(CN) — After hundreds of thousands of immigrants and refugees crammed into Europe in 2015, Hungary violated EU laws when it forced asylum seekers and undocumented immigrants into transit zones along its border, Europe's highest court ruled on Thursday.
In its opinion, the European Court of Justice's grand chamber slammed Hungary for treating asylum seekers and immigrants as detainees when it sent them to transit zones while processing their asylum claims and deportations.
Those transit zones in Roszke and Tompa were closed earlier this year following a critical EU high court ruling in a related lawsuit.
Thursday's ruling comes amid an intense political conflict between Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban's far-right nationalist government and EU institutions that accuse Orban of democratic backsliding and violations of core European values, such as the protection of human rights, minorities and free expression.
Orban is characterized as a dangerous authoritarian leader — he's even routinely called a dictator in the European media — in the heart of the EU. Since coming to power in 2010, Orban has become a leading voice railing against Muslim immigration and argued that the arrival of Muslims threatens Europe's Christian cultures.
After anti-government protests in the early 2010s broke out across the Middle East, the so-called Arab Spring, and Syria and Libya collapsed into civil wars, Europe was overwhelmed by a wave of refugees and huge numbers of them sought entry to the EU through the Balkans and by crossing into Hungary.
In response, Orban's government reacted harshly, erecting wire fences and forcibly stopping asylum seekers from crossing its borders.
At the height of the refugee crisis in 2015, Hungary passed a law that set up so-called transit zones along its Serbian border where it processed asylum claims and deportations of immigrants. Hungary claimed it had the right to set up the transit zones because of the crisis. A 2017 Hungarian law expanded the government's powers to send people to the transit zones and quickly deport them.
In 2018, the European Commission, the EU's executive arm, took legal action against Hungary, accusing it of mistreating asylum seekers and undocumented immigrants. The commission said Hungary disregarded EU laws on providing safeguards to asylum seekers and instead “established a system of systematic detention of applicants for that protection.”
The commission also blasted Hungary's handling of undocumented immigrants as unjust. It said Hungary was forcibly deporting them “to a strip of land at the border … without observing the guarantees provided” by EU laws regarding deportations.
Europe's highest court agreed with the commission's findings and said Hungary's system for assessing asylum claims left refugees “with the virtual impossibility of making their application” for asylum because Hungarian authorities restricted the number of people who were processed each day in the transit zones.
Asylum claims, the court said, cannot be delayed unjustifiably. On the contrary, the court said, EU nations must ensure asylum seekers are able to make an application, including at borders, as soon as they declare their wish to do so.
Indeed, the court said forcing asylum seekers and illegal immigrants to remain in the transit zones while their cases are processed “constitutes detention.” The court found that Hungary had not proven it had no legitimate reason to detain refugees and undocumented immigrants in this fashion.
Hungary argued that the transit zones were necessary to maintain “public order and preserve internal security.” But the court rejected those arguments.
Undocumented immigrants also were mistreated, the court said, because police forcibly escorted and expelled them from Hungary into parts of Serbia “devoid of any infrastructure.”
“Forced removals,” the court said, can take place “only as a measure of last resort.”
Another way Hungary broke the law, the court found, was by not allowing asylum seekers to stay in Hungary while they appealed the rejection of their claims for asylum.
Following Thursday's ruling, Hungary will need to comply with the court's orders. If the European Commission determines Hungary has not carried out the judgment, it can seek to slap financial penalties on Hungary.
The Hungarian government did not immediately comment on the ruling.
Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.