Migration was high on the agenda when the EU’s migration commissioner, Dimitris Avramopoulos, visited Budapest last week. But, after lengthy discussions with Hungary’s justice and interior ministers, his public remarks after the meeting on 28 March did not, incredibly, touch upon the brutality of Hungary’s policies towards asylum-seekers and migrants.
Despite an escalation of Hungary’s anti-migrant stance, in growing contradiction to EU standards, the commissioner opted not to call publicly on Viktor Orban’s government to change its policies and to treat asylum seekers with the respect and dignity they deserve.
Avramopoulos’ overdue visit to Budapest created hopes that a more decisive response was in the pipeline, as he arrived on the same day yet another flawed asylum law entered into force in Hungary.
That new law allows for the blanket detention of almost all asylum seekers, including children of 14 and over. All asylum seekers, including those currently in open reception facilities, would be moved to container-type facilities at the border with Serbia, where they would be detained without a detention order, and with no time limit.
The law also legalizes the immediately return to the Serbian border of asylum seekers without a lawful status picked up anywhere in Hungary – a cruel extension of the July 2016 legislation allowing the return of anyone apprehended within eight kilometers (five miles) of the border.
So, how does such restrictive and inhumane legislation stack up to EU standards? Blanket detention of asylum seekers without judicial order and without the right to challenge the detention is clearly at odds with the EU Reception Directive, as well as the European Convention on Human Rights. Detention can only be used on a case-by-case basis, and justified through the decision of a competent authority. Similarly, the detention of children violates EU laws.
Pushbacks of asylum seekers to the Serbian border will force hundreds of people into the awful conditions found in transit zones, where their protection claims are subject to an abbreviated assessment process. This transit zone procedure processes an absurdly low, daily cap of five people per zone – allowing 50 asylum seekers to cross the border legally per week. It means that those stranded in Serbia are denied effective access to the right of asylum, a breach of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights.
The commissioner also remained silent on the shocking treatment of asylum seekers. Human Rights Watch has documented dozens of cases of brutal pushbacks to the border with Serbia by Hungarian border officials. Asylum seekers told us they were beaten with batons, kicked, pummeled with fists, and attacked by dogs. Our researchers saw the bruises, injuries, and dog bites. These accounts are consistent with others documented by Hungarian non-governmental groups, Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), and the UN refugee agency, among others.
One might have at least expected a public call from the EU Commission for the Hungarian authorities to investigate this violence. But sadly, no such word came.
The commission’s silence is all the more disappointing given that Hungary’s backsliding on migration policies – which has contributed to the unjustified suffering of men, women, and children stranded in Serbia – goes back years, as does the evidence of needless brutality by border guards.
The silence fails the victims of abuses and sends the message that there is little or no cost for leaders who leverage hostility against asylum seekers and migrants for domestic political gains.
Apparently, this message has been heard. Slovenia recently passed amendments to its Alien Act making it easier to remove asylum seekers to Croatia. Recently, Human Rights Watch documented serious cases of summary returns of asylum seekers from inside Croatia into Serbia. Poland’s proposed legal amendments to its asylum law would also open avenues for blanket detention and legalize summary returns to neighboring Belarus.
Human Rights Watch and our partners in Hungary have repeatedly called on the European Commission to use its enforcement power and legal action against Hungary’s recurring violations of EU protection standards for asylum seekers and migrants. Infringement proceedings opened in December 2015 against Hungary’s already problematic asylum laws have apparently stalled. Since then, the July 2016 asylum law mentioned above, and the March 2017 legislation, which allows for blanket detention of nearly all asylum seekers and extends the possibility to return them to the Serbian border from anywhere in Hungary, have only made things worse.
The commission has instead taken a much weaker step – sending experts to Hungary to work with the authorities. This presumes good faith on the part of Hungary’s government toward refugees, asylum seekers, and other migrants, though the Hungarian government’s actions demonstrate just the opposite.
The EU’s infringement proceedings are far from a perfect tool. They take time and provide no direct remedy to the victims. But further delaying clear action by the commission will only embolden Viktor Orban’s inflammatory narrative and the Hungarian Government’s abusive policies. Coupled with its failure to speak out, the commission’s lack of meaningful action adds insult to the victims’ injuries.