UNHCR paper urges Hungary to improve treatment of asylum seekers

Briefing Notes, 24 April 2012

This is a summary of what was said by UNHCR spokesperson Adrian Edwards to whom quoted text may be attributed at the press briefing, on 24 April 2012, at the Palais des Nations in Geneva.

UNHCR is today releasing a position paper on the protection environment for refugees and asylum-seekers in Hungary, in response to requests from governments in other European Union states who face legal challenges against returns to Hungary under Dublin II arrangements.

The paper, 'Observations on the situation of asylum-seekers and refugees in Hungary', is an assessment of the environment for those seeking international protection. Hungary was the first country in the region to ratify the Refugee Convention after the downfall of communism and hosted tens of thousands of refugees amid the breakup of Yugoslavia in and after the 1990s.

Since 2010, new laws and policies have come into effect whereby the human rights and protection needs of asylum-seekers have been overshadowed by law enforcement objectives in the fight against illegal migration. Key concerns include the increasingly systematic detention of visa-less asylum-seekers in harsh prison-like conditions. Illegal migrants and people exercising their human right to seek asylum are locked up together, without differentiation between the two groups. Typically, an asylum-seeker will be detained for the full 4-5 months of their in-merits procedure and spend much of the day locked in their rooms. The new laws also provide for the detention of families with children for up to 30 days, contrary to international standards, and for administrative detention up to one year.

When taken to court for hearings or to a doctor outside the detention facilities, asylum-seekers are handcuffed and escorted on leashes measures normally used for the accused in criminal proceedings. Complaints from asylum-seekers speak of verbal and physical abuse by guards, and the systematic prescription of tranquilizers for stress, which has in some cases led to addiction.

Asylum-seekers also face increasing hurdles accessing the asylum procedure in Hungary. Asylum-seekers are routinely deported to Serbia, which Hungary, incorrectly in UNHCRs view, regards as a safe third country, and are at risk of chain deportation to various countries without adequate asylum systems in place, including Macedonia and Greece. In 2011, more than 450 asylum-seekers were deported to Serbia by Hungary without being admitted to the in-merits procedure. In our view, this poses a risk of chain refoulement to a country where people fled danger or persecution, and risks breaching Hungary's obligations under the Refugee Convention.

Access to a full and fair asylum procedure is becoming increasingly problematic for those returned to Hungary under Dublin II arrangements. These people are not automatically considered as asylum-seekers and must reapply with what are considered subsequent applications. This means asylum-seekers transferred to Hungary under Dublin II are generally not protected against expulsion orders to third countries, even if the merits of their claims have not yet been examined. Therefore, they may not have access to protection, despite EU directives which stipulate that asylum-seekers should be taken back by the responsible EU country to complete the examination of their asylum claims.

These measures are taking place against a backdrop of dramatically decreasing asylum claims in Hungary, a situation which might otherwise provide an opportunity for improved protection standards. In 2011, some 1,700 claims were made 20 per cent fewer than in 2010, which were in turn 50 per cent lower than the previous year and included repeat applications by those returned under Dublin procedures.

While we recognize that refugees travel alongside illegal migrants and that combating illegal migration is a valid concern for states, the pre-occupation with the fight against illegal migration in the context of asylum has made the Hungarian system increasingly restrictive. It is causing severe hardships and additional suffering for people who are searching for a safe haven. It also makes it difficult for Hungary to fulfill its obligations under international and national laws to protect the human rights of men, women and children who have fled danger and are in search of solutions to their plight.

While UNHCR welcomes recent steps by Hungary to improve the situation, including the provision of internet in detention provided by NGOs with EU funds, and steps by the police to improve the complaints procedure in detention and investigate instances of brutality, urgent steps are required to bring the protection environment into line with international standards. The solution requires more than merely improved conditions of detention. UNHCR is urging wider changes to current policies which see the indiscriminate detention of asylum-seekers. Instead, people should be able to come forward and make their claims for asylum in a positive environment, without being discouraged, intimidated, treated like criminals and facing the severe stress of detention.

The full paper is available at http://www.unhcr.org/refworld/docid/4f9167db2.html.