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(Berlin) – The Hungarian government should revoke a new national law that makes it a crime to be homeless, Human Rights Watch said today. The new law raises serious human rights concerns, and is hard to reconcile with Hungary's human rights obligations, Human Rights Watch said.

The new Act on Petty Offenses, adopted in November 2011, and which entered into force on April 15, 2012, makes it a criminal offense to reside habitually in public spaces or to store belongings in them. Repeat offenders risk being imprisoned for up to 75 days or fined up to 150,000 Hungarian forint (US$655). The offense created is one of strict liability which requires no criminal intent, and targets amongst the poorest and most marginalized members of society.

“It defies logic to punish the poorest people in society just because they live on the streets,” said Lydia Gall, Eastern Europe and Balkans researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Fines and jail will do nothing to address fundamental problems that lead to homelessness.”

An estimated 30,000 people in Hungary are homeless, including about 8,000 in Budapest.  The capital has only 5,500 available beds in public shelters, with 10,000 in the country as a whole. 

The new law is the culmination of a two-year government-led campaign to make homelessness a crime. On November 18, 2010, the Hungarian parliament adopted an amendment to the construction law, defining the functions of public places and enabling local governments to pronounce improper use of public spaces as a petty offense without specifying the maximum fine. On November 14, 2011, that law was amended to allow “repeat offenders” to be sentenced to jail for up to 65 days or a maximum fine of 50,000 Hungarian forint (US$220) if arrested repeatedly within six months. The amendment went into effect on December 1. Revoking the new law would also make municipal decrees and amendments to other laws that criminalize homelessness void.

The Budapest local government enacted the first municipal decree on May 18, 2011, prohibiting the use of public spaces for habitual residence with fines of up to 50,000 Hungarian forint (US$220).

In December, the Hungarian Ombudsman filed a complaint with the Constitutional Court challenging the legality of the petty offenses law. The Hungarian Civil Liberties Union (HCLU), a leading Hungarian human rights organization, has initiated legal proceedings on behalf of two homeless people fined under the November 2010 law. The cases are pending.

In Budapest’s 8th district, commonly known for its high level of poverty and large number of homeless people, police arrested 271 homeless people for living in public spaces from the end of September to mid-October. The mayor of the district, Mate Kocsis, who is also Member of Parliament with the ruling Fidesz party, passed a decree in September making it an offense to scavenge in garbage containers.

The district mayor also established a vigilante group in January 2012, known as the “Good Guys Commando” (Jo Fiuk Kommando) to patrol the streets in three black cars, wearing black uniforms and military boots. The HCLU says these vigilantes have chased homeless people at night.

In February, the UN special rapporteurs on extreme poverty and human rights and on the right to adequate housing issued a joint call on Hungary to revise its laws criminalizing homelessness. The independent UN experts stressed that “homeless persons should not be deprived of their basic rights to liberty, or to privacy, personal security and protection of the family, only because they are poor and need shelter.”

Hungary is obliged under the European Social Charter, a Council of Europe treaty, and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights to guarantee the right to adequate housing.

Article 34 of the European Union charter on fundamental rights provides also that in order to combat social exclusion and poverty, the EU recognises and respects the right to social and housing assistance. Inaddition, in June 2010, the EU adopted a new strategy of promoting social inclusion through the reduction of poverty, known as Europe 2020.

In September 2011, the European Parliament adopted a resolution calling for an EU-wide homelessness strategy that would require EU member states to take concrete action to combat homelessness. The resolution calls for a specific focus on integrated housing approaches, the use of structural funds, and the agreement on a framework for monitoring and reporting on the development of national and regional homelessness strategies.

“Hungary’s approach to homelessness is completely at odds with Europe’s anti-poverty strategy,” Gall said. “Fines and jail will serve only to further marginalize some of the most vulnerable in society.”

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