Author: LILI BAYER
In its most sweeping legislation on migrants yet, the Hungarian parliament Tuesday approved the mandatory detention of all asylum seekers in the country.
The new law was passed amid growing international concern that the Hungarian police allegedly engages in systematic violence against refugees along Hungary’s southern border with Serbia.
“This 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,” UNHCR spokesperson Cécile Pouilly said at a press briefing following the parliament vote.
Under the new law, individuals could be detained anywhere inside Hungarian territory and escorted to Serbia without having an opportunity to present a case for asylum. All asylum seekers — including families with children and unaccompanied minors over the age of 14 — will be detained in a closed camp along the border while their cases are reviewed.
The Hungarian government has long maintained that migrants and refugees are not welcome in the country, with officials pointing to what they describe as cultural differences and terror threats as the main reasons for rejecting newcomers. According to Hungary’s Central Statistics Office, between October and December 2016, 2,555 individuals asked for asylum in the country. Only 66 were granted formal asylum or subsidiary protection in Hungary during that period.
Budapest has clashed with Brussels before on the issue of migration, most notably last year when it rejected an EU refugee resettlement plan.
Following a spike in the number of asylum seekers attempting to reach Austria and Germany through Hungary, the government of Viktor Orbán significantly reduced legal avenues for entering the country while closing down refugee centers inside Hungary, in some cases forcing migrants and refugees to sleep in tents during winter.
Hungary has also constructed a border fence with Serbia and is now in the process of building a second barrier. Budapest’s harsh policies have resulted in criticism from both European Union institutions and human rights watchdogs.
When asked about widespread reports of police violence, Zoltán Kovács, spokesman for the Hungarian government, said: “The government of Hungary utterly rejects allegations which are once more seeking to discredit personnel on duty at the border.”
Complaints about systemic abuse
In a speech to so-called “border hunters” tasked with patrolling Hungary’s southern border on Tuesday, Orbán said Hungary is “under siege” and described migration as the “Trojan horse of terrorism.”
On the other side of the border, migrants and refugees say it is exactly violence and unrest they are fleeing from.
“The reason we came here was to be safe, and we are being treated like animals,” said a young Pakistani man as he sat in a trash-filled field on the outskirts of Subotica, a town in northern Serbia close to the Hungarian border, on a recent afternoon. His brother lay on the ground while a volunteer bandaged his leg, where dog bite marks could be seen. They both spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.
The previous night, the brothers had joined others in cutting through Hungary’s razor wire fence, hoping to travel through the country and onward to Austria. But like almost all refugees attempting the journey, they were met with police and pushed back to Serbia.
Of the nearly dozen refugees in Subotica who agreed to share their experiences of attempting to cross into Hungary, all described meeting with violence from uniformed Hungarian police personnel.
“First they released the dog, and when I tried to get away, they hit me with a stick,” said one Pakistani, holding up a swollen hand. “Then they began with the pepper spray.”
But Hungary’s police denies that its officers engage in unnecessary violence.
“We firmly reject the claim that police personnel are mistreating illegal refugees at the border!” the Hungarian National Police said in a written statement in response to questions from POLITICO. All personnel receive some training “on issues connected to human rights, basic conflict management and action tactics, communications,” the statement said.
Reports of Hungarian police beating refugees first emerged in the summer and early fall of 2016 when several international watchdogs — including Amnesty International, Doctors Without Borders, and Human Rights Watch — began documenting cases of refugees claiming that they were physically abused by Hungarian police.
But over the past months, there have been growing indications that the brutality and violence during these push-backs aren’t isolated cases of renegade police officers but rather a systematic, formally-sanctioned practice.
“Violence against migrants who had been pushed back at the Hungarian-Serbian border has become an everyday occurrence,” said Márta Pardavi, Co-Chair of the Hungarian Helsinki Committee. Between May and December 2016, the Helsinki Committee received written complaints about 500 refugees reportedly experiencing police violence.
“In the strong anti-migrant climate fueled by the government rhetoric where migrants are portrayed as enemies of the country, the police are unwilling to address the well-documented allegations of widespread abuse in a systemic manner,” said Pardavi.
Beatings, pepper spray, dogs
Migrants and refugees currently in Subotica are nearly all young men from Pakistan and Afghanistan. Many say they have already attempted entering Hungary numerous times, having been pushed back to Serbian territory by Hungarian police on each occasion.
Reports regarding the police’s tactics and forms of violent treatment have been highly consistent.
The vast majority of refugees who spoke with POLITICO, as well as many refugees who have reported mistreatment to organizations like Human Rights Watch and Doctors Without Borders, say that police used pepper spray, beat them with sticks or batons, used derogatory language in English and Hungarian, and set dogs on them.
“The injuries patients are showing us are similar … the patterns have been repeating,” said Andrea Contenta, Humanitarian Affairs Officer at Doctors Without Borders Serbia (MSF). “In the past few months we have seen an increase in cases,” he added.
According to Contenta, hundreds of refugees who sought medical assistance from MSF have reported sustaining their wounds as a result of Hungarian police violence. But over the past few months, MSF has found that patients are reporting a shift in police behavior. MSF continues to “hear about ill-treatment, but also about cruel and degrading treatment,” said Contenta.
In Subotica, several refugees said Hungarian police took away their shoes or socks, including at times when temperatures reached below 10 degrees Celsius. According to the refugees, the aim of this alleged practice is to reduce the chances of refugees attempting entry into Hungary again. One refugee said police made his group lay on the ground, faced down, for three hours.
On March 6, the Hungarian Interior Ministry issued a statement claiming that George Soros is behind Doctors Without Borders and that reports of violence are thus not credible.
The Hungarian government also denies claims of brutality and mistreatment of migrants and refugees on the border.
“Migrants on Hungary’s borders are not being harassed,” said Kovács, the Hungarian government spokesman. “The police are performing their duties lawfully, professionally and proportionately, and they place special emphasis on treating migrants humanely and with respect for their human dignity.”