A proposed law seeks to criminalise anyone who helps refugees, as atmosphere turns ’toxic’
Hidden behind an overbearing, protective metal door in the centre of Budapest is the entrance to the Hungarian branch of Amnesty International.
For Julia Ivan, the director of Amnesty here, the events of recent months have certainly given her reason to feel cautious.
“The atmosphere towards migrants and those trying to support them has become so toxic here.”
She pauses, her voice expressing the incredulity she feels.
A former human rights lawyer, Ms Ivan joined the organisation to advocate for human rights defenders abroad.
“However, as things in Hungary are changing we are now trying to raise awareness about Hungarian human rights defenders who are being attacked,” Ms Ivan tells The Independent.
Interns, she says, are too scared to return to the NGO, after a narrative shift when it comes to humanitarian work.
“The interns that we took on last year to work for us this summer all completed their basic training and orientation.
“Then we had the “Stop Soros” bill in February and Viktor Orbán’s re-election in April and not one of them will still come to work here this summer.
“They are all terrified what working for an organisation like Amnesty International will mean for them and their futures – this is in a EU country.”
In 2018 – despite its rich multicultural history – Hungary has become the most anti-migrant country in Europe.
Consulting firm Gallup recently devised a Migrant Acceptance Index to measure how accepting populations were on issues such as “an immigrant becoming your neighbour”.
Hungary recorded the third-worst score in the entire world.
Hungary’s Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán of the Fidesz party, was re-elected for a fourth term in April’s landslide election win, and relentlessly campaigned to a drumbeat of xenophobic rhetoric – laying the blame for the entirety of Hungary’s woes, from its collapsing education system to widespread political corruption, at the feet of the migranj.
Mr Orban, who enjoys near messianic levels of popularity, has been labelled the EU’s answer to Vladimir Putin and has referred to all refugees as “Muslim invaders” and migrants trying to reach Hungary as a “poison” that his country does not need.
Buoyed by the election outcome, Mr Orbán’s government has submitted a new piece of anti-migrant legislation, informally called the “Stop Soros” bill.
The proposition is named after the American/Hungarian billionaire and civil society donor, George Soros, who Mr Orbán claims is trying to “settle millions from Africa and the Middle East” to disrupt Hungary’s homogeneity.
Controversially, the bill declares that any NGOs that “sponsor, organise or support the entry or stay of third-country citizens on Hungarian territory” will be viewed as a “national security risk”.
NGOs will have to obtain permission from Hungary’s interior minister to continue to operate and those breaking the rules to support migrants of any kind have been told they will be fined and shut down.
Incredibly, their employees could then also face jail time.
“The constant stoking of hatred by the current government for political gain has led to this latest shameful development, which is blatantly xenophobic and runs counter to European and international human rights standards and values,” Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, the United Nations high commissioner for human rights (Unhcr), has said.
According to the Hungarian Helsinki Committee (HHC), just 1,216 asylum seekers were granted protection in Hungary in 2017.
In the same year, 325,400 asylum seekers were granted protection in Germany, followed by 40,600 in France, 35,100 in Italy, 34,000 in Austria and 31,200 in Sweden.
A further 2,880 applications were rejected and recognition rates for those arriving from war zones such as Syria and Iraq even remain low.
The country also refused to resettle even one refugee from the inundated Italy and Greece as part of the EU’s mandatory quota programme.
Orbán’s government has implemented a three-pronged strategy to attempt to eradicate the arrival of refugees in Hungary.
The “keep them out” policy was signposted by the triumphant construction, in June 2015, of a mammoth 175km long, 4m high razor wire fence on the Hungarian-Serbian border.
This impenetrable barrier was later extended to the Hungarian-Croatian frontier.
A highly controversial “pushback law” was also introduced, whereby potential refugees caught in the country with no legal documentation could be removed by any means possible to Serbia.
Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), which provides medical treatment to refugees on the Serbian side of the frontier, has recorded hundreds of cases of intentional injuries allegedly perpetrated by Hungarian border patrols during “pushbacks” – a claim that the Hungarian government has denied.
They include beating injuries, dog bites and irritation from tear gas and pepper sprays.
Between January 2016 and February 2017, MSF also recorded that just over one in five of these alleged attacks were inflicted on children.
“This pushback law is completely arbitrary and massively contradicts EU law,” says Gabor Gyulai, director of the HHC.
“Violence is a clear accompanying phenomenon of the pushback policy.”
To action asylum requests from those fleeing conflict, the government has set up two transit camps outside the Hungarian border towns of Tompa and Roeszke to house applicants.
In 2016, 60 refugees were allowed to enter the transit zones per day but the HHC believes this has plunged to a mere one person a day, on average, at each site.
This tactic is designed to split up entire families for an infinite time period.
Refugees fortunate to be allowed to cross into Hungary then experience the second carefully calculated prong – “detain them all”.
Living conditions are “absolutely inhumane”, according to the HHC.
“We know what is going on there, it is like a military camp where you are guarded everywhere, minimal privacy,” Mr Gabor says.
“Plus you live in a shipping container and we have a continental climate. In the summer, temperatures can easily reach 40 degrees inside.
“Many of the adults who arrive are already in poor mental health; they have been tortured or witnessed death.
“Then they are then stuck in a space a few metres squared in size.
Although NGOs are offering psychological assistance to the asylum-seekers, they are denied the opportunity to take it.
“We have an NGO here, the Cordelia Foundation, which can provide specialist psycho-therapeutic assistance to these individuals but they are not allowed to do so by the government.”
“It is totally senseless and completely inadequate for the vulnerable.”
The third deterrent strategy deployed is the “withdrawal of integration support”, which occurs if a refugee is granted permanent residency in Hungary.
Individuals are transferred to a reception centre near the remote Austrian border town of Vámosszabadi.
They are given 30 days free board and food and then left to fend for themselves, provided with no language courses or labour integration – as occurs in many other European countries.
Abdul, a young man from Afghanistan, currently resides in the run-down and very decrepit facility in Vámosszabadi.
Granted asylum in Hungary after an arduous journey via Iran, Turkey and Serbia, Abdul received death threats from the Taliban for working as an English translator for American troops stationed in his home country.
“I want to scream, I am going crazy,” he says.
Abdul claims that those staying at the centre have been the victim of beatings from both security personnel and local residents, which is why he would like to use a pseudonym.
When approached by The Independent for comment, the Hungarian government refused to address the accusations.
“I have travelled through so many different places, I thought I would drown in the sea, but Hungary is the worst.
“The people here, they hate us and the conditions here and on the border are not fit for animals.
“I have seen my friends beaten, refused food, we are treated like inmates here, second class humans, not actual people with needs and hopes.”
Like others granted refugee status in Hungary, Abdul planned to leave as soon as his reception permit expired and head for Western Europe.
The Unhcr has now taken the unprecedented step of urging EU states to stop returning asylum seekers to Hungary over fears about their security on arrival.
“There is no future here unless you are Hungarian,” Abdul adds. “Europe has forgotten us.”