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Dispatches: Hungary’s Criminal Punishment for People Fleeing Syria

“Please, I had no other choice. I’m a sick woman and I haven’t done anything so bad as to deserve this. I just want to reunite with my husband and sons in Germany. I ran away from bombs that destroyed our house in the village.”

Laila, a 60-year-old Kurdish woman from Syria was in tears this morning as she pleaded with a judge in the border town of Szeged before being found guilty under Hungary’s problematic new border regime.

Laila, and her son, during trial break awaiting her sentence for irregular border crossing at the Szeged District Court, Hungary. Her son was not prosecuted. October 14, 2015.  © 2015 Lydia Gall/Human Rights Watch

Her crime? That she on October 12 entered Hungary with her three children through the razor wire fence at the Serbian border in hopes of reuniting with her family in Germany.

I spoke to Laila during a break in the brief court hearing. She told me she had never been at a border crossing in her life. Yet the Hungarian judge told her that she and her three children, a 21-year-old daughter, a 19-year-old son, and a 14-year-old son, should have presented themselves at an official border crossing. She explained how the family had seen a Hungarian police officer and motioned to him they wanted to cross. The police officer told them to walk along the fence but they misunderstood his instructions, she said, crossing through a hole in the fence rather than an official crossing point further away. The police officer then arrested them for irregular entry.

Her court-appointed defense lawyer did little to argue her case, his lack of motivation apparent in facial expressions and body language. 

All three cases I attended in Szeged today were characterized by the same callous indifference to the plight of the “defendants.” In trials of no more than an hour, asylum seekers from Syria were found guilty of irregularly crossing the Hungarian border and sentenced to deportation and subject to a ban on re-entering the country for one or two years.

What will happen to Laila ultimately? Nobody could tell her or me. For now she will be held in immigration detention pending deportation to Serbia, which currently doesn’t accept any returns from Hungary. Adding to her anxiety, her daughter is detained separately and Laila hasn’t heard from her 19-year-old son from whom she was separated after their arrest. Luckily, she wasn’t separated from her 14-year-old son.

Instead of protecting people fleeing war and persecution, Hungary has chosen to criminalize those trying to cross parts of its border, a move condemned by the United Nations high commissioners for refugees and for human rights.

If Laila had crossed into Hungary from Croatia, she would most likely be well on her way to her husband in Germany. Just 200 kilometers from Szeged on the Hungary-Croatia border, Hungarian officials are allowing thousands of asylum seekers who cross the border irregularly to take trains to Austria without repercussions.

Yet in a cruel twist of fate, and because she crossed the wrong part of the border by mistake, Hungary has now turned a fleeing woman into a criminal. 

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