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Hungary sending asylum seekers back to Serbia

Police oversee Serbian-Hungary border near Röszke refugee encampment. © UNHCR/Zsolt Balla

Police oversee Serbian-Hungary border near Röszke refugee encampment. © UNHCR/Zsolt Balla

RÖSZKE, Hungary – The UN Refugee Agency said today it was deeply concerned that asylum-seekers were reportedly being forced back across the border into Serbia under new Hungarian regulations and called for an investigation into reports that they were being subjected to violence and abuse.

UNHCR spokesperson William Spindler told a press briefing in Geneva the new restrictions contravened EU and international law. “We are deeply concerned about further restrictions by Hungary leading to push-backs of people seeking asylum and reports about the use of violence and abuse,” Spindler said.

The number of refugees and migrants at the Serbian-Hungarian border had reached more than 1,400, the agency said. “These restrictions are at variance with EU and international law and reports of abuse need to be investigated,” he added.

The Hungary-Serbia border with, in the distance, the growing makeshift refugee encampment of Röszke. © UNHCR/Zsolt Balla

The Hungary-Serbia border with, in the distance, the growing makeshift refugee encampment of Röszke. © UNHCR/Zsolt Balla

Most of the refugees at the border were women and children who were particularly affected by the deteriorating humanitarian situation, Spindler said.

“States have the obligation to guarantee that such people are treated humanely, in safety and dignity, and have access to asylum, if they so wish,” he said, detailing UNHCR’s position.

The new restrictions, which came into effect on July 5, extend border controls to an eight-kilometre area inside Hungarian territory and authorize the police to intercept people within this area and send them to the other side of the fence, often to remote areas without adequate services.

“States have the obligation to guarantee that such people are treated humanely.”

Asylum-seekers are then instructed to go to one of the transit zones along the border to submit an asylum claim. Only two transit zones are functional along the 175-kilometre border, at Röszke and Tompa.

On average 15 people were admitted in each transit zone per day, UNHCR said. Since the new legislation came into force, a total of 664 individuals were sent back through the fence. In addition, the Government had significantly enhanced border security with 10,000 soldiers and police officers and also drone and helicopter surveillance.

Tents in the shade at the Röszke makeshift refugee camp on the Hungary-Serbia border. © UNHCR/Zsolt Balla

Tents in the shade at the Röszke makeshift refugee camp on the Hungary-Serbia border. © UNHCR/Zsolt Balla

UNHCR continued to receive reports of abuse and violence when people were apprehended in transit zones or police detention facilities, Spindler said.

“Reports include cases of bites by unleashed police dogs, the use of pepper spray and beatings. UNHCR has requested the Hungarian authorities to investigate these reports.”

The agency described conditions for those waiting to enter the transit zones as dire. Individuals and families stayed in the open or in tents on muddy fields next to the border fence. Health and sanitation were major challenges, and hygiene conditions far from acceptable.

UNHCR staff recently reported from the Röszke camp that the 250-strong crowd of refugees seen there a few weeks earlier had grown to three times the size. Refugees were using donated blankets and tree branches to make their tents as habitable as possible. There was one water tap for the whole camp, and 10 mobile toilets.

“We spent two days on Hungarian territory, hiding and resting by day, walking by night.”

Most people, families and single men alike, said they had tried to cross the border unofficially at least once and failed. They entered Hungary and walked, some of them for days, until they were eventually arrested and pushed back to the Serbian side of the fence.

A young agricultural engineer travelling with his pregnant wife, elderly father, siblings and cousins said they had managed to get across the border.

“We spent two days on Hungarian territory, hiding and resting by day, walking by night,” he said.

By the end of the second day they reached Baja, about 20 kilometres from the border and well beyond the eight-kilometer limit set under the new law, within which anyone detained can be returned to Serbia. They were exhausted and believed they would be taken to a reception facility.

They were wrong and now must wait for three more weeks at the border before they can get official access to the transit zone to be interviewed by the authorities.

UNHCR also published a paper on Hungary as a Country of Asylum – Hungary as a country of asylum. Observations on restrictive legal measures and subsequent practice implemented between July 2015 and March 2016, May 2016.

By: Zsolt Balla