By Patrick Wintour
Human rights groups have heavily criticised a vote by the Hungarian parliament to force all asylum seekers into detention camps as the country’s prime minister, Viktor Orbán, called migration “a Trojan horse for terrorism”.
The asylum seekers will be kept in converted shipping containers while they wait for their cases to be heard via video-link as part of measures Orbán said were designed to save Europe. He considers the migrants, many of whom are Muslims, as a threat to European Christian identity and culture.
The measure was fiercely opposed by civil liberties groups in the country and some socialist MPs but was nevertheless passed overwhelmingly by 138 votes to six with 22 abstentions. Support came from Orbán’s Fidesz party and the far-right Jobbik.
Amnesty International, one of a consortium of seven civil rights groups to protest against the new regulations, said the proposals would breach EU law and the refugee convention. “Dumping all refugees and migrants into containers isn’t a refugee policy it’s avoiding one,” the group said in a statement, denouncing the Hungarian moves as a “flagrant violation of international law.”
Gauri van Gulik, Amnesty’s deputy director for Europe, said: “Rounding up all men, women and children seeking asylum and detaining them months on end in container camps is a new low in Hungary’s race to the bottom on asylum seekers and refugees.”
Amnesty called on the European Union to take action against Hungary’s “illegal and deeply inhumane measures.”
The United Nations refugee agency said the new law “violates Hungary’s obligations under international and EU laws, and will have a terrible physical and psychological impact on women, children and men who have already greatly suffered.”
Asylum seekers in Hungary, which hundreds of thousands entered in 2015 in the hope of reaching western Europe, can at present be held for up to four weeks if they are apprehended within five miles of the border, but the new rules remove the time limit and will apply countrywide. Unaccompanied minors below the age of 14 will be put in the care of the country’s child protection services.
The Hungarian government stressed that any detained asylum seekers would be free to leave at any point, as long as they drop their claim and return to either Serbia or Croatia, the two countries through which refugees have mainly been arriving.
The law, due to come into force in a week, will also require asylum seekers to have their fingerprints and photographs taken, or be thrown out of the country for non-cooperation. It also makes it easier to declare a state of emergency designed to ensure that no one can enter Hungary and the EU without permission.
A statement from the seven civil rights groups, which includes the Hungarian Helsinki Committee and MigSzol, the Migrant Solidarity Group of Hungary, said extension of the current state of emergency due to migration to September “only serves to maintain the xenophobic, fear-mongering propaganda.” It said there were “hardly 400” asylum seekers in the country at present.
A total of 391,000 people arrived in Hungary illegally across the green border in 2015, the Hungarian government claims, of whom 177,000 submitted requests for asylum but only 5,000 waited until their asylum proceedings were completed.
Hungary accepted 502 asylum seekers in 2015 and 425 in 2016. Germany took in 890,000 asylum seekers in 2015 and 280,000 in 2016.
There have also been claims, rejected by the government, in the Swedish press that the Hungarian border guards have been attacking asylum seekers. Media access to the camps is restricted.
Orbán said at an oath-taking ceremony for border guards, called “border-hunters” by the government, on Tuesday that the arrival of asylum seekers might have ebbed since 2015 but it had not come to an end.
He said Hungary had to act on its own since the migration crisis would last until its causes are removed and the EU could not be relied upon to do so.
“We are still under attack,” Orbán insisted. “The pressure on Hungary’s borders will not cease in the next few years because millions more people are preparing to set off in the hope of a better life. The storm has not blown itself out.”
He added: “Migration is the Trojan wooden horse of terrorism. The people that come to us don’t want to live according to our culture and customs but according to their own at European standards of living.”
The refugees are expected to be kept at two or three camps on Hungary’s southern border.
In addition, Hungary is pressing ahead with a second electrified fence along the Serbian-Hungarian border due to be completed by 1 May. The new barrier, stretching for nearly 100 miles (150km), will enable the border to be monitored using CCTV and thermal cameras, and other technological equipment.
A government spokesman said: “Thanks to the new technology, a low voltage, and completely safe current will also be flowing through the fence, which will send an alarm to border control authorities if any attempts are made to damage the fence.
“The goal to be realised by the fence is exactly what the Austrians want too, that nobody is able to cross the border who will need to be sent back later because they are in the EU illegally.”
This article was published on The Guardian's website on March 7, 2017.