An anti-immigration poster by Victor Orban's Fidesz party during Hungary's April 2018 elections, April 8, 2018, Gyongyos, Hungary. 

© 2018 REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger
(Budapest) – Hungarian authorities have stopped food distribution since early August 2018 to some rejected asylum seekers held in transit zones on the Hungarian-Serbian border, Human Rights Watch said today. They should immediately ensure that all asylum seekers in custody are provided sufficient and appropriate food in line with the government’s legal obligations.

“The government has stooped to a new inhumane low by refusing food to people in their custody, apparently revelling in breaching human rights law, including its obligations as a European Union member," said Lydia Gall, Eastern EU and Balkans researcher at Human Rights Watch. “This disregard for people’s wellbeing smacks of a cynical move to force people to give up their asylum claims and leave Hungary.”

Two Afghan families and a pair of Syrian brothers are among those who were denied food after their asylum applications were rejected under a new admissibility procedure. While a breastfeeding woman and children in the Afghan families were provided with food, they were prohibited from sharing it with other family members, the families’ legal representatives told Human Rights Watch.

Acting on an emergency appeal filed by the Hungarian Helsinki Committee (HHC), the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) ordered Hungarian authorities on August 10 to resume food distribution for the two Afghan families, and has since issued similar orders in response to three other appeals, including on behalf of the Syrian brothers.

While authorities have respected the court orders thus far, dozens of other rejected asylum seekers may face food deprivation, Human Rights Watch said. On August 20, a pastor, Gabor Ivanyi, was denied access when he attempted to deliver food parcels to people in the transit zones. This occurred on a national holiday many refer to as the “Festival of the New Bread.”

Amendments to Hungarian asylum law enacted on July 1 allow authorities to deport asylum seekers whose claims have been deemed inadmissible even if they appeal the decision. Nearly all asylum claims by people who entered Hungary via Serbia or any other country listed as a safe third country under Hungarian law are considered inadmissible. March 2017 amendments to the asylum law state that rejected asylum seekers may be placed in the “aliens policing procedure” in designated areas, including the transit zones, pending deportation. Until the July amendments went into effect, allowing the authorities to remove asylum seekers from the territory during the appeals procedure, people in custody were not denied food.

The Immigration and Asylum Office (IAO) on August 20 stated that there is nothing in Hungarian law that explicitly obliges authorities to provide food to people in the “aliens policing procedure” in the transit zones. But Hungarian authorities do have binding obligations under multiple human rights treaties and norms that prohibit inhuman and degrading treatment of those in their custody and require those in custody to be treated with humanity and dignity. That includes providing them with food, water, hygiene, and medical needs. The government should act immediately to amend relevant legislation to ensure that everyone in a transit zone, regardless of the procedure or status of their claims, has the right to have their basic needs met, including for food.

The July amendments to the asylum law were part of a broader “Stop Soros package,” which also makes it a criminal offense to provide services, advice, or support to migrants and asylum seekers, punishable by up to a one year in jail.

Since 2015, the Viktor Orban government has engaged in a virulent campaign against migrants and asylum seekers, including efforts to demonize organizations that provide legal and humanitarian assistance to these groups. One of the main targets is George Soros, the Hungarian-born philanthropist billionaire, known for funding nongovernmental and development organizations around the world, including in Hungary.

The “Stop Soros” package has drawn wide condemnation from EU institutions and the Council of Europe. On July 19, the European Commission took the Hungarian government to the EU’s Court of Justice for noncompliance of its asylum and return legislation with EU law. Simultaneously, it opened new infringement proceedings concerning the criminalization of organizations and people that provide support or assistance to asylum seekers and migrants.

The Venice Commission, the Council of Europe’s constitutional law expert advisory body, had already in June condemned provisions criminalizing activities and advocacy on behalf of asylum seekers and migrants in Hungary as overly broad and disproportionate.

“It’s completely outrageous and absurd that people have to turn to the courts to get a slice of bread,” Gall said. “EU institutions should take this latest attack on people’s rights, add it to the large file of rule of law and human rights concerns in Hungary, and send a clear message that blatantly abusing asylum seekers and flouting EU rules will have serious consequences.”