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People protest in Heroes’ square against a new law that would undermine Central European University, a liberal graduate school of social sciences founded by U.S. financier George Soros in Budapest, Hungary, April 12, 2017. © 2017 Reuters
(Budapest) – The Hungarian government submitted three bills to parliament on February 13, 2018 that would penalize and restrict groups working on asylum and migration issues, Human Rights Watch said today.

The bills cast helping a person fleeing persecution to obtain asylum in Hungary as a threat to national security. They would force anyone working with, or advocating for the rights of, migrants, refugees and asylum seekers to undergo national security clearance and pay additional tax on any foreign funding. They would also give the government the authority to bar Hungarians working on behalf of migrants and asylum seekers from border areas, where Hungarian authorities have abused migrants and asylum seekers, and to bar foreigners working on migration and refugee issues from the country.

“These bills directed at people who support migrants are about smearing and silencing groups that help people in Hungary to secure their rights,” said Benjamin Ward, deputy Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Hungary’s government should withdraw these draft bills and end its odious campaign against civil rights groups.”

The measures were introduced ahead of national legislative elections in Hungary, set for April 8. They reflect the long-standing government hostility toward refugees and migrants and its campaign against nongovernmental groups. In particular, the campaign targets groups working on behalf of migrants and refugees, and receiving funding from the Open Society Foundation, founded by Hungarian-born George Soros. That could include Human Rights Watch, which falls into both categories.

The draft bills have already drawn criticism from the United Nations high commissioners for human rights and for refugees, the Council of Europe human rights commissioner, and the German Foreign Affairs Ministry.

The first draft bill (T/19776) makes clear that the measures cover groups working on migration and asylum in almost any capacity, including those that provide funding, monitor treatment of refugees, press for change, advise asylum seekers, or in any way use foreign funds.

The bill requires organizations falling under its scope to apply for authorization from the Interior Minister to continue performing their work and to disclose extensive information about their activities.

It would limit their ability to carry out their work independently, and new reporting requirements could make it almost impossible to conduct legitimate, but sensitive, activities such as monitoring the border and detention centers, and offering legal counsel or intervention, even if the minister consented.

The proposed approval process includes, among other criteria, security clearance by three civilian and military security services. Failure to apply for such clearance would trigger proceedings against the relevant groups that could ultimately result in their dissolution by a court. If they are not approved for clearance, it would put their activities on hold for a year.

The second bill (T/19775) would require the organizations “supporting migration” to pay a 25 percent duty on any funding received from abroad or face large fines.

The third bill (T/19774), on immigration restraining orders, would enable the Interior Minister to issue a restraining order barring a person “whose residence in Hungary is contrary to Hungary’s national security interests or who poses a danger to the public interest” from coming within eight kilometers of the Hungarian border. Since helping asylum seekers is defined as a threat to national security, the bill could be used to curtail any assistance to asylum seekers and migrants at the border. The same logic would allow the government to bar foreign activists and human rights monitors working on asylum issues from Hungary altogether.

These provisions would enable the Interior Minister to sidestep existing provisions for policing and border protection, smear Hungarian nongovernmental organization workers by implying that they are acting contrary to “Hungarian interests”, and to bar third country nationals attempting to document human rights violations in the border zone and beyond.

The government claims that the bills reflect the latest national consultation, which showed that “Hungarians want strong border protection and strong response to any attempt of organizing and supporting illegal migration.” Yet the government has failed to demonstrate that any of the groups the bills target was carrying out activities that would represent a threat to national security or public interest, Human Rights Watch said.

In reality, human rights groups in Hungary have documented the failures of the current government to meet its obligations under European Union (EU) law and international refugee and human rights law to protect the rights of refugees, asylum seekers and migrants at its borders and on its territory. That includes abuses arising from the Hungarian law on borders, introduced by the current government, which is the subject of European Commission enforcement action.

The government named several organizations during its news conference on the draft bills, contending that these were “typically organizations funded by George Soros.” They included the Menedék Hungarian Association for Migrants, Transparency International, the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, and the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union.

These draft bills follow in the footsteps of the 2017 Law on the Transparency of Organizations financed from Abroad, which has drawn widespread international criticism and is being challenged at Hungary’s Constitutional Court, the EU Court of Justice, and the European Court of Human Rights.

Existing legislation in Hungary already requires full transparency from nongovernmental groups and requires them to publish detailed annual financial and activity reports.

“Naming leading human rights groups in Hungary exposes the nasty reality that the objective of these draft bills is not about protecting national security but about silencing critical voices,” Ward said. “It’s important for Hungary’s European Union partners to make clear that this fresh assault on independent groups and activists is antithetical to the European Union’s values and will not be accepted.”

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