Asylum-seekers treated like criminals in Hungary

Tuesday 24, April 2012

© UNHCR
Asylum-seekers often have no other option but to cross the border irregularly. Yet, in Hungary, they are punished by detention and treated like criminals.

BUDAPEST, April 24 (UNHCR) – When the Somali Bashir* reached the Hungarian border on a foggy October night last year in quest for safety, he did not think he would soon find himself detained in prison-like conditions.

Even less did the 27-year old asylum-seeker imagine that for the next five months he would remain behind bars, suffer inhumane and degrading treatment, face various hurdles accessing the asylum procedure and be at risk of being sent back to Serbia.

"I had troubles at home and I suffered even more here. I was almost ready to commit suicide," said the thin, bony-faced Bashir* about his first five months in Hungary where he hoped protection from the horrors of armed conflict at his home Somalia. "Guards beat us with their fists, kicked us with their hard booted legs, just because we started to shout and complain against the conditions." 

Bashir* told UNHCR that he had wanted to submit an asylum claim but he was told in the detention centre that he did not have the right to do so because he was going to be sent back to Serbia. It was a social worker of a local NGO who arranged him a lawyer that managed to stop his deportation process and get his asylum procedure started after four months, conceding him subsidiary protection a few weeks ago.

Without his lawyer he did not know how long his five-month detention would have lasted, Bashir* said.

Bashir* crossed five countries – Syria, Turkey, Greece, Macedonia and Serbia – on foot, heavily bruised, to reach the Hungarian border that he had no other choice but to cross without travel documents. When he was caught by the border guards, he found himself immediately behind bars, for the first four days in Kiskunhalas, and for the next five months in Nyírbátor, Hungary's largest detention centre.

According to a UNHCR position paper on the asylum situation in Hungary released today, Bashir's* plight is not a unique case. Hungary is today one of the three EU countries (beside Greece and Malta) that the most systematically detain asylum-seekers for irregular border entry – detention being the rule, rather than the exception.

In 2011, two-thirds of all asylum applications, 1,102 out of a total of 1,693 were made in detention in Hungary. According to government information, in 2011, 77 families with children were detained.

"On any day, there were an average of 93 asylum-seekers detained," UNHCR position paper said.

Dramatic changes to the 2007 Asylum Act and Aliens Act, in force since December 2010, provide for up to 12 months of administrative detention and up to 30 days of detention of families with children.

Detainees remain behind bars typically for 4 to 5 months, while some for the entire length of their asylum procedure. They are locked in their cells much of the day, suffer verbal and physical abuse by the security guards, and are escorted in handcuffs and on leash to the court hearings or even to the doctor, treated like a criminal.

Hungarian authorities often automatically start the aliens police procedure and order detention of the asylum-seeker who has arrived irregularly, even if they indicate they seek asylum.

Courts tend to review detention orders in group hearings, dealing with the case of 5-10 people in 30 minutes that is not enough time to properly consider the facts of each individual case.

According to UNHCR's position paper, asylum-seekers are also routinely deported to Serbia, considered by Hungary as a safe third country. In Serbia, however, asylum-seekers face chain deportations to Macedonia and Greece, countries with no adequate asylum systems in place, and where asylum-seekers face the risk of refoulement to countries where they may have fled danger or persecution.

In 2011, Hungary excluded more than 450 asylum-seekers, over one-fourth of all applicants from the in-merits procedure, and returned most of them Serbia.

Those who are returned to Hungary from another EU member state, under the Dublin II rule, have to submit a new asylum claim considered by Hungary as a subsequent application. This allows fewer procedural safeguards, reduced reception services and the possibility of being deported to a country that one transited or fled, without the asylum claim properly assessed.

In 2011, some nearly 300 out of 448 Dublin II returnees were detained in Hungary.

Harsh measures are taken in Hungary while the number of asylum applications decrease. In 2011, some 1,693 people claimed asylum, 20 percent fewer than in 2010, which were, in turn 55 percent fewer than in 2009.

UNHCR issued its position paper in response to various requests from European governments to give an assessment of the protection of refugees and asylum-seekers in Hungary. National and pan-European courts have recently received an increasing number of requests to change the government decision to return asylum-seekers to Hungary where the level of protection is not adequate.

"In many cases, asylum-seekers have no other option but to travel without a passport or a valid visa. They should not be punished by detention just because they arrive without travel documents and cross the green border," Gottfried Koefner UNHCR Regional Representative for Central Europe told reporters at a press conference today where UNHCR's position paper was presented.

UNHCR Representative urged the Hungarian government to explore alternatives to detention, such as reporting arrangements and only apply detention exceptionally, as a last resort, carried out in humane conditions and for the shortest possible time.

UNHCR's position paper "Observations on the situation of asylum-seekers and refugees in Hungary" is available here.

*Name changed for protection reasons

By Éva Hegedűs in Budapest, Hungary, additional reporting by Andrea Szobolits and Ernő Simon, Hungary

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