Walking into an immigration detention center, the cruelty of Hungary’s new border regime hit us. Locked up behind bars we saw a young Syrian man in a wheel chair, a petite young Afghan woman in sandals, an elderly Syrian woman in a black jalabiyya.

Refugees and asylum seekers wait on the Serbian side of the border with Hungary in Roszke, September 15, 2015.

Their crime? Crossing the border from Serbia. Instead of finding protection or safe passage they were thrown in detention, victims of a new system that leaves Hungary’s borders effectively closed to asylum seekers, and that prosecutes as criminals those who enter without permission.

The three were awaiting deportation to Serbia, having been convicted of irregular entry. But since Serbia accepts very few returns from Hungary, they and many others are held in limbo. We have changed their names, but their stories highlight the cruelty of the new system.:

“Ayman”, 28, has a disability after a rocket fell on his house in Damascus. He had been locked up for over 40 days. He told us his wheelchair broke at the border and he spent 23 days lying on a bed until his lawyer got him a donated wheelchair. “Every two or three days all the others are taken out to the courtyard to get some fresh air, for 15 or 20 minutes,” he said. “I haven’t been out for 42 days because of the stairs. Even animals are treated better. We haven’t done anything wrong, why are we here?”

“Aziza”, 23, from Afghanistan, had been detained for nearly a month, separated from some of her relatives. She described being humiliated by Hungarian police, who forcibly removed her headscarf and took it, without explaining why. She also gave a disturbing account of being forcibly stripped by five policemen after she refused to undress for a medical examination because the female police officer who ordered her to disrobe had not given her a reason.  

“Nour”, a frail 61-year-old from Syria, cried as she told us she had been separated from her husband when she was taken to court and that he was detained elsewhere. She can’t read and unsure why she had been behind bars for 46 days, while others who crossed were now in Germany.

These stories are sadly not rare examples of Hungary’s inhumane approach to asylum seekers. We have spoken to dozens of others in detention centers across Hungary who asked us, “Why am I here, what have I done? When can I be free?”

Human rights law only allows immigration detention (apart from prosecution for crimes) for short periods for identification or for deportation if there is a reasonable prospect of carrying it out – which likely won’t happen, given Serbia’s reluctance to accept people Hungary wants to return there. Under international law people seeking protection from persecution who presented themselves to the authorities should not be prosecuted or otherwise penalised for crossing a border without permission. 

To live up to its international obligations, Hungary should stop prosecuting people like Ayman, Aziza and Nour, and start showing them the compassion that our common humanity demands.