Serious human rights violations in the Hungarian asylum system

Two years ago, the Hungarian government began to criminalise asylum seekers and migrants with clear political motivations. Within a few months, their initial verbal aggression and hate campaign targeting refugees had developed into actual legislative amendments which violated refugees’ rights.

This led in September 2015 to the closing of the Hungarian-Serbian border, and subsequently also the Hungarian-Croatian border in October 2015 with barbed wire fences. After these legal and physical barriers were imposed, people arriving from the south and wishing to pass through Hungary in hopes of eventually, arriving in Western Europe had only two options: they could either try to cross the fences at the border, and thus immediately violate Hungary’s newly amended laws or they could file for asylum in one of the assigned “transit zones” or containment camps set up along the southern border (at the border crossings of Beremend, Letenye, Tompa and Röszke), of which only two were accessible from Serbia.

This was problematic because clearly most of the refugees were arriving from Serbia, a country dubiously designated “safe” by the Hungarian government in order to enable them to send asylum seekers back without proper individual investigation. In the transit zones, asylum seekers had to wait (and still have to this day) in inhumane conditions. People in need of help are forced to wait often for several days or even weeks, without any kind of state support in the meantime, just to be able to submit their asylum applications.

Regardless of which of the two options people chose, however, the outcome in most cases was expulsion from Hungary without any individual investigation. The severity of the situation is clearly demonstrated by the fact that the European Commission initiated an infringement procedure against Hungary already in December 2015 over the then newly adopted amendment to the asylum law.[1] The infringement procedure is still ongoing today, but violations of human rights have persisted and even expanded.

State of emergency

Even though the number of refugees seeking asylum has decreased significantly (29,432 asylum seekers were registered in 2016, as compared to 177,135 in 2015[2]), the government have nevertheless extended the state of emergency, originally imposed due to mass immigration, and even expanded its application to the entire country –  despite the fact that the legal conditions justifying the state of emergency had not been present for months, approximately since the closing of the Hungarian-Croatian border.

The extension and expansion of the state of emergency was thus illegal, moreover the government made another step towards the elimination of the constitutional guarantees.

At the beginning of June 2016, they modified asylum and border legislation to allow for so-called “deep border control”,[3] making it legal to arrest refugees up to eight kilometres from the border, and to take them back to the transit zone between Serbia and Hungary. As a result, these people could only submit their asylum applications in the transit zones and nowhere else, which is a violation of both international and EU law, because the authorities should start the procedure as soon as a person first requests it in the territory of Hungary.

In parallel, the government have made the situation extremely difficult for those few people who have already been granted refugee status (146 people in 2015, 154 in 2016[4]). For example, they have discontinued integration contracts[5], and the maximum amount of time one can stay in a refugee camp has been decreased from two months to one month.[6] These measures have significantly encumbered the (now rather low) chances for refugees and asylum seekers to integrate into Hungarian society.

In September 2016, the government re-extended the state of emergency, referring to mass migration, but again unlawfully, as the conditions that would have justified it still did not obtain. It was at this time that the Hungarian Helsinki Committee called upon the authorities to provide a justification for maintaining the state of emergency.

They received no response at that time, however, as it turned out that the proposal for its extension was classified and thus could not be released for ten years.[7] The Helsinki Committee has launched a law suit though, and during the procedure the Immigration Office voluntarily published the data and a statement, in which they stated that the illegal migrants are threatening public order.[8]

Use of physical violence

The situation of refugees and migrants in Hungary has further deteriorated in 2017. Since the process of “deep border control” has come into force, border police have been able to physically deport people back to the border (in the practice often straight to Serbia) frequently using physical violence. Increasing numbers of refugees are reporting several types of abuse, including the use of dog attacks, beatings, the use of pepper spray and various other forms of humiliation and assault.[9]

Unaccompanied minors and children travelling with their families are not exempt from this treatment. Violence perpetrated by the authorities has become systematic, and several international organisations have begun treating the issue as a priority, including Doctors Without Borders,[10] the UNHCR,[11] and Human Rights Watch,[12] urging the Hungarian government to investigate the reports. But with little effect, only two policemen were sentenced in mid-March for abusing refugees.[13]

Instead, the government proposed an amendment to the law regarding migration and asylum,[14] adopted in early March, which expanded the eight-kilometre deep border control region to the whole country. This means that asylum seekers and any foreigners residing in Hungary illegally or unlawfully can be arrested anywhere in the country and deported across the southern border.

This not only affects newcomers, but also those refugees who are currently waiting for the outcome of their proceedings in camps or even in their private apartments. These people can be arrested and forcibly taken practically to the Serbian side of the border, where the asylum seekers will be held in the transit zone camps made of shipping containers while their cases are being processed.

They can now only leave the transit zone in the direction of Serbia, which is tantamount to automatic and mass expulsion of asylum seekers and their detention for an unreasonable period of time. On top all this, refugees’ rights to seek legal remedies have been further infringed, as the amendment reduces the period for appeal from seven to just three days, making it practically impossible to challenge such a decision.

No exceptions for vulnerable groups

Another extremely worrisome aspect of this amendment is that it does not exempt particularly vulnerable groups such as the elderly, children traveling with their families, or unaccompanied minors. Moreover, it removes unaccompanied minors between 14 and 18 years of age from the child protection system, allowing for their detention as well, and thus running counter to not only the paramount principle of the best interest of the child, but also the Fundamental Law of Hungary and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

NGOs concerned with the rights of refugees and migrants, including Amnesty International, the Hungarian Helsinki Committee and the Menedék Hungarian Association for Migrants,[15] have objected strongly to this amendment, which is regarded as scandalous internationally due to its numerous violations of the Fundamental Law, as well as EU and international law. Hungary’s president has signed the amendment despite a ruling by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) that the detention of two Bangladeshis in Hungary was unlawful.[16]

The individuals, who were represented by the Helsinki Committee, were detained for 23 days without an official decision on their status, and thus without a legal basis for their detention, thereby infringing their rights to a lawful trial and to effective legal remedies. According to the ECHR, their expulsion to Serbia was also illegal, as the government should have taken into consideration reports on Serbia documenting that (contrary to the government’s position) it cannot be considered a “safe third country” for refugees.

The ruling also made it clear that keeping people in the transit zones constitutes detention, as a result of which Hungary will likely face even more serious consequences under the newly amended law.[17] Also based on a Helsinki Committee petition, the ECHR issued a temporary prohibition on the relocation of eight unaccompanied minors and a seriously traumatised pregnant woman to the transit zone container camps on the day the new law came into force.[18]

Based on government declarations in recent weeks, however, it seems that the situation is unlikely to improve. In response to the above-mentioned ECHR ruling, government officials have expressed the need to quit the European Convention on Human Rights, which would mean Hungary definitively excluding itself from the group of countries at least minimally committed to human and democratic rights.

Meanwhile, a new “smart fence” equipped with heat sensors was built  along the southern border beside the “old” one at a cost of billions of forints, and the government have  launched a new “national consultation” referendum campaign with statements such as “Brussels is trying to force Hungary to open its doors to illegal immigrants.” Once again, the referendum merges the concepts of migration and terrorism, while accusing civic organisations assisting refugees of complicity.

Its questions were heavily criticised by the EU and even by the EPP[19] as well as the Hungarian civil society, because they are based on blatant lies, which ignore the fact that in the first three months of 2017 the authorities have granted refugee status in only 19 cases and subsidiary protection on only 60 cases.[20] We should therefore expect the criminalising and bullying of refugees and migrants to continue, even though most of them are in dire need of protection.


[1]      European Commission Press Release: Commission opens infringement procedure against Hungary concerning its asylum law,

[2]     Immigration and Asylum Office – Publication Booklet, 2015-2016,…

[3]     2016/XCIV law on the modification of legislation necessary to widely effectuate the implementation of proceedings in asylum cases at the border,…

[4]     Immigration and Asylum Office – Publication Booklet, 2015-2016,…

[5]     Immigration and Asylum Office - Integration contract for refugees and beneficiaries of subsidiary protection…

[6]     2016/XXXIX law on the modification of specific legislation on migration and other legislation related to these,…

[7]     Helsinki Figyelő: „Fél éves a törvényellenes országos válsághelyzet” (blog article of the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, titled “The unlawful contry-wide state of emergency is half a year old”)…

[9]     Aggression and humiliation at the Hungarian border,

[10]   MSF denounces the widespread violence on migrants and refugees at the Serbian/Hungarian border,…

[11]   Hungary: UNHCR concerned about new restrictive law, increased reports of violence, and a deterioration of the situation at border with Serbia,…

[12]   Hungary: Migrants abused at the border,

[13]   Two policemen were sentenced in mid-March for abusing refugees in a fast-track proceeding. Two policemen abusing refugees were sentenced following a fast track lawsuit,…

[14]   2017/XX law on the severity of proceedings performed at the areas of border control and the amendments of related legislation,…

[15]   "No to the mass detention of asylum seekers",

[16]   Case of Ilias and Ahmed v. Hungary,{"itemid":["001-172091"]}

[17]   The Hungarian transit zones are breaching human rights – states the ECHR,…

[18]   Hungarian Helsinki Committee: ECHR stops the deportation of eight children and one pregnant woman into the transit zone,…

[19]   EPP, Prime Minister Orban to comply with EU laws and EPP values following meeting with EPP precidency…