Hungary’s stricter asylum rules go into effect despite international condemnation

March 28, 2017

Photo: Reuters – Dado Ruvic

Anticipated stricter border security and asylum procedure measures go into effect on Tuesday, despite a ruling by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) declaring some of Hungary’s earlier policies unlawful. President János Áder signed the controversial amendments into law on March 15, one day after the ECHR ruling.

The new rules stipulate that asylum-seekers may be detained anywhere in the country and escorted across the southern border fence. Only then may they submit an asylum claim in person at a transit zone along the border. If they manage to submit a claim, they will then be confined to that transit zone for the duration of its processing, and may only exit the zone into Serbia, in which case their claim would be automatically denied. The rules also allow for asylum-seekers to be housed in shipping containers in the transit zones, and for the detention of unaccompanied minors between 14 and 18 years of age (the latter drew condemnation from The United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund, UNICEF).

The rules also shorten to three days the time an asylum-seeker has to lodge an appeal to an asylum decision. Conditions for refusal of asylum applications are also broadened under the new rules.

The ECHR ruling against Hungary’s asylum policies was for a case involving two Bangladeshi nationals who had attempted to lodge asylum claims in Hungary in 2015. The court ruled that Hungary had violated the rights of the two men under the provisions of the European Convention on Human Rights by unlawfully detaining them in the transit zones along the Serbian border. The Strasbourg court also ruled that the practice of sending asylum-seekers back to Serbia violates their rights “to be free from inhuman and degrading treatment.”

Multiple senior Hungarian officials shot back at the ECHR ruling, including Prime Minister Viktor Orbán who in a radio interview argued that “Brussels will make a number of initiatives – including this court decision – which will want to take away our national authority.” However, the ECHR, which is tasked with upholding the provisions of the European Convention on Human Rights of which Hungary is a signatory, is under the purview of the Council of Europe, not the European Union. The court is located in Strasbourg, France, not Brussels, as the Prime Minister suggested.

Cynical and Devious Policy

A Monday decision by the ECHR prohibited the transfer of eight unaccompanied minors and one high-risk pregnant woman to the transit zones, and gave the Hungarian government until April 10 to react to the court’s concerns over conditions at the zones. The ECHR wants to know whether the transit zones are able to meet the special needs of vulnerable asylum-seekers, whether there exists suitable access to medical care, whether there are qualified staff at the zones, whether there are educational opportunities provided and whether young people will be kept in similar circumstances to the adults.

The court’s intervention came at the request of the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, a human rights organization specializing in asylum law. Helsinki has condemned the new asylum policies, alongside numerous other international human rights organizations, and called the measures “a flagrant breach of EU and human rights law” that warrant an immediate and definite response by the European Commission and other EU institutions.

Helsinki co-chair Márta Pardavi argues that the measures are a deliberate attempt by Hungary to eschew its international obligations. Rules established under the Dublin Regulations require asylum-seekers to be sent back to the first EU member state they entered, but since Greece was excluded from being able to accept returned asylum-seekers by a 2011 ECHR decision, Hungary bears the legal responsibility to handle the asylum claims of most refugees who traveled along the so-called Balkan Route. Pardavi argues that with the new rules, EU member states will have no choice but to determine that there are no sufficient safeguards to protect the rights of asylum-seekers in Hungary, and refuse to send them back.

“This is a cynical and devious way of ensuring that member states do not send asylum-seekers back to Hungary,” Pardavi said.