Nieuws, 17 januari 2023

Hungary’s fierce and senseless anti-refugee policy

Hungary has been an impenetrable fortress for refugees for years. Those who do manage to cross the barricaded border run a great risk of encountering violent border police. Refugees return in vain from the Hungarian border and often badly injured. Except Ukrainian refugees.

Fortress Hungary

It is January 2022 and the word 'refugees' no longer exist in Hungary. 'Prime minister Orbán carefully erased the term and speaks in his hate campaigns invariably of dangerous migrants. That’s a successful strategy in a country where the media is mostly in the hands of the government. At least, until the war broke out in Ukraine.'

Anikó Bakonyi of the human rights organisation the Hungarian Helsinki Committee (HHC) gloomily sums up the political situation in her country. In recent years, the Hungarian government has done everything it can to repel asylum seekers and refugees. Since 2015, people travelling via the Balkan route have encountered four-metre-high triple fences. Anyone who manages to enter ‘Fortress Hungary’ soon encounters violent border police who expel them with brute force.


'Broken bones everywhere'

While other EU countries such as Croatia and Greece cover up the illegal pushbacks at their borders, the Hungarian government is proud of its tough anti-immigration policy: the number of pushbacks is published daily on the police's website. Orbán also introduced laws that make it virtually impossible to seek asylum in Hungary and that criminalise providing aid to refugees. The consequences of this deterrent policy are disturbingly visible in the Serbian border town of Subotica.

'Broken bones in every part of the body you can think of'. A doctor in a reception camp in the Serbian border town described the distressing state in which she regularly finds these refugees. Almost everybody who attempts to cross the Hungarian border return unsuccessful and often seriously injured. In a camp courtyard outside the doctor's office, a man sits on the ground with his lower leg in a cast.

'Smugglers give groups of refugees three ladders to get over the fences’, explains a camp employee. 'Everything has to be done quickly because as soon as you touch a fence, an alarm goes off at the police station. At the third and last fence, people jump four metres down and land on a concrete floor. Refugees are constantly breaking limbs and seriously injuring themselves on the barbed wire.'



Injured or not, refugees receive no mercy from the Hungarian border police. They drive their cars into fences to dislodge climbers, set police dogs loose on the refugees and shoot rubber bullets at them. The border police systematically beat refugees and steal their phones, money and other possessions.

Those who do manage to scale the fences are still in danger. Desperate measures are taken to escape the border area: some refugees hang onto the undersides of smugglers' cars, while others find their way to waiting passenger cars and cram themselves in with up to 14 other refugees. Car accidents are common: people are found seriously injured on the side of a road, only to be quickly deported back to Serbia.

'What affects me most is the dehumanisation’' says Sara Ristić of KlikAktiv, a Serbian human rights organisation. 'Yes, refugees are beaten at the border, but the Hungarian police do everything they can to humiliate people as well. They pour energy drinks on them and recently shaved a cross on the head of an Afghan man. "I expected to be beaten", he told us, "but why did they shave my head?"'

I supposedly am an enemy of the nation. Even my own church tried to stop me from helping refugees

Hungarian pastor Márta Bolba

Human smugglers run the show

Human smugglers rule the Hungarian-Serbian border area: no refugee can cross the border without their help. Outside the official reception camps, many refugees live in factories and farms abandoned since the Yugoslav Wars. The living conditions in these ‘squats’ are appalling: no windows, water or electricity.

'As many as 350 people live in the larger locations, often grouped by nationality such as Syrian and Afghan', says Sara. 'All the properties are under strict control of the people smugglers: ruthless mafia that are generally tolerated by the police.'


Squats evacuated

People are running through an abandoned orchard full of old fruit trees. Together with KlikAktiv, we are on our way to visit a dilapidated jam and fruit juice factory just down the road where hundreds of refugees live. The smugglers tolerate KlikAktiv, an aid organisation that visits the squats weekly to check on injured people, take victim statements about pushbacks and inform residents about asylum procedures in Serbia and the EU.

When we arrive, we are met by a dozen soldiers and quickly grasp why people were fleeing. Two days ago, there was a shooting in Subotica – the first in broad daylight – between two rival smuggler gangs. The government is now taking harsh measures: all squats are being evacuated.

A soldier angrily blocks our path: 'You come here to talk about their rights? And what about ours? We must protect our country!' Behind him, a fire pit that recently warmed cold hands is still smouldering. Further on, a bulldozer is raking mattresses and clothes into a big heap. It is -3°C outside and evening has yet to fall, but the fleeing, former residents of this factory will be sleeping outside tonight.


Borders open for Ukranians

Let's return to Hungary, where the government deliberately erased the word 'refugee' from collective memory. At least they did until war broke out in neighbouring Ukraine. To everyone’s surprise, Prime-Minister Orbán immediately opened the borders to Ukrainians, who are both Christian and closely culturally related to Hungary. And so it happened that Hungary – a country that deliberately destroyed its asylum policy in recent years – became one of the first receiving countries for Ukrainian refugees.

'We were surprised that Hungary reacted in this way', says Todor Gardos of the UN refugee agency UNHCR, which assists refugees at the Hungarian-Ukrainian border. 'But as positively as it began, now I think Ukrainians are treated pretty much the same as other refugees. The government only provides primary aid such as food and clothing; Ukrainians have no access to facilities or integration opportunities in Hungary and are left to their own devices.'


Scapegoats in society

Churches and social organisations have been forced to take on the tasks the government fails to do. One such person is pastor Márta Bolba, who not only receives refugees in her rectory in Budapest, but also aids homeless, Roma and LGBTI people. Together with her team, Márta offers psychological and social support and education programmes.

Márta: 'These people are the scapegoats in Hungarian society. And so I get a lot of hatred thrown at me: I supposedly offer so-called murderers and rapists a home, I'm an enemy of the nation, a traitor. Even my own church tried to stop me from helping refugees. Luckily I have a strong and loyal team around me.'

'The government is seriously failing’, agrees András Kováts of Menedék, an organisation dedicated to migrants and refugees in Hungary. 'There are an estimated 35,000 Ukrainian refugees in Hungary, but no one knows where they are exactly. I speak to Ukrainians who have been here for months and are not yet registered anywhere. "Let life sort itself out", is our governments mantra. Hungary really is a disastrous country for people in need.'

Images: KlikAktiv / ANP

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Together against pushbacks: the role of the Dutch Council for Refugees

The Dutch Refugee Council has been working with HHC for years to stop violent pushback at the Hungarian border. We support the organization financially and share our knowledge of litigation. Together with HHC, we bring files to the European courts to stop the systematic practice of pushbacks. We not only cooperate with HHC, but also with other human rights organizations on the "borders of Europe" such as Greece and Croatia, as the list countries that are guilty of these human rights violations is long.

We also recently started a collaboration with the Border Violence Monitoring Network. This international network documents and reports human rights violations at the EU's external borders and lobbies to stop violence against refugees and migrants. Together with all these partners, we take action against pushback and advocate for solidarity in Europe.