Q&A: How Hungary dismantled its refugee asylum system

Hundreds of refugees and other migrants along the main highway from Budapest to Austria in 2015. Photo by: Stephen Ryan / IFRC / CC BY-NC-ND

BUDAPEST — Less than a week after Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s party won a landslide victory in Hungary’s elections on April 8, civil society activists and organizations received the latest in a steady pulse of warning signs about the country’s growing hostility toward critical voices.

The pro-Orban publication Figyelo published a list of 200 people the prime minister and his allies consider “mercenaries” of billionaire philanthropist George Soros, who is charged with orchestrating and funding an internationalist plot to dissolve Hungary’s borders, opening the country to refugees and migrants and eroding its national identity.

One of the people on that list was Gabor Gyulai, director of the Refugee Programme at the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, a human rights organization that provides social and legal services to asylum seekers.

Gyulai spoke to Devex at the organization’s headquarters in Budapest, where they are facing an onslaught of legislative efforts aimed at crippling their ability to access and support refugees in Hungary. Here is an excerpt of the conversation, edited for clarity and length.

Hungary has already dramatically restricted the number of refugees who can enter the country. How much will things really change as a result of this election outcome?

The Hungarian government dismantled or totally destroyed the Hungarian asylum system since early 2015 through various steps.

The first pillar is basically don't let them in, which covers several different policies. [The first is] a massive “push back” policy, which means … if you are apprehended anywhere in the country without the necessary papers as an irregular migrant, you will be pushed back to the Serbian side of the border fence. When I say “push back” it's on purpose. It's not “expulsion.” It's not “return.” It's not “extradition.” It's not “re-admission.” All these words would suggest some sort of legal procedure. In this case we talk about “push back,” which is a totally extrajudicial procedure. There is no written decision, there is no appeal, there is no lawyer, there is no interpreter. No vulnerabilities are assessed. They cannot present or submit asylum claim. There's basically nothing … This is absolutely unprecedented. In Europe, there is no other country that applies such a policy.

This push back policy is completed with another arbitrary policy, the admission quotas to the transit zone. Asylum claims can only be submitted in two transit zones — close to small villages near the Hungarian-Serbian border … You might think that, OK, these push backs are there to regularize the migration flow. But in reality, those who are pushed back are not allowed to return through the transit zones. In the beginning of the construction of the transit zones, there was no admission quota. As far as I recall, it was [then set at] 50 per day, then 30 per day, then 15 per day, then 10 per day only on working days during office hours, then five per day on working days. As of January this year, it's one per working day in office hours. That means that in one transit zone if there is a family that is admitted on Monday with five members, then for the rest of that week no one else is admitted.

It also means that Hungary admits 10 asylum claims per week. Even though the Balkan route is much calmer than it used to be, according to the [United Nations Refugee Agency] there are over 4,000 asylum seekers waiting in Serbia. There are still people arriving on the Greek islands and then continuing. It's much more calm, but it still exists.

So this can't be seen as just a response to declining demand for asylum?

Absolutely not … There is actually still significant migration on this route even though it's really a tiny part of what we saw in 2015.

Very often, these push back operations are accompanied by violence. We've received lots of reports about this since 2016. There are lots of NGOs and organizations and medical doctors in Serbia who document the injuries. There are very coherent reports. We also provide legal assistance to several victims in criminal proceedings in Hungary against an unknown perpetrator on the border.

So that's the first pillar — don't let them in. If they are in, just push them back.

And there are additional pillars?

The second pillar is the massive, indiscriminate, arbitrary detention of all asylum seekers. This means that while Hungary has always been one of the toughest countries in the European Union on detaining asylum seekers, it is now the general practice for all asylum seekers [to be detained], a policy unheard of anywhere else in Europe. Detention is nearly exclusively executed in these two transit zones, which are container compounds surrounded by barbed wire and guards. It's like this kind of security compound — very depressing places under constant vigilance, with cameras and [very little privacy] ... Everybody is detained with one small exception — unaccompanied minors under 14.

No vulnerabilities are assessed, no individual grounds are written in the decision. Actually, there is no written decision about the detention. There is no judicial oversight ... If you look at the fact that several thousand asylum seekers spent several months in this form of detention, this, together with these push backs, is probably the most massive human rights violation in many years in the EU.

“There is no housing. There is no financial support. There is no schooling allowance. There is no integration support. There is no Hungarian language course or help with finding a job. The state doesn't provide anything.”

— Gabor Gyulai, director of the Refugee Programme at the Hungarian Helsinki Committee

The third main pillar of the system — imagine that you somehow managed to get in, you somehow [endure] the several months of hardship in detention. Finally, after the second appeal you get refugee status, which still happens. Hungary granted protection to 1,300 asylum seekers last year. What happens afterward? You are released from the transit zone, and you have 30 days to stay in an open reception facility in a small village close to the Slovak and the Austrian border where you get three meals a day and a bed to sleep. After the 30 days, it's the end. You have to leave, and you don't get anything. There is no housing. There is no financial support. There is no schooling allowance. There is no integration support. There is no Hungarian language course or help with finding a job. The state doesn't provide anything …

This means that for most refugees the only option is to leave very fast toward the west. So that's what we see — at this reception facility, the turnover is very high. Most refugees stay a few days or weeks until they can organize their journey to Germany or other parts, because obviously, otherwise, it's homelessness and starving in Hungary.

Of course there are some NGOs that provide precious services. So the government announced that the EU money — Hungarian government-distributed EU money under so called national actions of the Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund of the EU — will be over as of July 2018. This is when the current cycle is ending and after that, they already announced early this year, in the run up to the elections, that they will not give more money for these kinds of activities.

Given that overview — and the fact that Hungary has already taken these steps to limit refugee asylum and assistance, do you expect the outcome of the election will change anything? Can it get worse?

What we expect after these elections is that the situation will remain the same. The government may still do everything to get as little access to detained asylum seekers as possible — so probably trying to make it even more difficult for NGO-affiliated lawyers, professional lawyers, to get into these places. Otherwise, what can be worse than this?

This draft law, “Stop Soros” — that we call “operation starve and strangle,” or “stop NGOs” or “stop civil” — has only one objective: To silence these independent voices, to get as little assistance to asylum seekers as possible and as little interference of the independent civil society into government matters as possible.

This law is not about migration. It's very, very important. It's not about tightening migration policy. It's also not about the transparency of NGOs, which the government often likes referring to. We, and all the other NGOs that work in this field, are all perfectly transparent. We comply with all the rules on that. We are much more transparent than many of the political actors. All our funding is clearly reported on our website, exactly how many pennies come from different donors and what do we do with it. We have several audits every year by large auditing companies, by donors. I mean it's quite obvious that this is a fake explanation.

The only objective of this law is to silence independent civil society, using the whole antimigrant, antirefugee context to push this, but this is not just about migrants and refugees.

What would it mean for your organization if the “Stop Soros” law is adopted?

What it would mean for us in practice if it's adopted, which is now very likely after these elections, is first of all that we, as a refugee-assisting NGO, should apply for a specific license. There are several problems with this.

First, it's a stigmatizing label that organizations would have to put on themselves. It would require a specific license for activities, which are absolutely normal in a democratic society, activities that are based on EU law, international legal obligations, and domestic law ... Plus this licensing process is absolutely arbitrary. It's the minister of interior who would provide this license upon request. The process would include a full examination by security services, civil and military, as well as a tax authority in-depth investigation, which is a way to divert a lot of these organizations’ precious resources to cope with these processes. It's psychologically pressing ... The minister can very easily reject this license, and there is no appeal against that.

If the minister issues this authorization, that's where the second bill comes into play with the immigration financing duty ... That would mean that any funding that we receive from a foreign source — including the EU, Council of Europe, United Nations, foreign private foundations — would be subject to a 25 percent duty, which is totally unacceptable. First of all because, for example, EU money cannot be considered foreign funding in Hungary, as it is an EU member state. It's very dubious. For example, the Visegrad Fund — where Hungary is one of the members of the four Visegrad countries — is that foreign funding or not? Everything is dubious, unclear, because that multiplies this threatening effect, and it leaves much more room for arbitrariness.

The third one [which] is also extremely worrying and something that we lived in the communist dictatorship is what we can translate as the immigration restraint order, which would mean that the government could very easily order that a foreign national could be banned from the entire territory of Hungary because he is considered a risk for Hungary's security, because he's seen as someone supporting migration. What is even more worrying is that Hungarian citizens could be banned from the 8-kilometer zone of the external borders of the EU, which would mean that if, for example, they consider that I am a risk, I could be banned from visiting certain neighborhoods of [the transit area] Szeged, which are in the 8-kilometer zone from the Serbian-Hungarian border.

“In the last three years, we won over three-quarters of our asylum appeals at court in Hungary. It shows to what extent the state practices are unlawful and incorrect, and it also shows how effective we are.”

The main reason for this last part is, as we suppose, to get rid of our extremely professional attorneys who still visit the transit zones on the border and provide legal assistance with a very high level of effectiveness. In the last three years, we won over three-quarters of our asylum appeals at court in Hungary. It shows to what extent the state practices are unlawful and incorrect, and it also shows how effective we are.

On the migration restraining order, does that also suggest that, for example, international staff at the Open Society Foundations could be banned from Hungary?

Absolutely. The only exception that they mention is international staff of international organizations. For example, the UNHCR representative in Hungary cannot be subject to this law, but non-diplomat UNHCR employees can.

What about staff of a bilateral donor, like the U.S. government's international development agency?

It's a good question. I don't know. The main idea, the main thing behind all this is that it should not be well defined. There should be all these questions. It's very unprofessionally drafted, but this is on purpose, because that is how it creates fear, because then it can be arbitrary and anything can happen. With a very clear transparent norm with appeal possibilities, it doesn't create the same amount of fear.

“This is much closer to what we see [happening] in Russia, to what we see in Turkey with civil society. There is no precedent for anything similar in the European Union.”

We always have to underline, because those who don't really know the Hungarian context — I have had lots of discussion with foreign journalists and friends coming from other EU countries who very often say, “Oh this is horrible but look this is what is happening in my country as well…” No, it has nothing to do. This is something much more serious. This is much closer to what we see in [happening] Russia, to what we see in Turkey with civil society. There is no precedent for anything similar in the EU.

This would result in a high risk that several refugee-assisting NGOs would have to stop their operation or totally change their profile or reduce their activities. It's very difficult to see it now because it's so unprecedented in this context, in our region, but this is an actual threat. We are very much convinced that this was not only an electoral promise or trick — this is something very serious. The government really wants to get this done. And I think it will be a major test for the European Union and other international actors whether they can let this go.

You said that the government is using the migration and refugee issue to enact a broad crackdown on independent voices. Is your sense that this law will nonetheless be most painfully felt by groups working on refugee issues, or will it have broader consequences for groups that are working on a whole range of issues?

Of course, in the first round, this targets refugee or migrant-assisting NGOs. But if you look at the actual activities that are enumerated as activities under the scope of application of this law, it is a very wide list: It's legal assistance, its advocacy, it's training.

If you are an NGO doing intercultural learning or sensitization trainings, not with refugees but with school kids, that can come under this law as well. It can consider a much wider range of NGOs, and I think the reason why there was such a general outcry against this in the Hungarian civil society, not just the tiny little group of refugee-assisting NGOs, is because some of them see that they may be tackled by this directly, but mostly because they see that this is a crackdown on civil society as such. It may be refugee-assisting NGOs today. Tomorrow it may be those who work on health care issues or poverty, because they work with topics very uncomfortable for the government.

The Helsinki Committee is very much at the crossroads of all that, because we are one of the strongest and most vocal human rights NGOs in the region. We play a lead role, together with some other actors, including the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union, in keeping up the spirit and the solidarity of the NGO community. We formulate vocal criticism about rule of law and dismantling democratic checks and balances, on one hand. And on the other hand, we are the only ones doing human rights-focused work for refugees. So it's a kind of bombastic mix that attracts a lot of attention by the government, and not in a very positive sense.

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    Michael Igoe

    Michael Igoe is a Senior Reporter with Devex, based in Washington, D.C. He covers U.S. foreign aid, global health, climate change, and development finance. Prior to joining Devex, Michael researched water management and climate change adaptation in post-Soviet Central Asia, where he also wrote for EurasiaNet. Michael earned his bachelor's degree from Bowdoin College, where he majored in Russian, and his master’s degree from the University of Montana, where he studied international conservation and development.