Hungary News Politics & International

Closing of transit zones in Hungary a “mixed victory” for activists

Budapest, Hungary – The Hungarian government announced on May 21 that it would be closing down the transit zones on the Serbian border, which had played an important role in the Hungarian border protection and migration policy.

A week before, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) had ruled that Hungary was effectively detaining people in the transit zones and would have to meet the legal framework for detention. Instead of complying with these frameworks that are designed to protect the rights of the detained individuals, Hungary decided to close to the camps.

The transit zones were built of shipping containers and surrounded by barbed wire and have played an important role in the border security and migration policy of the Hungarian government. It was in these centers that asylum seekers were detained.

Transit zones, barbed wire and police uniforms

“Helsinki Committee found it important that the European Courts affirmed that detention cannot be automatic for those who seek asylum.” stated Márta Pardavi, the co-chair of the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, which represented the plaintiffs in the case, in a debate streamed by Partizan. “We should not forget that we are talking about people here. Families with children… Children who only see barbed wire and police uniforms for years will have consequences on what type of adult they grow up to be.”

The transit zones have played an important role in the border security and migration policy of the Hungarian government. Credit: EPA/ZOLTAN GERGELY KELEMAN

280 people were released from the transit zones and transferred to two reception centers. Many of them included children and families, who had spent months, and some even years, in the transit zones. Pardavi highlighted her hope that the state would provide educational services and counseling to the families, many who had experienced both the trauma before arriving to the border and the trauma of prolonged detention under constant surveillance in the transit zones. interviewed several of the newly released people. “We are hopeful that we can start a normal life soon” recounted a young girl in her interviews, in English.

Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s Hungary has long prided and positioned itself as being tough on migrants. Narratives of protecting the homeland have secured the ruling party several electoral victories, and the border fence and transit zones played an important role in these narratives.

A mixed victory

The closure of the transit zones were lauded by civil society and activists in Hungary, including Aiski Ryökäs, a member of MigSzol, an activist group which was active in refugee related issues between 2012 and 2018.

“Children who only see barbed wire and police uniforms for years will have consequences on what type of adult they grow up to be”. Credit: icture Alliance / dpa / MTI / B. Mohai

Ryökäs was surprised when the Hungarian government did not challenge the ruling, and highlighted that while the Hungarian government’s strict measures for protecting its borders and halting migration were condemned in 2015 by the European community, many countries adopted similar stances quietly in the background.

Indeed, the government messaging around the court decision was confusing. After the court decision was announced, but before the closing of the camps, both the Prime Minister and Szilard Nemeth, Deputy Minister of the Ministry of Defence, emphasized the important role that the transit zones played in the Hungarian system of border protection. In a quick turnabout, the government accepted the ruling and announced the closure of the camps.

Ryökäs sees the ruling as a mixed victory, people won’t be traumatized in the transit zones, but the Hungarian government also refuses to accept asylum applications at the border now, directing people to consulates. “It’s also a lot cheaper to shut down the transit zones,” she summarized.

The future of the Hungarian asylum application process is up in the air. Legal experts have commented that only accepting applications at consulates is likely to violate EU rules as well, and hence there are likely further changes coming.

Yet, after the European court ruling, prolonged detention at transit zones will longer be an option for the government.

By Viktor Mák

Born in Jászberény in the Hungarian countryside, Viktor Mák studied and worked in the United States. He recently returned to Hungary and finished a degree in Public Administration at the Central European University. During the day, he works in political communication. In his free time busies himself with activism fighting for a quality, well funded and accessible education system in Hungary. Check out his latest articles right here!

Main photo: Picture-alliance/dpa/Tatif/Wostok Press/Maxppp Hongrie