can spend on philanthropic activities and other forms of outreach.

Posters against Soros at an underground station | Photo: Picture-alliance/dpa/P.GorondiEU intervention

In July 2018, the European Union launched infringement proceedings against Hungary, targeting both the tightened asylum legislation and the Stop Soros laws introduced in recent years, and more recently has also initiated another infringement case against the Hungarian government's alleged practice of "starving" asylum seekers at the transit zone.

There is still no final decision in any of the cases as the Court of Justice of the European Union (ECJ) continues to examine them. However, the Hungarian government said it would not accept any ruling that would demand any commitments on its part that could result in changes to its asylum legislation.

Speaking to InfoMigrants, a Hungarian government spokesman said that the outgoing "migration-friendly" EU Commission was working hard" to bring even more migrants to the European Union and thus to Hungary."

"The Hungarian people repeatedly said no to immigration. Now the outgoing Commission wants to punish Hungary and the Hungarian people by all means. In our view, these steps taken by the outgoing Commission are deeply anti-democratic and incorrect, as it wants to force the new EU Commission to follow a coercive route, leaving no room to maneuver one of the main problems of the continent."

Hanging on to power

There are also parts of the Hungarian migration policies, however, where the EU cannot intervene. This is especially true for the way the government veers the public debate on migration. Orbán and his government routinely counter almost any criticism against any of their policies by stating that these criticisms come from "pro-migration forces." They push news stories in government media outlets about horrors relating to migration elsewhere in Europe, most of which have been proven to be invented or distorted.

Independent MP Bernadett Szél said that Orbán "uses the refugee crisis and the issue of migration as a means to maintain his position of power, so his propaganda machine is constantly spreading a distorted picture of reality."

Migrants make their way after crossing the border at Zakany, Hungary, October 16, 2015 | Photo: REUTERS/Laszlo Balogh

A climate of fear

There have been far-reaching consequences to the government's way of handling the public discourse on the migration issue: for example, non-governmental organizations report that they now face steep challenges whenever the want to rent spaces to hold events, as landlords fear they might have to face legal consequences if they rent out their spaces to groups that later might be regarded as out of the government's favor. They often prefer to decline renting spaces to NGOs than risk being penalized themselves.

It is commonly known that private social media accounts of public employees are more or less systematically monitored by the government. Anyone working in the public service is therefore careful to avoid having any connection to anyone who might be seen to be in favor of a more liberal approach to migration.

Above all, people of color — mainly tourists but also Hungarian citizens — report that they increasingly suffer from being exposed to public insults, especially if they are perceived as being immigrants of any sort. There are been cases were some were even arrested as suspected illegal migrants only because of the color of their skin.

However, "white" Hungarians don't appear to be safe from this climate of fear either. In October 2017, the case of Zoltán Fenyvesi made headlines. Fenyvesi, a pension operator from the western Hungarian village of Öcsény, wanted to offer a recognized refugee family a one-week free holiday including an adventure program for children. His gesture of humanity, however, triggered resentment across the village, the tires of his two cars were cut, some villagers openly threatened him with violence. In the end, he canceled the family visit for security reasons.

Even Orbán got involved in the affair, saying he had found "nothing to complain about "the reactions displayed by the villagers."

"They expressed their opinions in a determined, loud and understandable way."


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