(CN) — Hungary is breaking European Union law by punishing activists and lawyers who aid asylum seekers the government considers ineligible for refugee status, a European magistrate said Thursday.
The legal opinion by Advocate General Athanasios Rantos of the European Court of Justice was the latest blow delivered by European courts to Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban's highly restrictive – and controversial – system to keep asylum seekers and immigrants out of Hungary.
Since 2015, when Europe was overwhelmed by hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers, many of them refugees from the Syrian civil war, Hungary has erected hundreds of miles of barbed-wire fences at its borders and set up a rigid system for assessing asylum claims.
Later in 2018, the Hungarian parliament passed laws that made it harder to apply for asylum in Hungary and even illegal to provide help to asylum seekers whose applications were unlikely to be accepted.
In his view, Rantos said those laws violated EU laws that guarantee asylum claims must be properly assessed. As an advocate general, his opinion serves as nonbinding legal guidance for the European Court of Justice, the EU's highest court. He advised the court to declare Hungary's laws a breach of EU laws.
His opinion is the latest chapter in a wide-ranging battle between the EU's executive body, the European Commission, and Orban's far-right nationalist government. As soon as Hungary passed the new laws, the commission sued Hungary at the European Court of Justice. Many in Europe accuse Orban's government of a dangerous anti-democratic and authoritarian turn and the Luxembourg-based court has issued a series of rulings against Hungary in recent years.
Under its 2018 laws, Hungary said it can reject the claims of people who arrive at its borders after they cross through a country Hungary deems a safe refuge and where they could have first asked for asylum. In effect, this has allowed Hungary to reject asylum seekers who show up at its borders with Croatia and Romania, fellow EU member states, and those coming from Serbia, which lies outside the EU but which Hungary regards as a safe harbor for refugees.
Many refugees and immigrants cross through the Balkans in search for a better life in the EU and try to make it to the bloc's richer countries such as Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, Italy and France, where many also have friends and family. To do that, they must pass through Hungary and Croatia, but these two governments are deploying tough, and often illegal, tactics to block this flow of people.
The 2018 laws also targeted humanitarian groups in Hungary by making it a criminal offense to provide legal help to asylum seekers who do not meet Hungary's criteria for protection.
In his opinion, Rantos spent little time discussing that portion of the law that allows Hungary to reject the claims of people transiting safe countries. Rantos said a previous Court of Justice ruling in March 2020 found the law breached EU laws and that Hungary had not provided any new arguments to counter that finding.
The advocate general then took aim at how Hungary has made it a crime to help asylum seekers deemed ineligible for protection in Hungary. He said this was a novel legal question for EU courts.
Rantos said that statute “places every person or organization intending to provide assistance to applicants for international protection in a position of uncertainty, or even raises the specific risk of being penalized.”
He said the law prevents humanitarian groups from doing basic work to determine whether asylum seekers have legitimate claims.
“Doubts as to the veracity of applicants’ claims are inherent in the asylum procedure, which is conducted precisely with the aim of establishing whether the conditions for the granting of international protection are satisfied,” Rantos wrote.
He rejected the Hungarian government's arguments that the law was restricted to only organized groups helping ineligible asylum seekers and that it was “of limited scope and has negligible practical consequences.” Hungary defended the law by noting that no one had been convicted under it, the opinion said.
Rantos' opinion adds to the growing caseload against Hungary's immigration system. Recently, the Court of Justice ruled that Hungary violated EU laws when it forced asylum seekers and undocumented immigrants into transit zones along its border in 2015 and afterwards, when the massive flows of people into Europe turned into a major crisis.
Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.
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