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Rights groups criticize Hungary's container camps

Wesley Dockery
March 28, 2017

A new law in Hungary enacted on Tuesday forces all asylum seekers there to be detained in border camps. Human rights organizations told DW that the EU should do more to confront Hungary’s antagonistic migrant policy.

Serbien Grenze Ungarn Internierungslager Flüchtlinge
Image: picture-alliance/AA/O. Marques

The law, which was passed on March 7, allows all asylum seekers in the country to be held in two camps on Hungary's border with Serbia. The camps consist of 324 shipping containers, where migrants will be housed while waiting for their asylum applications to be processed.

The Hungarian Interior Ministry defended the policy. "The goal is to prevent migrants with an unclear status from moving freely around the territory of the country and the European Union, and to thereby reduce the security risk of migration," they said in a statement.

Shipping containers a 'nightmare'

One aspect of the policy that has caught the awareness of human rights groups is the use of shipping containers to house the migrants.

"The use of shipping containers to house the migrants is not new in Hungary," Aron Demeter, an advocacy officer at Amnesty International Hungary told DW.  "They were used before this in the temporary reception centers. One example is the Kiskunhalas open reception center, which opened in July 2016. The containers are quite cheap and easy to transfer from one place to the other," he said.

The law will affect asylum seekers 14 years old and above. "Families and minors will have a dedicated area. They will be separated from single males and single women. All of these groups will have their own space within the transit zone, but we are not sure yet about how the Hungarian government will divide them," Demeter continued.

"These containers are obviously not suitable for migrants to be held the period of weeks and months. They lack air conditioning. This is definitely not a place for children or families as there is no space for a playground or common activities. There's no school there or anything to do. So this is really a nightmare for the migrants," he concluded.

Ungarn Flüchtlinge
Refugees in Hungary wait for a police bus to take them to a detention center on the border with SerbiaImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo/M. Drobnjakovic

Hungary is also a difficult country to get asylum in, meaning migrants will wait weeks and months in these containers to get a response on their applications, only to get rejected. Demeter estimates that only around ten percent of migrants who enter Hungary are granted asylum, compared to an average of 50 percent elsewhere in the EU.     

European Commission response 'long overdue'

Meanwhile, Dimitris Avramopoulos, the European Commissioner for Migration, Home Affairs and Citizenship arrived in Budapest on Tuesday to meet with Hungarian officials to ensure that the country was conforming to EU standards when dealing with the migrants.

Lydia Gall, a researcher on Eastern Europe and the Western Balkans at Human Rights Watch in Budapest, wrote an article published today on the organization's website, saying that the meeting was "long overdue."

 "The European Commission has been reluctant to hold Hungary to account for its actions against asylum seekers," she wrote in her article titled, "EU Commission should call out Hungary's Asylum Abuses."

"What we want the commissioner to say to the Hungarians is that the EU is deeply worried about this law and that if they don't change the law to be in line with European standards, then the European Commission can take legal actions against EU member states in violation of the law. We believe that Hungary is in violation of EU law and treaties," Gall told DW.  

Impact on EU member states

This law could encourage other EU countries whose policies have been unfriendly towards asylum seekers, Gall said.

"Other EU countries might feel tempted to produce similar approaches like Hungary with respect to their asylum laws. We are seeing it in Slovenia where they are currently making it easier legally to deport migrants to Croatia. We certainly see this in Poland where they are making amendments in their asylum law similar to what Hungary enacted today. We also see this to a certain extent in Austria,” Gall concluded.

"It's now just a matter of time. How long will the EU give Hungary to bring their law towards migrants in line with EU standards?" she asked.