Hungary Insight

The borders of justice: Human rights violations at Hungary’s southern borders

The year 2015 hadn’t started off well for the Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. After winning his second two-thirds constitutional majority in the 2014 National Assembly elections, to a large part due to an electoral system heavily doctored to favour the governing Fidesz party, he first ended up having a noisy public fallout with his closest political ally and long-time personal friend, the oligarch Lajos Simicska. hungary’s human rights

His party then began struggling in the opinion polls and lost two seats in parliamentary by-elections, which cost Fidesz its two-thirds majority. By the end of 2014, there were large demonstrations against a government proposal to tax the internet, which mutated into general anti-government protests. Having been able to control the political discourse for almost a decade, Orbán was finally struggling to find a narrative to keep his party in power.

Then, something happened.

Orbán’s anti-immigration turn

After the Charlie Hebdo attacks in January, Orbán started talking about “ending illegal immigration” to “stop terrorism” and “protect European culture.” These three interconnected talking points have been at the centre of Hungarian state propaganda ever since.

It was accompanied by Eurosceptic, anti-liberal elements, as well as a campaign – often, rightly, observed as antisemitic – against Hungarian-American billionaire George Soros and NGOs, such as Auróra in Budapest, inside and outside Hungary. However, since 2015, Orbán’s Eurosceptic tendencies and anti-NGO crackdowns, which had existed before, have been formulated along a larger, anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim agenda.

To be honest, not everyone thought that this would work. The anti-migration rhetoric was listed in an article listing Orbán’s failed attempts at spinning, published by, an online newspaper critical of Orbán’s government. It seemed indeed wild that one would want exploit Islamophobia to this extent in a country with such a small Muslim population. However, anti-migrant rhetoric prevailed, and even turned out to be extremely successful, especially in the wake of the 2015 “migrant crisis.” hungary’s human rights

While having one’s country and society flooded by xenophobic, racist, Islamophobic and antisemitic propaganda is indeed disturbing and terrifying, seeing Orbán as a mere hatemonger and demagogue who simply uses xenophobia to keep his camp together and to manipulate more into supporting him is a common mistake. Orbán’s anti-immigrant turn has had two deeper consequences.

First, it spawned a crackdown on civil society, NGOs, the independent media, scientific researchers, and so on. It also resulted in the creation of refugee policies solely designed to exclude, humiliate and even starve the most vulnerable people trying to reach the European Union, while allowing in those who can pay enough to the Hungarian state. The latter will be the focus of this article.

“Ending illegal immigration” to “stop terrorism” and “protect European culture” are central talking points in Hungarian state propaganda, and key to understand Hungary’s human rights violations. Credit: Voice of America

Human rights violations in Hungary’s transit zones

In May 2019, two Afghan families were denied asylum and forced back to Serbia from a Hungarian “transit zone.” As the Hungarian law states that no one arriving from Serbia, considered a safe third country by Hungary, can be given asylum. Before being deported to Serbia, the adults in the families were starved, a routine procedure bythe Hungarian authorities, as they were no longer considered to be asylum-seekers. They were told that they would be deported back to Afghanistan, without any consideration for their safety or whether any of them had even been to Afghanistan.

Hungary had been heading towards this for years. The government set up these “transit zones” in the border areas, and while the Immigration and Asylum Office states that these facilities can be left at any time in the direction of Serbia, this would of course still be considered as a violation of an international border. Any ongoing applications for asylum would terminated automatically without the possibility of reapplying unless there is a change in their circumstances and this would also result in a ban from the Schengen Zone.

From mid-September 2015 until the end of March 2017, transit zones served exactly as what the name suggests: facilities for procedures at the border after which vulnerable asylum seekers were transported to other facilities immediately, while others would remain there for a maximum of 28 days.

This didn’t last.

During the “state of crisis due to mass migration” proclaimed by the Hungarian government in 2015, which has apparently been going on ever since, every asylum claim is processed in the “transit” zones – except for unaccompanied minors under the age of 14 –  according to András Léderer, an officer of the Refugee Programme of the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, a human-rights NGO. If asylum seekers are granted asylum, they are transferred to the Vámosszabadi camp for 30 days, after which they have no further assistance.

When asylum-seekers are denied asylum, and this happens routinely, as Hungary considers Serbia a safe country, they are often denied food, using the legal fig leaf that they are under alien policing procedure, and the law doesn’t require that food be provided during such procedures at the transit zones. The purpose of this “policy” is to force the people locked up in the transit zones to leave in the direction of Serbia. As András Léderer tells me, the Immigration and Asylum Office could place rejected asylum-seekers at any other facility, so there would be no reason not to provide them better conditions and food.

While the European Court of Human Rights can and does order interim measures to prevent the violation of Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights (i.e., the ECHR orders Hungary to give food to people), there is no way, according to Léderer, to prevent the Immigration and Asylum office from placing people in the transit zone without food, at least under current legislation.

When asylum-seekers are denied asylum, and this happens routinely, as Hungary considers Serbia a safe country, they are often denied food, using the legal fig leaf that they are under alien policing procedure. Credit: Hungarian Spectrum

Political reactions to Hungary’s human rights violation

Opposition politicians have had a mixed record in dealing with the human rights violations at the transit zones. Independent MPs Bernadett Szél and Szabolcs Szabó visited the transit zones, which Szél compared to a “prison nursery.” Just this month, Szél proposed a bill, written by the Helsinki Committee, to outlaw the starving of asylum seekers and end the locking up of children and families with children. These actions may not seem radical, especially not for someone used to the immigration discourse of the American Left (“abolish ICE”), but at least they acknowledge that in the transit zones there are people, vulnerable to the actions of a hostile state which is willingly stripping them from their humanity.

This is not true of all, or even most of the opposition forces. When it was revealed last year that Hungary has taken in around 1,300 asylum seekers in 2017, opposition politicians of the right-wing Jobbik party called Orbán’s anti-migration rhetoric a “theatre”. The Socialist Party demanded explanations, as if taking in refugees, while contradicting the Hungarian government’s line of propaganda, wasn’t a commendable act of humanity.

Péter Márki-Zay, the independent politician who had a surprise victory at the mayoral byelection in the town of Hódmezővásárhely in early 2018 put up a “migrant counter” in the Town Hall, pointing out Fidesz’ hypocrisy, but also reinforcing the idea that migration is fundamentally bad. Before the European Parliamentary Elections, the Socialist (well, “socialist”) Party criticised the Fidesz government for allowing in Ukrainian, Turkish and Mongolian “guest workers.” Anti-Ukrainian rhetoric became a staple of the Hungarian “Left.”

But I believe there is nothing to worry about when it comes to refugees, for the whole “emergency” is a scam. Since last January, on average, only one person was allowed to apply for asylum per working day into the transit zones. This means that if a family of five can enter together (family separations rarely, if ever, happen in Hungary) no one else would  be allowed in that week.

In his book The Ethics of Immigration, Joseph Carens compared the citizenship in Western societies to feudal class privilege: “an inherited status greatly enhancing one’s life chances,” entrenched by legally restricted mobility. And, it seems, these privileges are protected, just like their feudal privileges were. As we can see elsewhere, anti-migration rhetoric always seems to bring about human rights violations.

In a manner of cruel irony, these refugees, fleeing regimes violating their human rights, when trying to enter the European Union, supposedly founded on human rights, will be kept out by a member state actively violating their rights. The borders of justice, it seems, keep those most wanting of justice out.

I thank András Léderer for his help.

Written by Iván Merker

Iván Merker was born in Budapest, Hungary. He is living in the UK and recently finished his BA in Philosophy at the University of Cambridge. He is a columnist for the Hungarian newspaper Mérce. Check out his articles (in Hungarian)!