Hungary frees refugees trapped on its border, but tightens rules

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Hungary shut its “migrant transit zones” on its borders on Thursday, freeing some 300 refugees from prison-like conditions – while at the same time hardening rules that will effectively bar future asylum applicants.

During the peak of Europe’s 2015 migration crisis, Prime Minister Viktor Orban ordered Hungary’s southern border with Serbia and Croatia to be sealed, blocking a route for hundreds of thousands of migrants.

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Some have been stuck in the transit zones, areas of several hundred square metres on the border between Hungary and Serbia with shipping containers for lodging and surrounded by heavily-guarded barbed wire perimeters, for a year or more.

The zones, which are the subject of international lawsuits and have been criticised by human rights groups, were emptied after a European Union court ruled the practice unlawful, Orban’s chief of staff Gergely Gulyas said.

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Under amendments passed in 2018, Hungary has been automatically rejecting asylum applications from those who have passed through a “safe transit country”, in this case Serbia.

Human rights groups said the migrants, who are mainly from the Middle East, were moved to other facilities after the top EU court ruled last week that two Afghans and two Iranians had effectively been detained and should be released.

“The Hungarian government disagrees with the ruling, we consider it a risk to European security, but as an EU member state, we will honour all court rulings,” Gulyas said.

“The transit zone was a solution that protected Hungary’s borders, and the European Court of Justice’s [ECJ’s] ruling in this case was unfortunate,” Gulyas told reporters.

Government spokesman Zoltan Kovacs wrote in a blog post that future asylum applications would have to be submitted at consulates in neighbouring countries.

Consulates can reject asylum requests without allowing applicants any access to their territory, a violation of the Geneva Conventions, Helsinki Committee spokesman Zsolt Zadori said.

“So these 300 are better off now, but potential asylum seekers are a lot worse off,” he said. “They can expect virtually no shelter from Hungary amid their persecution.”

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The Hungarian Helsinki Committee, which sued Budapest over the zones, welcomed their closure but said that it would now be even harder for refugees to gain asylum in the EU via Hungary.

The committee represented Iranian and Afghan families, detained for more than a year at the Roszke transit zone after their asylum applications were refused, in a case brought before the Luxembourg-based ECJ.

In its ruling, the ECJ said people could not be detained in the camps without their cases being examined individually and that they could not be held for more than four weeks.

Last year, the European Commission warned that conditions in the camps violated EU human rights legislation.

Hungary has argued that those in the camps could have left the transit zone in the direction of Serbia, but Serbia has refused to readmit them.

Kovacs said the government interpreted the Geneva Conventions differently than other members of the EU.

“Hungary is surrounded by safe countries,” he said.

“The Geneva Conventions stipulate refugees must apply for asylum in the first safe country. Nothing guarantees the right to choose where to apply, while breaking the law as an illegal migrant to boot.”

Hungary frees refugees trapped on its border, but tightens rules

Hungary shut its “migrant transit zones” on its borders on Thursday, freeing some 300 refugees from prison-like conditions – while at the same time hardening rules that will effectively bar future asylum applicants. During the peak of Europe’s 2015 migration crisis, Prime Minister Viktor Orban ordered Hungary’s southern border with Serbia and Croatia to be sealed, blocking a route for hundreds of thousands of migrants.

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