(an article by Aurore GUIEU, Secretary-General for V4SciencesPo)
2013, July 1st. You may have been on holidays, you may have stayed in your office hating everybody who was remotely close from anything similar to a beach. You also probably missed the entry into force of major amendments to the asylum laws in Hungary, changes that however have already a huge impact on the lives of asylum seekers living in the country.
In 2012, 2.157 asylum applications were lodged in Hungary, with Afghanistan, Pakistan, Kosovo and Syria being the first countries of origin. The National Statistics Office KSH states that between 2000 and 2012, 6.294 individuals were granted some sort of international protection status (refugee, subsidiary protection or tolerated stay).
High doubts on the fairness of the July provisions
The legal provisions that entered into force last July extended the grounds for detention for asylum seekers. Those grounds now include, among others, verification of identity, submission of asylum claim in the airport, doubts the asylum seeker would hinder the application procedure, and of course the now classical “protection of public order and national security”. Vulnerable individuals such as pregnant women, elder or sick asylum seekers do not benefit from any specific protection whatsoever – only unaccompanied minors cannot be detained. Families with children do not have this chance and can be detained for 30 days. This detention can reach up to 6 months. The vagueness of those grounds for detention is expected to make the numbers of detained asylum seekers rise significantly, putting consequently more pressure on the detention centres system throughout the country.
Besides detention, the second aspect of the provisions that have made all red flags rise among organizations working with asylum seekers and observers is the conditions surrounding the assessment and judicial review of asylum applications. The Hungarian Helsinki Committee expressed in an information note its expectations that the Hungarian Office of Immigration and Nationality would quickly run out of time and means to properly assess those applications, thus sending always more asylum seekers straight for detention in order to prolong the process. Márta Pardavi, its Co-Chair, further declared in the regional paper Kisalföld that applications were highly likely to be assessed according to security considerations – whether justified or not - rather than humanitarian concerns. Furthermore, the July provisions have decreased by half the time slot for asylum seekers to request a judicial review (i.e asking a review of a negative decision made on their application): from an already tight 15 days, it has now dropped down to an unbelievably short 8 days. This promises busy and stressful weeks to many asylum seekers who will have to get the proper information, in a language they understand, and obtain assistance from a lawyer. Quite a programme.
“Wise men are never in a hurry” (Chinese proverb)
Surprisingly enough, those changes happened only six months after the legal framework on asylum was revised in January 2013, a revision that was triggered by both national and international criticism on the way Hungarian authorities managed the asylum applications – and applicants. The lodging of such an application prevented from example asylum seekers from being expelled from the national territory and allowed them to wait for the outcome in an open accommodation rather than a detention centre. It was prohibited to detain asylum-seekers and only migrants without a valid visa or residence permit could be detained for a maximum of 12 months. The new provisions certainly change the landscape, with asylum seekers facing potential detention up to an astonishing 18 months.
This makes the adoption of the recent amendments very surprising. Why reforming legal provisions which have been so recently updated? And why doing so without consulting major stakeholders? The Hungarian Helsinki Committee denounced a process where “no proper impact assessment was carried out [and] the UNHCR, the Hungarian Helsinki Committee and other NGOs were not provided with adequate time to consult and comment”. The Migrant Solidarity Group (MigSzol), a Hungarian organization supporting asylum seekers, confirms that NGOS were only given 4 days to provide feedback on the final document. Officially, those amendments were adopted to transpose the EU Recast Reception Conditions Directive… a directive that was only formally adopted on June 26th. Hungary being on average between 6.5 and 10.5 months late after the two years’ deadline to comply with EU directives, such a hurry leaves commenters to ponder. It also complicates the daily operating of immigration services, with staff being left confused about the application of the new legal provisions.
A tensed context the July provisions do not help disarmed
These changes occurred in an increasingly tensed social context around migration and the presence of asylum seekers in some regions of Hungary. The new provisions, by criminalizing asylum seekers, have reinforced perceptions that migrants in general are a threat to Hungarian society. NGOs have recently worried after xenophobic demonstrations took place in Vámosszabadi near Slovakia, where a new centre was opened in abandoned military barracks. The office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Hungary has expressed in Kisalföld its strong opposition to any hate speech or racist threats. NGOs however joined villagers in protesting the lack of communication prior to this decision2, arguing that misinformation only helped fuel local fears.
The situation of asylum seekers may hardly be considered as improved, as a group engaged in a hunger strike in mid-August in Nyírbátor detention centre to protest their living conditions (rotten food, abusive use of handcuffs, absence of translated information about the new provisions on detention, and little investment of their own lawyers in their cases)3. Overcrowding in reception centres was already an issue before the entry into force of the July provisions and their expected consequences in terms of detained asylum seekers: in early June, an alternative facility had to be opened in Nagyfa… only to provide asylum seekers with tents.
In an email interview, the MigSzol Csoport organization has raised particular concerns around the lack of opportunities for a successful integration of asylum seekers and refugees within Hungarian society. Hungary has long been an exception in the EU with no official migration strategy, a situation that has only changed this autumn. Asylum seekers are being accommodated in reception centres set far away from the main cities and the new provisions have limited the time spent in pre-integration centres for refugees to 2 months, a time span many judge largely insufficient. The organization fears such provisions will only reinforce the invisibility of migrants in Hungary without creating any long-term solution.
2014: The Way Forward?
A renewed attention might be given to the topic later in Spring 2014, when the government will review the situation of some asylum centres throughout the country. Meanwhile, the organizations working with asylum seekers continue reporting dysfunctions within the asylum system as well as a number of incidents and hate crimes committed against asylum seekers in Hungary. Just a month ago, an asylum seeker was attacked under racist motives in Bicske. The fact that seeking asylum is not only legal, but a vital necessity to many people, does not seem to be understood by all yet. In this regard, Hungary is no exception in the EU. However, this is not a reason not to protest such provisions and encourage governments throughout the Union to listen to asylum seekers and their supporters and provide them with environments that are more adapted to their needs and to international standards of human rights.
(The author thanks the Migrant Solidarity Group (MigSzol) for having accepted to be interviewed on this issue, and Annamaria Toth for her help with Hungarian sources and her continuous support).
To understand the main points of the July provisions:
- An information note from the Hungarian Helsinki Committee: http://www.refworld.org/pdfid/51da99764.pdf
- The Asylum Information Database, an online tool to compare the asylum procedures in Hungary and in other EU countries: http://www.asylumineurope.org/comparator
To read more on the situation of asylum seekers in Hungary:
- The website of the Migrant Solidarity Group (MigSzol): http://migszol.com/
- The regional newspaper Kisalföld: http://kisalfold.hu
To check the compliance of Hungary with deadlines for the transposition of EU law: http://ec.europa.eu/internal_market/scoreboard/performance_by_member_state/hungary/index_en.htm
Aurore Guieu is Secretary-General for V4SciencesPo, a student association aiming at linking SciencesPo, its students and alumni, and the Visegrad countries (Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia). You can find more on the association, its members and its activities on its website: http://www.v4sciencespo.eu/
Image credits: Diane Guieu