Budapest Police accused of harassing homeless Hungarians

August 2, 2015

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Translation of Ákos Albert’s article “Police harass the homeless on the wayside” (Úton, útfélen zaklatják a rendőrök a hajléktalanokat) appearing in abcug.hu on July 21st, 2015.

Homeless people’s identity documents are checked twice a month by police on average according to a study prepared last autumn by the Helsinki Committee and The City is for Everyone, a homeless rights advocacy group.   With the help of homeless people, the two organizations conducted an examination called a test and a survey called an observation.

The test involved homeless and non-homeless people sitting in Budapest’s busiest public areas (for example, near the Nyugati station of the Blaha Lujza square) for four hours .  The task was to simply sit and observe what the police do in their immediate environment without doing anything illegal or out of place.

The result:  of the homeless people who participated, two had their documents checked by police, neither one of which resulted in further action.  In addition, they observed that the police checked people’s documents in nearly every place where they appeared, especially those of homeless people and some cases Roma.   The middle-class looking control individual was never asked by police to show his documents.

I stand there ashamed

After this, ten homeless people had to keep a journal for half a month.  During this time four homeless had their documents checked by police twice, and two were checked once.  On the basis of this the City for Everyone and the Helsinki Committee conclude that homeless people are required to show their documents twice a month to the police, even though in 80 percent of cases it results in no further action taken.  Furthermore, of the observed cases, three took place while the homeless were partaking of some social service: either being checked by a doctor or standing in line to receive free food.

The latter happened with Miklós Fekete Nagy and Ferenc Sándor, another homeless person participating in the test.  “They check my documents every two weeks on average” says Sándor.  For example, they checked his documents several times while he stood in line for food at the Blaha Lujza square.   “At those times I stand there feeling ashamed while those around me don’t know whether or not I’ve committed a crime.  This is an uncomfortable feeling.”

He was the one who had his documents checked in front of the Nyugati train station.  He had been sitting there for three hours.  He hadn’t been drinking, nor had he spoken loudly.  On the other hand, he looked the way one generally imagines a homeless person:  his clothes were worn and a bag was sitting on the bench next to him.

Sándor has been living on the street for nine years.

The police who approached him found everything to be in order.  He was the only one they checked.  They did not ask to see Gáspár’s documents, who was sitting only a few meters away looking like a university student.  Later the Police approached a group of Roma.

Average people are rarely stopped in the street

After preparing the study, the Helsinki Committee and the City for Everyone group petitioned the Equal Treatment Authority (EBH) to determine whether the police are persecuting and harassing the homeless by frequently checking their documents in comparison to others.  The two organizations think it is telling that, according to an international study, three percent of Hungarian citizens have their documents checked by police every year while walking in public areas.  By contrast, the half of one percent of the population of Budapest that is homeless has their documents checked several times a month.

The Equal Treatment Authority held a hearing on Tuesday at which it took the testimony of representatives of the Helsinki Committee and the City is for Everybody Group.  It called witnesses and police representatives as well, who did not appear on the grounds that two months was not enough time for the police to identify the officers who checked the documents of the homeless people participating in the study.

They check his documents to prevent him from pickpocketing

Earlier the Budapest Head Constable’s office sent its official point of view to the Helsinki Committee in which it wrote that it does not agree that police discriminate in the practice by which they check people’s documents.  They offered the following explanation:

  • It is not only the Budapest police but also standby police who check people’s documents
  • They checked Ferenc Sándor’s documents because of his age and not because he appeared homeless because they were afraid he was a pickpocket
  • Nowhere is it defined what official constitutes a homeless person, and for this reason the police cannot determine this.  Worn clothing and plastic bag in hand is not only characteristic of homeless people.
  • The police did not break the law by failing to take additional action after checking their documents.  To the contrary, it would be disproportionate for the police not to be satisfied with checking documents and to take additional action.
  • If the police does not explain the reason for checking a person’s documents, that is unprofessional behavior, but not discriminatory.
  • If a group spends a long time a busy intersection, that attracts the attention of the police, and increases the likelihood of the police checking their documents.

In response, the Helsinki Committee and the City for Everyody Group responded that they thought it strange that the police justified asking to see the 59 year-old Ferenc Sándor’s documents because they were afraid he was going to pickpocket.  “Apart from issuing him a warning, why was it necessary to check his documents?” they wrote.

Budapest Police receive one more chance

As the representative of the Budapest Head Constable’s Office did not show up to the hearing, the EBH scheduled another hearing which it expects police representatives to attend.  It informed them that if they feel to attend the next hearing, it will take their actions to mean that BRFK does not wish to defend itself and indirectly acknowledges its actions to have been unlawful.   In that case, the EBH can prohibit the police from checking the documents of homeless people and can even assess a fine of HUF 6 million (USD 22,000).

However, according to Helsinki Committee lawyer Borbála Ivány, the EBH rarely assesses fines.  For them it would be ideal if they could agree with the police about holding sensitivity training for example, and about better documenting requests for documents by filling in a separate form so that they can be checked.