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Hungary hardens immigration line

Prime Minister Orbán’s government expects protests from Brussels but has vowed to press ahead.

LONDON — Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán will introduce measures within weeks to hold immigrants in detention “shelters” indefinitely in order to stop them traveling freely within Europe, his spokesman said on Monday.

Under Orbán’s proposal, those entering Hungary illegally — even if they are fleeing war-torn countries in the Middle East and Africa — will be kept in government camps, banned from moving freely within Hungary, until their status has been resolved, which could take “months.”

Speaking at the Hungarian embassy in London Monday, Orbán’s spokesman Zoltan Kovacs said the policy was necessary because of the borderless Schengen zone, which he claimed was being “systematically” abused by migrants looking to reach Western Europe.

While the plan is bound to spark fierce criticism in Brussels, Orbán’s government appears to be convinced it is winning the argument on tighter immigration controls and has vowed to press ahead despite objections, as it did with the construction of its controversial border fence with Serbia.

Budapest has clashed with Brussels before on the issue, most notably last year when it rejected an EU refugee resettlement plan and in 2015 when Hungarian police fired tear gas and water cannons against migrants on its border. But Orbán’s government has been emboldened by the election of U.S. President Donald Trump. In a speech last month, Orbán welcomed Trump’s election, saying it heralds a new age where countries are free to put their interests first. “The era of multilateralism is at an end, and the era of bilateral relations is upon us,” he said.

Currently, refugees awaiting decisions on their asylum cases are split into two different kinds of camps. Some, including many families, are placed in open camps where they are allowed to leave the camp during the day.

Other refugees, however, are in asylum detention, a status that deprives them of freedom of movement but is legally limited to a maximum of six months, with a mandatory court review every two months to determine whether detention is truly necessary.

A hardline agenda

The first mention of a shift in open camp policies came on January 12, when János Lázár, the head of the prime minister’s office, made an announcement that refugees will not be allowed to move around Hungary while their cases are still pending.

Hungary believes its hardline agenda is slowly being adopted by other member countries who have come round to its view that the only way to check the flow of migrants is to stop them reaching Europe in the first place or restrict their ability to travel freely if they do.

Orbán’s government believes last week’s summit in Malta was “a turning point.” With the building of refugee camps in North Africa now “one of the major projects of the European Union.”

“What was denounced as insane is starting to rule the agenda,” Kovacs said. “You have to stop migration beyond Europe’s borders. The recognition is very welcome.”

Kovacs claimed that at the moment migrants were getting a “free ride” to cross the Mediterranean because European authorities were not prepared to return them to North Africa. “If you don’t put physical barriers on the borders, human traffickers are going to carry on their business.”

He went further, claiming that because all migrants either had to cross the Mediterranean illegally to reach Europe or to pass through a number of safe countries en route, “everybody who comes to the EU as a migrant is basically coming illegally.”

The election of Trump has also given Hungary’s government fresh confidence to pursue its agenda. “The change in the perception of the United States has helped,” Kovacs said.

Human rights concerns

The Hungarian government’s new immigration measure is designed to curtail the rights of migrants once they have made it into the Schengen zone.

Kovacs said: “We are going to introduce a new measure — no migrants, not even those who have achieved their request for asylum, can move freely until there is a final, legal decision whether they are entitled to political asylum or refugee status. They will not be entitled to move freely in the country.”

He said at the moment many were abusing the system by applying for asylum and then moving on before their case was settled.

“Within Schengen, it is impossible to stop this,” he said. “You have to reinforce your borders, establish the rules that only legal migrants can enter the European Union, otherwise it’s not going to work.”

The Hungarian government’s plans, however, have prompted deep concern from both Hungarian and international observers, who believe the new policies are illegal.

“Blanket detention of asylum seekers goes against Hungary’s obligations under the Refugee Convention and EU law,” said Lydia Gall, Balkans and Eastern Europe Researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Detention should always be a very last resort and there are clear cut criteria where detention may be used. It should always be decided on a case-by-case basis and never as a general measure.”

Kovacs denied the new “shelters” amounted to detention camps because the migrants and refugees would be allowed to leave to go back to their home countries whenever they wanted.

“It’s not about detention, it’s about not giving the same opportunity for them as is being provided for European citizens.”

He added: “We think in terms of shelters that are going to be provided according to EU and international standards, that are open the other way around. If someone decides that he or she is not going to wait weeks, maybe months, for a final decision… if someone decided they would like to go back it will be possible.

“So, it’s not going to be a detention center. Freedom of movement is going to be provided the other way around — just not toward Europe. We don’t let people onto the soil of Europe until they have been checked.”

Kovacs said the Hungarian government expected an angry reaction from Brussels to his government’s latest measure. “From previous experience, we think there is going to be a large bump, based on the perception,” he said.

The new policy will be up and running before March, Orbán’s spokesman added. “Within two weeks we are going to have a new regulation formulated.

“If it comes together, we believe that reducing the numbers is only possible through these measures.”

Journalists will be barred from visiting the camps to verify the conditions migrants and refugees are living in. But Kovacs promised that they would meet international standards. Shelter, food and education for children will be provided, he said.

But observers also worry refugees will be relegated to living in sub-standard conditions.

“If the government says that it will meet international standards, then why would it bar outside observers from monitoring conditions in camps?” said Gall. “The government should refrain from restricting freedom of movement of asylum seekers and provide open facilities where they can be accommodated in human and dignified conditions until decisions are made in their individual cases, as required by the refugee convention and EU law.”

Fonte: Politico


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