Hungary’s Helsinki Committee vows to fight mass detention of asylum-seekers

January 14, 2017

The Hungarian government has decided that asylum-seekers will henceforth have to spend the time it takes to process their asylum applications in detention instead of in open camps. The decision goes against European rules according to the Helsinki Committee, which has vowed to use all legal means to fight any attempt to detain asylum-seekers. Although the lives of those in the open camps could become even more difficult than it is now, many of them would be entitled to sue the government for millions of forints. For this reason the Helsinki Committee thinks the government would be better off if it were to spend this money improving conditions of open camps.

Minister Overseeing the Office of the Prime Minister János Lázár announced the government’s decision to restore the detention of asylum-seekers on Thursday. The decision dictates that no asylum-seeker may move about freely within Hungary from the time the application is submitted until the application has been processed, and in the case of rejection of asylum, may not leave the country until there is an enforceable court decision, Lázár explained.

He justified the decision with reference to the progressively growing threat of terror and security risks.  Also, Hungary could come under serious migratory pressure in 2017. The government had asked the minister of the interior to urgently prepare to detain asylum seekers, he said.

Hungary currently operates several open camps that asylum-seekers are free to leave while their applications for asylum are processed.

“Keeping asylum seekers in detention for the complete duration of the procedure is not consistent either with EU law or the rules of Strasbourg,” said Márta Pardavi, co-chair of the Hungarian Helsinki Committee. She said that while it was not clear from Lázár’s statement which law he wished to change, his announcement made clear that refugees will lose their freedom of movement.

According to the deportation and admission policy of the European Union, “it is not possible to take an applicant into custody simply because they requested international protection.” Furthermore, the time of keeping asylum-seekers under guard cannot exceed the warranted time of the investigation.

Of all European Union countries, Hungary is unique in that for years it has detained large numbers of asylum-seekers. Last year it was often the case that more asylum-seekers were kept in detention than in open camps. For example, on January 9 this year there were 225 in detention, of which only 163 were in open camps according to the Helsinki Committee.

The civil organization also takes issue with minister Lázár’s statements because asylum-seekers cannot be taken into detention, only those that have already been ordered out of the country. It is not possible to detain those applying for asylum in closed facilities. The Helsinki Committee calls attention to the fact that previously the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg ruled the special legal institution for guarding asylum-seekers in Hungary unlawful.

Both EU and Hungarian law allow the detention of asylum-seekers for up to six months (30 days in the case of families with young children). One reason for this can be the danger to national security.  However, detention can only be used in exceptional cases and a detailed explanation must be given.

Neither EU law, the European Convention on Human Rights, nor Hungarian laws allow for the mass detention of asylum-seekers without individual examination and justification. According to the civil organization, it is no more possible to detain asylum-seekers on the grounds that some of them might be terrorists than it is to keep a Hungarian citizen locked up in prison merely because “there is something wrong with his eyes,” or to incarcerate the entire population of Vas county just because “a number of those living in Vas are criminals.”

In other words, if someone is suspected of being a terrorist, then he can be taken into custody during the asylum legal procedure. However, it is not possible to stigmatize a very mixed group as terrorists and hold all asylum-seekers in detention.

“Such an illegal detention would be an example which has not existed in a democratic Europe for many decades.”  The Helsinki Commission believes that terrorism is a real danger to Europe, which the nations must confront using effective national security, intelligence and crime-fighting means. In the recent past, however, European terrorist attacks carried out in the name of Islam were characteristically perpetrated by native EU citizens and not by asylum-seekers, including Syrians, Iraqis, and Afghans, arriving to Hungary since 2015.

The civil organization claims that in 2016, for every ten asylum seekers in Hungary, four were either women or children. For this reason, it is incomprehensible why the government believes that locking up Syrian families with young children, Iraqi university students or Afghan children separated from their families would decrease the threat of terror in Hungary. The Helsinki Commission points out that national security screening is already part of the asylum law procedure, which the relevant agencies perform to the best of their abilities.

They further point out that holding asylum-seekers in detention is extraordinarily expensive, and hiring hundreds of people to guard detainees costs many times more than maintaining an open camp for asylum-seekers. Taking every refugee into custody involves hiring hundreds and even thousands of people, which amounts to a huge, unnecessary cost to Hungarian taxpayers.

The Helsinki Committee also states that, in the event the government attempts to categorically detain asylum-seekers, the organization’s lawyers will devote all their energies to taking each and every case to the European Court of Human Rights, which is likely to fine the government many millions of forints for illegally detaining them.

“This is both in the interest of the refugees and Hungarian society,” the organization said.

Refugees currently residing in open camps are free to come and go and can attend church receptions as well as participate in events organized by civil organizations such as MigSzol and Artemisszió.

Bishop László Bíró, social nurse Gabriella Sári and four of the eight refugees in Körmend.  Photo: Magyar

János Lázár’s announcement may be part of government efforts under way to limit contact between refugees and Hungarian society. An excellent example of this is the closure of the camp in Bicske, just a stone’s throw from the capital city. Before its closure, refugees residing there had the opportunity to meet with mentors, attend courses, study languages and even attend university courses in Budapest.  By moving them to remote camps in Körmend and Kiskunhalas, far away from Budapest, their chances were drastically reduced for continuing those activities, which are indispensable to integration. The government’s decision has at least one other consequence: open camps ensured the possibility for private individuals to intercede in those cases where the government did not ensure proper living conditions to the asylum-seekers. Eight refugees forced to spend the night in barely heated tents in the middle of winter in the Körmend camp were received by a local priest in the parish community center. The closure of camps does away with this possibility.