Border Hungary and Austria, 2015 | Photo: Picture-alliance/dpa/Tatif/Wostok Press/Maxppp Hongrie
Border Hungary and Austria, 2015 | Photo: Picture-alliance/dpa/Tatif/Wostok Press/Maxppp Hongrie

Since August 2018, the Hungarian Helsinki Committee (HHC), a non-governmental organization advocating for human rights in Hungary, has counted a total of 13 cases of starvation in Hungary’s transit zones, affecting 21 individuals.

An Iraqi family of five with three children left Iraq in the hope of finding treatment for their 9-year-old son who is particularly vulnerable due to his mental disability. Their 6-year-old child also has autistic tendencies. 

An Afghan family arrived in Hungary after fleeing Afghanistan during a family dispute over land. They were threatened with death and then mistreated in Iran because they were Afghan. Another Iraqi family of eight fled Iraq due to ISIS. They had witnessed killings and the abduction of young girls. They were afraid for their lives. 

These are just some of the case studies highlighted by the HHC in their latest report about the denial of food to rejected asylum seekers inside Hungary's transit zones. In all cases, food was denied to the adults in the group for between one and five days.

"The deliberate starvation of detained persons is an unprecedented human rights violation in 21st Century Europe,” states the Hungarian Helsinki Committee in their latest report. Since February, the HHC has intervened in eight cases of starvation of migrants detained in the so-called Transit Zones. Even before February, the Committee had taken five such cases of food deprivation to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). After intervention by the court, the Hungarian Immigration and Asylum Office (IAO) promised to provide food to all asylum seekers in the transit zone. That promise has not been kept, alleges the HHC.

Changes to the law in Hungary

Since March 28, 2017, under Hungarian law, anyone applying for asylum in Hungary can only do so from a transit zone on the Serbian-Hungarian border. Since then, all migrants applying for asylum are detained in these zones for the “entire duration of their asylum procedure,” explains the HHC.

The HHC point out that changes to the asylum law in Hungary have made it easier to reject applicants but many of these changes breach EU and international human rights treaties.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 KELEMAN

There were further modifications to asylum law in Hungary in 2018. At that time, a new inadmissibility ground was introduced “which resulted in the automatic rejection of asylum applications lodged in the transit zones.” As a result of this modification, which breaches EU law, the European Commission “launched an infringement procedure against Hungary.” In a press release, the Commission states that the modification “curtails the right to asylum in a way which is incompatible with the Asylum Qualifications Directive and the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights.”

The HHC states that Hungarian authorities start denying food after someone’s asylum application has been rejected -  a denial which is unlawful before a final decision has been made and prior to appeals. Under the new 2018 law, the Hungarian authorities are able to reject asylum applications on the basis that most of those who arrived had traveled through Serbia which is considered a ‘safe’ third country. The applicants were therefore not considered eligible for seeking international protection.

Serbia refuses to take Hungary’s rejected asylum-seekers

Since September 2015, Serbia has been refusing to readmit rejected asylum seekers from Hungary, which means Hungary is then under obligation “under EU law to examine, on the merits, the international protection claim of asylum seekers who cannot be returned to any other state considered as ‘safe’.” An obligation the HHC says they are not fulfilling.

When Serbia refused to readmit these asylum-seekers, the HHC alleges that Hungary then changed the rejected asylum seeker’s destination to their country of origin, “without examining their original reasons for fleeing their home.” Again, the HHC says that this is “in clear violation of international and EU rules of refugee law,” because it “entails a risk of refoulement,” meaning sending someone back to a country from which they have fled where their lives may be endangered if sent back there.

Who is affected?

The majority of those affected in 2019 have been families of Afghan, Iraqi and Iranian asylum seekers. The HHC also points out that state legal aid for rejected asylum seekers is often difficult to access. One man complained of only being allowed to see his lawyers once and even legal help from the HHC can take days before being granted. 

The case studies include five family groups and one single Iranian man. Most of them, according to the summaries, had medical and or persecution grounds for fleeing their countries of origin. In all cases, food was denied to the adults in the group for between one and five days, until the HHC intervened and requested the court to order them to be fed.Border fence between Hungary and Serbia | Photo: Picture Alliance / dpa / MTI / B. Mohai

Without changes to the law, says the HHC, nothing will change for asylum seekers in Hungary. At the moment most asylum seekers' claims are rejected. Their appeals are either suspended pending the outcome of an ongoing preliminary ruling procedure at the EU Court of Justice, or rejected. Once rejected, the IAO “automatically initiates an alien policing procedure with a view to expelling the rejected applicant from Hungary.” With that, the HHC says, comes starvation for all adults except pregnant or nursing women.

The Hungarian authorities claim that starved people can “voluntarily” walk out of the transit zone towards Serbia. However, that would mean they would be in breach of both Hungarian and Serbian law. According to the court, if they receive a deportation order, they should be accompanied in that deportation either to Serbia or their home country and should not just ‘walk out’ voluntarily. By leaving the transit zone, the applicant would be breaching their own deportation order and thus Hungarian law. Then they would have to cross the Serbian border illegally, thus risking criminal proceedings in Serbia too, or removal from the territory there. As the HHC points out, expecting them to stay in the 1-2 meter strip of Hungarian territory between the transit zone and the Serbian border for an indefinite time “is only a fictitious alternative to the illegal border crossing to Serbia.”


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