Rights of Asylum Seekers Trampled in Hungary, EU Judge Observes

A Hungarian soldier patrols at the transit zone at Hungary’s southern border with Serbia on Sept. 21, 2016. Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban has ordered the reinforcement of fences on Hungary’s southern borders to keep out migrants, many of whom are Muslims. (Sandor Ujvari/MTI via AP, file)

LUXEMBOURG (CN) — An EU magistrate condemned Hungary’s refugee policies Thursday, detailing a system where immigrants are made to sleep in shipping containers on the border for months while seeking asylum.

Under the EU’s Reception Conditions Directive, people claiming asylum must have access to basic necessities while they await a determination, and they cannot be held in indefinite detention. 

Those seeking asylum in Hungary, however are sent to transit zones in the south, along the border with Serbia, unable to even enter the country without enduring a wait of up to 18 months. Because Serbia denies them re-entry, asylum seekers wind up sleeping in shipping containers Hungary has set up in the transit zones. Access to food and medical care there is restricted. Serbia, it should be noted, has been seeking accession to the EU for at least a decade.

Hungary’s rules initially drew attention from the European Commission, the EU’s cabinet body, in 2015.

As the proceedings head to the European Court of Justice, Advocate General Priit Pikamäe held Thursday in a nonbinding advisory opinion that “a substantial part” of Hungarian legislation concerning asylum seekers is incompatible with European Union law.

“I do not see how one could estimate being in the presence of a legal regime with sufficient clarity and precision for asylum seekers,” Pikamäe wrote of the Hungarian legal system. The opinion is not yet available in English. 

Among other things, Hungary prohibits immigrants from introducing new evidence during appeals and it fails to ensure that translation services are available to those placed in fast-tracked criminal proceedings after crossing the border.

Hungary’s far-right Prime Minister Viktor Orbán passed another immigration law in 2017 that the commission also found faulty, and a year later he created a sort of parallel court system to oversee the judiciary that critics have called an attempt to undermine judicial independence that was already in doubt.

Hungary defended its reliance on transit zones at hearings before the ECJ in February, saying that asylum seekers aren’t guaranteed their choice of country to apply to.

Earlier this year in a separate case, Pikamäe held that the country was illegally detaining people in these transit zones. He wrote Thursday that this process “prevents applicants from making their application effectively.” 

Though not required, rulings from the Court of Justice often follow the same legal reasoning as advisory opinions. The Luxembourg-based court has begun its deliberations in the case and a ruling is expected later this year.

Orbán has long been critical of immigration. “Those arriving have been raised in another religion, and represent a radically different culture,” he wrote in a 2015 op-ed. “Most of them are not Christians, but Muslims.”

A ruling in April found that the country, along with Poland and the Czech Republic, failed to meet EU migrant quotas. More than 100,000 people arrived at the Hungarian border from 2015–16, traveling from war-torn Syria and Iraq along the so-called Balkan route. Under the Dublin Regulation, anyone seeking asylum is required to request it in the first EU country they enter. 

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