Interview with Anikó Bakonyi from the Hungarian Helsinki Committee. Interviewer Anna Fedas.
ANNA FEDAS: What is the situation of refugees in Hungary?
ANIKÓ BAKONYI: In 2016 the Hungarian government continued its harsh anti-refugee policies. The legislative and policy changes implemented during 2015-2016 were all in line with the Hungarian government’s aims and intentions to completely destroy Hungary’s asylum system and deter people in need of international protection to seek refuge in Hungary. The most important developments since the summer of 2015 are centred around four main areas: 1) curtailing access to the territory of Hungary and to the asylum procedure through the creation of both physical and legal barriers; 2) replacing permanent reception facilities with temporary shelters thereby creating poor reception conditions; 3) the deterioration of procedural safeguards and 4) the state’s withdrawal from integration services provided to beneficiaries of international protection, thereby leaving them to homelessness and destitution.
In my view the most important of these changes are the ones that affect access to Hungary and to the asylum procedure for those seeking protection. From this perspective the importance of the Röszke and Tompa transit zones that opened on September 15th, 2015 along the Serbian-Hungarian border has significantly increased, since these two entry points remain the only way to enter Hungary from Serbia legally and submit an asylum application. Access to the transit zones has been reduced by the authorities several times, from 20-30 per day to 20 people per day in November 2016 and then to ten people per day in January 2017.
The most flagrant violation of human rights is the so-called eight kilometres rule, which entered into force on July 5th 2016 that obliges the Hungarian police to automatically escort back to the external side of the border fence any migrants who are apprehended within eight kilometres of the border fence along the Serbian-Hungarian or the Croatian-Hungarian border. This measure effectively legalised push-backs from Hungary and denies migrants and refugees the right to seek international protection. As a result of the legalisation of push-backs, in the period between July 5th and December 31st 2016, 19,219 migrants were denied access (prevented from entering or escorted back to the border) at the Hungarian-Serbian border. These people were not only denied the right to apply for international protection, despite most of them coming from war zones such as Syria, Iraq or Afghanistan, but many of them were also physically abused by personnel in uniforms and injured as a consequence, which is described in our report Pushed Back at the Door that appeared on January 25th 2017.
Does the government’s policy towards refugees influence the situation of immigrants and minorities in Hungary?
Asylum seekers now face serious difficulties in accessing the asylum system in Hungary and receiving protection despite the fact that the composition of asylum seekers has not changed much since the summer of 2015. In 2016 most asylum seekers came from war and terror-torn countries such as Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq (over 65 per cent) and the percentage of women (22 per cent) and children (29 per cent) remained high. The atmosphere has also shifted as a result of the government’s hate campaign and more people fear refugees than before, although their actual number in Hungary is minimal (less than 500 in January 2017). Some of the Hungarian Helsinki Committee’s clients with protection status who have lived in Hungary for some time tell us about their everyday difficulties which are clearly the results of the Orban government’s fear-mongering.
Are there any grassroots movements or NGOs that are appealing to the government to change its policy towards refugees?
Yes, there are. There is strong cooperation and solidarity among NGOs, but advocacy against the current government’s policies remains difficult. As a result of the government’s lengthy and large-scale communication campaign against migrants and refugees, the general climate surrounding the issues of migration and asylum is very hostile. It has become very difficult to enter into a professional discussion with the authorities due to these issues being so highly politicised and professional decisions being made by politicians.
Do you see any chance for the governments of Central and Eastern Europe to change their policy towards refugees, join the resettlement programme and participate in finding solutions to the refugees crisis?
The Visegrad countries following Prime Minister Orban pursued a very strong anti-refugee stance. While Hungary and Poland did not at all take part in the relocation scheme, Slovakia and the Czech Republic at least relocated a limited number of people. In migration, Orban’s emphasis has always been on strong border control and now that this voice is being echoed by other member states he feels confirmed and emboldened. At the moment it seems more likely that the general European stance is shifting towards a less welcoming Europe, so I do not see a realistic chance for a change in policy in CEE towards refugees in the near future.
Anikó Bakonyi is advocacy and project officer with Hungarian Helsinki Committee.
Anna Fedas is a senior specialist on civic education at the European Solidarity Centre based in Gdańsk. She is currently pursuing a PhD at Wrocław University.