Careful crossing the street! Hungarian police earn millions on refugees

June 23, 2016

asylum

According to a report by daily online Abcúg.hu, things don’t get any easier for asylum seekers temporarily residing at open asylum centers in Hungary.  Apart from discrimination and slow administration procedures, it seems there are other legal challenges they have to face, including a crackdown by police on even the smallest of traffic offences.

A few weeks ago, Abcúg.hu requested information from the national branch of Hungarian police (ORFK) on how often and why they imposed fines on foreign nationals in the cities of Bicske, Vámosszabadi and Röszke. All three towns are home to open asylum centers, meaning most of those fined are probably asylum-seekers who are free to come and go as they please.

Wrong crossing, high fine

Fining refugees for small offences seems to have become a habit of Hungarian police. In May, a policeman in Körmend fined an Afghan man HUF 50,000 (USD 180) for not using the pedestrian crossing when going to a grocery store. Although he could have easily got away with a mere caution, the policeman imposed the highest possible fine on the refugee, who did not speak a word of Hungarian.

When asked about the case, police claimed a group of men tried to cross the street ignoring the pedestrian crossing. After an initial warning, all but one walked over to the crosswalk, although he clearly understood what the problem was.

“The amount of fine was the sole decision of the policeman,” the police office added.

They also said that policemen are never driven by prejudice.

The action did not go unnoticed. The Hungarian Helsinki Committee wrote in their blog: “law demands that no one should face discrimination for not knowing the Hungarian language. Seems this guarantee does not apply for asylum-seekers.”

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Policemen often fine refugees for even the smallest of offences

Millions from minor offences

According to data collected from Hungarian police, a staggering amount of HUF 2.4 million (USD 8,736) was collected from fines imposed on foreign nationals for minor offences for the period of the migrant crisis. It is important to mention that the data is merely an estimate, and that not all foreigners fined are asylum-seekers, as the settlements in question are at border towns.

After filtering out the offences that were certainly not committed by refugees – traffic offences by car and trade violations – HUF 1,690,000 (USD 6,058) still remained, 81 percent of which originated from minor traffic offences such as not using the pedestrian crossing, walking on the wrong side of the road or not noticing the stop sign.

The second largest amount was collected for littering.  Two people were also fined for minor thefts. Some people were only fined HUF 5,000 (USD 18) but most did not get off that cheaply.  The average fine varied between HUF 10,000 and HUF 30,000 (USD 36 – 108). All in all, it seems police are unusually strict when it comes to foreigners, especially considering that in minor cases they are not obliged to impose a fine.

Not only asylum-seekers

Of the three towns, Bicske was hit the hardest, while a significantly smaller number of asylum-seekers were fined in Körmend. Yet, the asylum center in Körmend only opened in May. By comparison in Szentgotthárd near the Austrian border, only fines totaling HUF 190,000 (USD 681) were imposed on foreigners in the last six months.

Needless to say, such police crackdowns do not only affect refugees. Human rights activists have criticized police for a long time for imposing unnecessary fines on minorities, especially the Roma.  Although some of these fines may have legal grounds, that does not mean the practice cannot be discriminative.  In Gyöngyöspata and elsewhere in northern, eastern and southwest Hungary, members of the Roma minority are often fined for littering, walking on the road or riding a bicycle during the day without reflectors or lights.  Unable to pay, many end up in jail.