EU stands aside as Hungary detains migrants
By Eszter Zalan
The European Commission is sending experts to Hungary to address concerns about the country’s new asylum law that allows blanket detention of asylum seekers, but it will not launch any probes for now, it emerged on Tuesday (28 March).
The controversial legislation, which the UN’s refugee agency said violates Hungary’s obligations under international and EU laws, came into effect on Tuesday, just as EU migration commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos visited Budapest.
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The new law allows Hungary to detain every asylum seeker in shipping container camps at the two so-called transit zones on its border with Serbia while the asylum procedure is ongoing.
EU law allows for detention in certain circumstances on a case-by-case basis, but not an automatic, blanket rule as the Hungarian legislation calls for.
Hungary argues that it is not detention because asylum seekers are free to leave towards Serbia.
The commission, while still carrying out a legal assessment of the new law, offered a way out for the Hungarian authorities.
At a press conference with Hungary’s interior and justice ministers, Avrampoulos said that "in a very friendly spirit of positive cooperation we decided to work together with experts to ensure EU rules are complied with.”
He added that the EU is "based on fundamental principles to help those in need of protection, in a humane, dignified and respectful way”.
“This implies giving effective access to the asylum procedure while fighting against abuses, but also ensuring a fair review of decisions,” the Greek EU commissioner said.
Senior commission officials, who have accompanied him to Budapest, will visit the Hungarian border with Serbia. The commission hopes that by working together with Hungarian authorities, it can avoid having to take formal steps.
It is unclear however how the EU executive intends to fine tune the Hungarian law to make it compatible with European legislation.
In the meantime, it continues to carry out the legal assessment of the new law, and according to sources, the college of commissioners will then discuss if any further action needs to be taken.
'Let's stop Brussels!'
Sandor Pinter, Hungary’s interior minister, said he hoped to formulate a common position with the Commission by the time summer holidays begin.
Laszlo Trocsanyi, the country’s justice minister, said Hungary was interested in the dialogue and was confident about a compromise. He added though that, in his assessment, the new legislation was “appropriate”.
"We are looking forward to the comments and we will give answers,” he said at the press conference in Budapest, where journalists were not allowed to ask questions.
Earlier on Tuesday, the US-based NGO Human Rights Watch urged the commission to “call out Hungary’s asylum abuses.”
It said in a statement that “for the sake of asylum seekers in Hungary, those in other EU member states tempted to follow in Hungary’s footsteps, and for the credibility of the EU’s values, Avramopoulos should demand that Hungary change course.”
The commission’s timid response could be linked with a so-called “national consultation” on several issues including asylum that is to be launched in Hungary this week. It ends on 20 May, boasting the message “Let’s stop Brussels!”
The “Let’s stop Brussels” banner advertising the national consultation appeared on the Hungarian government’s Facebook page on Tuesday afternoon, after Avramopoulos’s press event with the ministers.
Eight million Hungarian voters will be asked to send answers to the government’s questions on asylum issues including detention. One of the questions accuses international organisations of “encouraging” migrants to undertake behaviour by migrants.
The EU Commission, or "Brussels", might not want to add fuel to the anti-Brussels campaign of the Budapest government by hitting Hungary with an infringement procedure or other probes.
Earlier this month, the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, which is not an EU court, ruled that Hungary unlawfully kept two migrants in a transit zone on its border with Serbia, also putting into doubt the legality of the new law.
Hungary has said it would appeal the decision.
Hungarian officials have since also toyed with the idea of pulling out of the European Convention on Human Rights, the legal basis for the Strasbourg court, if the appeal fails.
However, Avramopoulos reminded officials in an interview with Hungarian media Index.hu that the European Union is a signatory to the convention, meaning Hungary cannot “cherry pick” what rules it likes or does not like.