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20th Sep 2019

EU warns Hungary over Afghan refugees

  • Viktor Orban's right-wing government may be facing another European Commission court case (Photo: European Parliament)

The European Commission has warned Hungary over its ill-treatment of migrants and refugees, including depriving some of food, and trying to force others back to Afghanistan in violation of human right laws.

"We are concerned of the reports of the treatment of migrants in Hungary, we take such allegations quite seriously," a European Commission spokeswoman told reporters in Brussels on Monday (13 May).

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The expression of concern from the Berlaymont follows Hungary's failed efforts last week to deport three families back to Afghanistan, in what Filippo Grandi, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, described as deeply shocking.

Two families were forced back into Serbia, while a third family remains in Hungary's transit zone after the European Court of Human Rights granted an injunction preventing them from being removed.

Budapest had drafted in the EU's border agency Frontex to carry out the Afghan returns, posing questions on possible EU complicity.

But the commission said neither itself, nor the Warsaw-based Frontex, has any say over the return decisions, despite having launched two court cases against Hungary over its migration and asylum policies.

"We have a case before the Court of Justice regarding Hungarian legislation in asylum and 'return', both cases are before the court at the moment," said the spokeswoman.

Hungarian legislation automatically dismisses asylum claims by anyone transiting from Serbia - which Budapest deems a "safe country."

That means people who have passed through Serbia cannot claim asylum in Hungary, even based on merit - despite EU laws that are supposed to provide safeguards against the abuse.

This appears to be part of a larger strategy by Hungary's right-wing government under prime minister Viktor Orban to demonise refugees and migrants, which it views as a national security threat.

Hunger tactics

The Budapest-based Hungarian Helsinki Committee last August had also documented cases in Hungary's transit zone, along the Serbian border, of people being denied food, sometimes for up to five days.

Despite promises by Hungarian authorities to start feeding the failed asylum seekers, the NGO documented another eight cases between February and April this year.

A total of twenty-one people have gone hungry in what the NGO describes as "starvation cases".

"Pending the enforcement of the expulsion, adults, unless they are pregnant or nursing women, are starved in detention," said the NGO.

Pressed on the issue last September, Orban's spokesperson Zoltan Kovacs took a defiant tone, telling reporters in Brussels that "we are not providing a free meal, free food for any illegal migrants".

Orban earlier this month toured the Hungarian transit zone and razor-wire border fencing with Italy's far-right deputy prime minister, Matteo Salvini.

The pair are ratcheting up the anti-migrant rhetoric ahead of the European Parliament elections at the end of this month. Salvini is hoping to increase the European Alliance of Peoples and Nations political group in the next parliament.

The move seeks to bridge an alliance against immigrants with other far-right leaders like France's Marine Le Pen, Geert Wilders of the Netherlands, and Germany's AfD, among others.

Salvini's League party and his wider crusade against migrants has also helped spread the rise of Italian disinformation networks on Facebook.

The social media giant shut down 23 Italian Facebook pages, with over 2.46 million followers, for peddling hate against immigrants and Jews and spreading debunked anti-vaccine conspiracies.

Over a dozen of the pages supported the League party and its populist government coalition party, the Five-Star Movement.

The Facebook removals follow an investigation by Avaaz, a global activist NGO.

"Facebook has done a good job in taking these pages down, but it says a lot that a multi-billion dollar company is relying on a crowd-funded Avaaz investigation to defend Europe's democracy," said Christoph Schott, Avaaz campaign director, in a statement on Monday.

Orban edges closer to Salvini's anti-migrant alliance

Hungary's Orban has hinted at leaving the EPP for Italy's far-right Salvini, saying it will be difficult to remain in the centre-right political family if it allied with leftist parties after the European Parliament elections.

EU targets Hungary for denying food to migrants

At least 25 people stuck in Hungary's transit zones along the Serb border have been denied food, with one case lasting eight days. On Thursday, the European Commission threatened the risks of sanctions against Hungary over the issue.

France, Italy want 'automatic' distribution of migrants

French president Emmanuel Macron is pressing for an automated distribution of rescued migrants at sea - but also stands accused of tightening asylum rules in his own country as a response to the far-right.

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