Detention of asylum seekers in Hungary violates international norms, say experts

March 24, 2016

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Two Hungarian NGOs, the Hungarian Helsinki Committee and the Cordelia Foundation, held a joint press conference Wednesday in Budapest to present the findings of a study titled From Torture to Detention. The study is a summary of a joint project carried out between July 2014 and January 2016 to assist torture victims, facilitate their access to international protection, and challenge their unlawful and unwarranted detention.

Both NGOs regularly monitored detention centers where torture victims are being held. The Cordelia Foundation, an NGO with the express mission of providing victims of torture with mental health services, visited the centers to identify and assess the impact of detention on torture survivors. The Hungarian Helsinki Committee provided the legal assistance to document and challenge the detention of these particularly vulnerable groups.

What the organizations found was that Hungarian authorities are simply not equipped to identify and assist asylum seekers traumatized by torture. Further, the detention of asylum seekers–especially those who are victims of torture and those suffering from post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)–is taking place in a manner that goes against EU law and the jurisprudence of the European Court of Human Rights.

Gábor Gyulai, coordinator of the Hungarian Helsinki Committee’s refugee program, calls the wholesale application of detaining asylum seekers a “general practice, not an exceptional measure” based on individualized assessment of asylum seekers.

Dr. Lilla Hárdi, a psychiatrist and medical director at the Cordelia Foundation, says asylum seekers who have been tortured and those with PTSD often have the trauma of their illnesses exacerbated by being detained.

“You can imagine that when these people arrived to their dreamland, where they wanted to come in order to be free and begin a new life, [their detention] is a serious re-traumatizing factor that evokes the previous symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder from pre-migration traumas or traumas inflicted during migration,” Hárdi says.

The psychiatrist went on to explain that these circumstances can often result in post-migration trauma.

This extremely vulnerable group with very special needs represents a large proportion of the asylum seekers who arrive in Hungary.

“Hungary is one of the few EU Member States that as a regular practice detains first-time asylum seekers — those asylum seekers that have just arrived, not those who have already been rejected,” Gyulai says.

The Helsinki Committee refugee program coordinator says a formalized and professional mechanism needs to be in place on behalf of Hungarian authorities and their partners whereby asylum seekers who are the victims of torture or suffer from PTSD are identified within a reasonable time.

“It should not happen after six months of detention. It should happen on day one,” Gyulai says. “Because in many cases an identified vulnerability would prevent detention from being applied. It would put the person on a completely different track with regard to their reception and detention conditions, as well as the asylum procedure itself.

“Under EU law and UN torture convention, all state authorities are required to ensure that the staff working with torture victims or traumatized persons receive proper training on how to deal with this phenomenon, how to talk to these people, how to handle them, how to prevent conflicts, how to prevent re-traumatization. This is also a clear obligation which, again, in Hungary as a matter of fact is being implemented only by NGOs, by the Cordelia Foundation and the Hungarian Helsinki Committee. It has never really been built into the standard training of police officers, armed guards, employees of detention facilities, or even asylum officers,” Gyulai says.

A large proportion of asylum seekers held in detention facilities in Hungary come from Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan — countries known for being conflict zones.

According to the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, the European Commission has already launched a string of infringement proceedings against Hungary related to its use of detention facilities, and the results of From Torture to Detention may add to current infringement proceedings.

(Click here to watch the full press conference)