, 1 september 2020

Hungarian transit zones closed for good: 'The zones were inhumane'

Armed with a wealth of expertise and a healthy dose of passion, András Léderer and Gruša Matevžič of the Hungarian Helsinki Committee (HHC) fight for the rights of refugees in Hungary. Recently, the two officers from our partner organisation won a major victory: the European Court of Justice ruled that the so-called transit zones on the border with Serbia, where refugees were detained under inhumane conditions, must be classified as detention.

Violation of European rules

Since 2015, refugees arriving in Hungary have systematically been placed in transit zones: a zone surrounded by barbed wire with metal housing containers. ‘Imagine a vast desolate plane without trees or crops. They'd all been cut down for security reasons’, says András, advocate for HHC. The metal containers where the refugees lived were unbearably hot in the summer and very cold in the winter. It was inhumane.’ HHC has opposed these zones since the start of the refugee crisis. Gruša, senior legal adviser to HHC: ‘You can't just place refugees in detention. The Hungarian government was violating European rules. Detention is only allowed if there are reasonable grounds.'

Deprivation of liberty

The refugees weren’t allowed any contact with the outside world and weren’t allowed to leave the zone. This means they were deprived of their liberty. If they needed medical care, they were handcuffed and escorted by the police. Like they were criminals,' says András, outraged. ‘There was a psychosocial worker who came once a week. But they weren’t allowed an interpreter, so their visits were pointless.’

Strategic litigation

Although the transit zones looked everything like detention facilities, the Hungarian government denied it. Hungarian legislation made it impossible to take the case to court there. So HCC contacted the Strategic Litigation Programme, a legal programme run by the Dutch Council for Refugees that works together with researchers and asylum lawyers to submit important cases to the highest national and European courts. With the programme’s support, HHC was able to formulate questions that convinced the Hungarian judge to send the question of the legitimacy of the transit zones to the European court. 'We also shared advice on how to push for an urgency procedure, so a decision would be made quickly', explains Sadhia Rafi, Head of strategic litigation.

Transit zones unlawful

And they succeeded: the European Court recently declared the transit zones unlawful. This means Hungary may no longer detain refugees after they have applied for asylum. The ruling resulted in three hundred refugees being moved from the transit zone to a regular reception location. The Court's ruling is binding and also has implications for other European Member States.

Situation worsened

The ruling was a great victory for HHC, but unfortunately the government has responded by limiting the possibilities to apply for asylum in Hungary. The Hungarian authorities recently adopted a law under which refugees are refused entry at the border and required to apply for asylum at the embassy or consulate in a neighbouring country. 'The problem is that an application can be refused without a person even setting foot on Hungarian soil. And this makes the situation even worse for many refugees both in and outside Hungary', Gruša says.