New camp setup in Hungary sends refugees on the move

Wednesday 30, January 2008 Budapest, January 30 (UNHCR) – The New Year has brought major changes into the lives of some 150 refugees and asylum seekers in Hungary, as they were required to move from their previous refugee shelters to other locations. The reason behind the transfers was Hungary’s new […]

Wednesday 30, January 2008

Budapest, January 30 (UNHCR) – The New Year has brought major changes into the lives of some 150 refugees and asylum seekers in Hungary, as they were required to move from their previous refugee shelters to other locations. The reason behind the transfers was Hungary’s new policy of specialised refugee facilities.

Before, new arrivals, asylum seekers and refugees were accommodated together. As of this year, Hungary’s three refugee facilities have been assigned different functions.

In the new set up, Békéscsaba in the South-East of Hungary will only host new arrivals for pre-screening and medical examinations. Debrecen, the country’s largest reception centre 200 km east of Budapest will shelter persons during the refugee status determination procedure. Recognised refugees and those who receive humanitarian status will be assisted with their integration in Bicske, near Budapest.

The Office for Immigration and Nationality introduced the changes in order to streamline Hungary’s asylum system. They expect that in the new structures the staff will be able to better tailor their services to the specific needs of the inhabitants in each facility instead of catering to all groups.

UNHCR’s Protection Officer in Hungary, Agnes Ambrus observed the moves and found that they passed smoothly: “The reasons and the technicalities of the relocations were explained well in advance to the refugees and asylum seekers and there were no major problems.” – she said.

Only a few children were unhappy about leaving their newly found school pals behind and moving to new places. Twelve year old Emina from Kosovo had been going to school in Békéscsaba in the last two years. “I started to feel normal, like any other kid in class. But in the new school in Bicske, they will look at me as ‘the refugee girl from a camp’ again.” – she said.

Locked up in Békéscsaba?

However, some of the newly introduced structures gave rise to concern for the UN Refugee Agency. The Békescsaba reception centre has been turned into a closed facility for newly arrived asylum seekers. In theory they should spend no more than 15 days in detention-like circumstances while the pre-screening and a number of medical examinations are carried out.

However, if the compulsory Dublin II check reveals that Hungary is not the responsible state for the asylum procedure of an applicant, the asylum procedure is suspended and the so-called Dublin II Procedure is set in motion. It serves to determine which state is responsible for the case. Such arbitrations between member states and possible court appeals by the claimant may take up to 12 or even 18 months. During this period, the asylum-seeker may not leave the Békéscsaba facility.

According to the Office of Immigration and Nationality, this system has brought Hungary closer to the practice of other EU member states as its objective is to prevent the abuse of the asylum system and to provide protection to those who need it. UNHCR, on the other hand, is concerned: “If the new regime resulted in the prolonged detention of asylum-seekers in Hungary, it would be against UNHCR’s policies and international human rights standards” – says Ágnes Ambrus of UNHCR.

Waiting for decisions in Debrecen

After the pre-screening, asylum seekers are sent to Debrecen, a reception centre with a capacity of 1,200 places. Currently the camp hosts some 350 persons from no less than 42 countries. Authorities envisage that asylum-seekers will spend a maximum of 60 days in Debrecen waiting for their claim to be processed. This is where interviews take place and where first instance decision makers have their offices.

In general, UNHCR is satisfied with the speed of the first instance asylum procedure and with the living standards of refugee reception centres. However, UNHCR is concerned by the fact that the appeals of rejected asylum-seekers are reviewed very slowly by the Municipal Court of Budapest.

It can take up to a year before the court takes a final decision. Every year, there are three to five cases in which previously rejected asylum-seekers are recognized as refugees by the Court. According to Ágnes Ambrus of UNHCR, “For such genuine refugees, every day spent in limbo waiting for a decision is a day too long.”

During the asylum procedure, asylum-seekers get accommodation, three meals a day and health care in Debrecen. Asylum-seeking children go to a local school. The reception centre in Debrecen has separate buildings for families with children and for single women and single men in order to provide maximum security to women and children. However, there are no integration-related services like language classes, which is a disadvantage for those asylum-seekers who spend a year or even more waiting for the final decision in their case.

Self-sufficiency all of a sudden

After the procedure, those who are recognised as refugees will move from Debrecen to Bicske. There, they will be entitled to spend six months in a government run refugee facility where they are assisted in searching for jobs, learning the language and finding accommodation. The move to Bicske, only 37 km west of Budapest, is seen as a positive development by most refugees.

Mohammad from Sudan who got refugee status last November is one of them: “I am very happy that I could now move from Debrecen to Bicske,” he says, “This is close to the capital of Hungary and close to employment opportunities.” Mohammad hopes to leave the camp and move into a place of his own within a few months. In the rural surroundings of Debrecen that would have been impossible, he says.

For the very same reason asylum seekers who would have been forced to move the other direction, from Bicske to Debrecen, did not welcome the change. In Hungary’s rural east, low employment chances are often exacerbated by higher levels of xenophobia.

To avoid the relocation to Debrecen, dozens of persons with repeat asylum applications who had been living in Bicske Centre for a long time moved out and rented apartments in Budapest last December. The fact that so many asylum-seekers were able to become self-sufficient in such a short period of time came as a surprise to refugee workers. “The new situation that we thought would affect asylum-seekers negatively, in fact helped them to see their potential and mobilise their own resources,” said a social worker from the Bicske camp.

“It still remains to be seen what benefits or problems the rearrangement of camps may bring to refugees and asylum-seekers in the long run. UNHCR protection officers in Hungary are monitoring the situation and regularly visit all three shelters to make sure that the refugees’ needs are met and their rights are protected.” – says UNHCR’s Protection Officer Ágnes Ambrus.

Andrea Szobolits in Budapest, Hungary