Two Afghan families were forced to leave Hungary and return to Serbia this week after their asylum claims were rejected. The chief of the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, has spoken out about the expulsion of the Afghans - among them a pregnant woman - calling it "a serious violation of international law."
"[They] were taken to the border fence in the middle of the night and they were forced to leave for Serbia in the middle of nowhere," András Léderer from the Hungarian Helsinki Committee explains.
Serbia declined to accept the families when the Hungarian authorities first refused these families asylum," Léderer explains. That prompted the Hungarians to try and deport them to Afghanistan, in conjunction with the European border agency, Frontex. They were then offered the 'choice': fly back to Afghanistan, or return to Serbia.
Mohammad Arab, a 16-year-old member of one of the families told the Associated Press in Serbia that the experience was "terrifying".
Hundreds more at risk
The two families already sent back to Serbia comprise 11 people - four adults and seven children, including a mother who is heavily pregnant and has health concerns. A third family of four, who are currently in the so-called "transit zone" in Hungary, were blocked from deportation to Afghanistan after the Hungarian Helsinki Committee successfully intervened in their case.
But it’s not just about those cases, Léderer says. There are currently 200 people in the transit zone. There are Iraqi families who may soon face a similar fate, he says. The Hungarian government rules the asylum claims inadmissible because all the families waiting in the transit zone on the border with Serbia traveled through Serbia, a "safe country", to reach Hungary. Therefore, returning them to Serbia does not represent a threat to their lives.
There are two problems with this reasoning, says Léderer. The first is that they fled their original countries for reasons that could constitute a pose to their lives if they are sent back. Therefore, their actual asylum claims need to be thoroughly assessed on merit. The second problem is that in most cases, Serbia is officially refusing to accept these returns. So when they are forced back to Serbia, they are breaking the law by entering Serbia and could then face consequences there.
It is not just the Hungarian Helsinki Committee that is worried about what Hungary is doing. On Wednesday, using a picture of a border fence under an evening sky, Filippo Grandi, UNHCR’s chief, wrote that because the Hungarian government had not "seriously examin[ed] [the families’ claims to refugee status," their actions were "deeply shocking and a flagrant violation of international and EU law."
The families have been in Hungary’s transit zones since January. Before that, they were in Serbia for around three years, waiting for the right to enter and claim asylum. Hungary only accepts a couple of admissions to apply for asylum per day.
"Their case highlights our deep concerns about what is happening in Hungary," said Grandi. Both the UNHCR and the Hungarian Helsinki Committee have lodged appeals for these families in the hope that they could remain in Hungary and have the right to have their asylum claims properly assessed.
Seeking refuge in Serbia?
UNHCR staff observed the families crossing the border and informed their colleagues on the Serbian side. As a result, the families have been able to spend a couple of nights in a camp for migrants in the border town, Subotica, Léderer says. But what will happen to them after that is not yet known. Léderer thinks they could be asked to leave quite soon. "We hope they can access the Serbian asylum system. They are in a camp in Serbia but that doesn’t mean they are in the asylum system."
Léderer explains that the asylum system in Serbia is two-tiered. "People might have access, physically to the camp, but the asylum procedure doesn’t start there. It remains to be seen if they can actually lodge an asylum application at all."
Mohammad Arab said that in Hungary they were treated "like we are not human, like we are animals. They don’t care if my mother is pregnant, they don’t care about any human rights. They don’t care about anything."
Léderer confirmed that the non-pregnant adults in these families, like many others, had also been denied food by the Hungarian authorities after their asylum claims were rejected.
Arab explained to reporters that the reason the family had waited nearly three years to enter Hungary and seek asylum was because they did not want to attempt to enter the country "illegally", with the help of people smugglers, like many migrants do. He and his family had lived in Iran before starting their journey through Turkey, Greece and North Macedonia before they reached Serbia.
Infringement cases pending
The family's appeal against the rejection of their asylum application failed. "Two and a half years I spent to go to Hungary, and it was useless," Arab told AP. He explained that a human rights worker in Hungary had given them a number of a Serbian refugee official to contact on arrival in Serbia. This man had eventually picked them up at the border.
His experiences in Europe have tested the 16-year-old's belief in the standards of human rights in Europe. "We hoped to have a better future and [to] study…to be someone useful for people, […] I don’t have my dreams anymore."
The Hungarian government has until next week to answer the question concerning the third Afghan family whose deportation was temporarily suspended following legal action by the Hungarian Helsinki committee. If they don’t answer those questions sufficiently, then further action could be taken, says Léderer. The UNHCR has advised Frontex to "refrain from supporting Hungary in the enforcement of return decisions which are not in line with international and EU law."
There are currently two infringement cases pending on the actions of the Hungarian government and whether their inadmissibility grounds for refusing asylum are valid. Léderer calls this method "practically unlawful". He points out that other countries, like Germany, which have deported some failed asylum seekers to Afghanistan, have "thoroughly assessed their cases" before doing so. There is one way to stop this kind of thing taking place. If the European Commission steps up its infringement procedure, says Léderer, then "hopefully it could quickly reach the court in Luxembourg." Léderer concludes that the EU Commission definitely holds the cards and could "stop this practice" if it wanted to.