Migrants gathered around the fire inside a crumbling warehouse that has served as a make-shift shelter in Belgrade, Serbia, on March 7, 2017. Migrants trying to reach the European Union from Serbia are worried because Hungary has imposed even tighter asylum rules for people fleeing war and poverty. (Darko Vojinovic/AP)
Hungary adopted tough new rules on Tuesday allowing authorities to detain all asylum-seekers, including women and children fleeing war and poverty, in border camps built from shipping containers. Human rights groups said the decision was a “flagrant violation of international law.”
In the eyes of Hungary’s combative prime minister, Viktor Orban, an early supporter of U.S. President Donald Trump, migrants are a “Trojan horse of terrorism,” putting his country under siege. He considers the migrants, many of whom are Muslims, as a threat to Europe’s Christian identity and culture.
According to rules adopted Tuesday by lawmakers from his governing Fidesz party and the far-right Jobbik party, all asylum-seekers will be detained at camps built from shipping containers on the border with Serbia until a final decision is made on their asylum requests. Hungary intends to close all other refugee reception centres around the country.
Police will also be allowed to expel to the Serbian side of the border fence any migrants who cannot prove their legal right to be in Hungary. Since July 5, only migrants found within 8 kilometres (5 miles) of the border could be sent back to Serbia.
The developments alarmed human rights advocates.
“Dumping all refugees and migrants into containers isn’t a refugee policy – it’s avoiding one,” Amnesty International said, denouncing the Hungarian moves as a “flagrant violation of international law.” It called on the European Union to step up 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.”
Speaking at a swearing-in ceremony for 462 new border guards, called “border hunters” by the government, Orban again focused on migration as a major threat.
“Migration is the Trojan wooden horse of terrorism,” Orban said. “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.”
Orban said the migration pressure on Hungary’s borders would continue.
“We are still, at this moment, under siege,” he said. “The migration flow has only slowed but it is not over. We have gained time to strengthen our lines of defence.”
In Belgrade, the Serbian capital, migrants waited at an abandoned warehouse for a chance to continue their journey toward Western Europe.
“For us, everywhere is difficult, because here we are homeless, we are innocent,” said Hamid Khan, a migrant from Pakistan. “My friend told us that on Hungary border, they beat us and by dogs they bite us, that’s why I don’t try.”
While the Hungarian government has repeatedly denied any reports of border officers mistreating migrants, humanitarian aid group Doctors Without Borders said beatings and abuse were systematic, not just isolated incidents.
“There seems to be a kind of ‘welcome to the EU’ package of abuse that’s provided by the Hungarian border police,” Christopher Stokes, general director of the group’s Belgian operations, told The Associated Press. It “involves at a minimum beatings, practically systematically the application of tear gas at very close range and some sprays in the eyes.”
He said migrants, mostly Afghans and Pakistanis – some of them injured – reported being forced to remove shoes or clothing, with border police “obliging people to go back to Serbia in the snow and in the cold.”
The new rules expected to be enforced within days are linked to the state of emergency due to migration which has been extended by decree until Sept. 7.
“There are hardly 400 asylum-seekers in the country,” said a statement issued by seven rights groups, including the Hungarian Helsinki Committee and MigSzol, the Migrant Solidarity Group of Hungary. “The extension of the state of emergency only serves to maintain the xenophobic, fear-mongering propaganda.”
Hungary built fences on the Serbian and Croatian border in 2015. Some 400,000 migrants passed through Hungary that year before the fences were in place, most on their way to Germany and other destinations in Western Europe. A second, 150-kilometre (93-mile) –long fence on the Serbian border equipped with motion and heat sensors and other surveillance tools is planned to be completed by May 1.
While Orban has said often that Hungary will apply its Christian values to take in asylum-seekers, very few achieve protection here and only around 16 a day are now allowed to apply for asylum at the border transit zones.
In 2016, Hungary accepted 425 asylum-seekers, while registering 29,432 asylum claims. In 2015, 502 asylum-seekers were granted protection. Germany took in 890,000 asylum-seekers in 2015 and 280,000 in 2016.