Asylum and refugees are becoming a hotly debated issue in the Hungarian media. The first half of this year has seen a skyrocketing number of asylum applications, fierce protests against a new reception centre on the Slovakian border, and the opening of two tent camps for asylum seekers. The tent camps are a response to the extreme pressure on the Hungarian asylum system: during the first six months of 2013 when more than 10,000 asylum applications were filed in Hungary, a fivefold increase to the applications received during the whole of 2012. The asylum system is under extreme pressure, with deteriorating reception conditions.
The last few years of Hungarian asylum policy and legislation have been tumultuous. In April 2012, a UNHCR report on Hungary as an asylum country severely condemned poor integration policies and the systematic detention of asylum seekers in deplorable conditions far removed from EU standards. Moreover, several courts in Germany ruled in favour of stopping Dublin II deportations to Hungary. Following international pressure, in January 2013 the practice of detention was stopped, and Hungary became a popular destination en route towards Western Europe.
Considering the geographical location of Hungary in the EU and the Schengen zone, the country is, conceivably, under pressure: there is a strong demand for better control of the porous south eastern corner of the Schengen zone. However, Hungary is adopting draconic measures to achieve this. The conservative government has reintroduced detention of asylum seekers as of 1 July 2013, despite of several demonstrations organised by refugees. Also the appeal time for a negative decision has been decreased to a minimal eight days. The availability of legal aid was already scarce before, and this year it is not known whether any additional resources for legal aid have been provided in response to the soaring numbers.
Poor integration policy reinforces the image of a ‘transit’ country
Of the 10,000 asylum applicants, an estimated three quarters have absconded. Exact figures are difficult to obtain as the reception facilities are extremely overcrowded. At the end of June, the facility for asylum seekers in Debrecen witnessed a group fight involving some 40 people. Mixing people with different legal statuses (asylum seekers, recognised refugees and people under subsidiary protection) in the same camps has become commonplace and a source of confusion, which adds a sense of chaos for refugees and authorities alike.
The high absconding percentage also reflects the difficulty of integration in Hungary. Financial support is scarce, and in order to receive it one must survive a minefield of bureaucratic ‘Catch 22’ situations in the Hungarian language. With legions of Hungarians seeking employment in Western Europe, there are few chances for asylum seekers and refugees to find sources of livelihood: many fall into precariousness and homelessness. Understandably, raising solidarity among the Hungarian public is difficult in a country where poverty is on the rise and the public is polarised between the supporters and opponents of the conservative government and the prime minister who is adopting more and more authoritarian measures.
The case of 71 recognised Afghan refugees who travelled to Germany in order to avoid homelessness in Hungary neatly exemplifies the integration difficulties that refugees in Hungary face. The move of the Afghans happened shortly after 300 homeless African refugees left Italy for Germany, demanding the right to work. Even though the ‘Hungarian Afghans’ have not started protesting in Germany, the two cases highlight the impact that the European financial crisis and rise in unemployment has had on refugees. In the meanwhile, the high level of asylum seekers leaving Hungary legitimises the Hungarian government’s further inaction to implement a functioning integration policy, and politicians often quote the phrase ‘we are just a transit country’.
The xenophobic atmosphere among the general public is a further cause for concern. The unwillingness of the ruling government to bother about refugees can be boiled down to the following quote by the Minister of the Interior, Sándor Pinter, ‘I could collect 10 million signatures for a petition that Hungary has had enough of refugees, but also we must follow the rules of the European Union’. The Minister’s quote only fuels the general sentiment that the current ‘refugee wave’ is merely the fault of EU imposing its legislation on Hungary.
Ramifications on the European level
The situation in Hungary raises important concerns on the European level. Thousands of asylum seekers who have left Hungary will in all likelihood eventually be deported back under the Dublin II regulation. This raises some fundamental questions: How will respectable reception conditions and access to a fair refugee status determination procedure be guaranteed? How will detention be managed differently from previous years? The planned, but postponed enlargement of the Schengen zone to Bulgaria and Romania has fundamental implications for asylum policy in Hungary. These issues suggest that Central and Eastern Europe require a great deal of attention and improvement before any move towards a common European asylum policy can be implemented.