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Pandemic-Hit Hungary Harps On About ‘Migrant Crisis’ – Analysis

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In the midst of a genuine health catastrophe, Hungary’s government continues to sound the alarm over a non-existent ‘migrant emergency’.

By Edit Inotai

Be careful what you wish for.

Critics have long accused Hungary’s populist government of inventing imaginary crises so it could pretend to manage them. Now with coronavirus, it has a real emergency on its hands.

Yet even in the midst of the pandemic, the government of Prime Minister Viktor Orban has warned of a crisis of mass migration — despite the fact that the country’s frontiers have largely been sealed to migrants and refugees since 2016.

On March 5, as the coronavirus calamity mounted, the government extended a “crisis situation due to mass migration” — the eighth such extension since Europe’s 2015 migrant and refugee crisis.

Then on March 13, two days after Hungary declared a state of emergency over COVID-19, Lajos Kosa, chairman of the Parliamentary Defence Committee, discussed the dangers of illegal migration on Hungarian public TV. 

“Illegal migration has grown at the end of last year,” he said. “There are around 130,000 people stranded on the Balkan route who would like to enter the EU. Most of the migrants are not from Syria but from Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan. They are economic migrants coming from unsafe sanitary conditions.”

Ten days earlier, authorities had shut the notorious transit zones of Roszke and Tompa along the Serbian border, and not a single asylum seeker has been let in since. 

The official reason for the shutdown was to protect people from coronavirus — and especially infection from asylum seekers from Iran, one of the worst-hit countries in the global pandemic. 

The government has blamed migrants for bringing coronavirus to Hungary since the first cases were detected among Iranian students in Budapest (never mind that they were studying in the country legally).

According to government media, 13 Iranian students are now in custody for not cooperating with authorities and protesting against conditions under quarantine in hospital, and will be soon deported.

Bernadett Szel, an independent member of the Hungaruan parliament, told BIRN the extension of the “migrant crisis” was a smokescreen.

“This measure is just a part of the government’s communications panels, to turn up the hatred and the concern against migrants,” she said. “I do believe that migratory waves may lead to critical situations in the 21st Century, but this is surely not one of those.”

‘New migratory waves’

The latest extension is the sixth time the government has done so without meeting its own preconditions for such a move.

A decree issued in September 2015 defined a “crisis situation” in terms of the numbers of asylum seekers arriving in transit zones — either 500 per day for a month or 800 per day for a week.

In recent weeks, neither of those preconditions could be said to apply.

Even so, the 2015 decree included a wildcard clause stipulating that any migration-related situation that could influence public safety would be enough to justify a declaration of emergency.

The number of asylum seekers in Hungary dropped sharply in mid-2016 and has remained low since. Orban’s strategy of closing the borders while pumping out anti-immigrant propaganda paid off, diverting migrant flows to other countries.

In 2017, Hungary received 3,390 requests for asylum. In 2018, the number was 671 and last year it was under 500, or less than two people per day.

Significantly, Hungary had no problem dealing with far higher numbers of asylum seekers in the years before Europe’s 2015 migrant and refugee crisis.

Back then, average numbers each year were between 3,000 and 5,000 — an influx easily managed by the Migration and Asylum Office, recently renamed the National Directorate-General of Aliens Policing. 

As early as 2016, the Helsinki Committee, a human rights watchdog, asked the government to explain its decision to extend the so-called migrant emergency, but received no answer. Instead, the Ministry of Interior classified the decision for 10 years.

BIRN also asked the ministry about the decision but only received a statement from the government’s Communications Centre saying the “crisis situation has to be extended due to the new migratory waves coming from Turkey, with their security and epidemiological risks”. 

It added that the situation could turn violent, as it did in 2015 at the Roszke border crossing.

Late last month, Turkey said it would no longer stick to a 2016 deal with the European Union and stop refugees and migrants from crossing into the bloc.

Since then, tens of thousands of asylum seekers from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere have tried to get into EU member states Greece and Bulgaria, but few if any have made it to Hungary.

‘Basically prisons’

The Helsinki Committee wrote in a recent blog post that the emergency measures have been cemented into the Hungarian legal system as normal procedure. For example, all asylum applicants including women and children are basically locked in the transit zones, it said.

Felipe Gonzales Morales, the UN special rapporteur on the human rights of migrants, described a visit last year to the transit zones, where he was shocked to see a pregnant woman escorted by no fewer than 17 police officers to a routine medical examination.

Another asylum seeker who had to go to a Hungarian hospital for surgery was handcuffed to her bed for five days, he said. There are no gynecologists or pediatricians in the transit zones, although most of the people there are women and children.

The transit zones are basically prisons, independent lawmaker Bernadett Szel told BIRN — although the government refutes the description. Szel has visited the transit zones several times.

“Under normal circumstances, you wouldn’t lock down children for more than 30 days, but in the transit zones they are imprisoned for more than a year,” she said. “Children don’t have space to move around. I just call it a kindergarten prison.”

Szel said there were allegations of corruption on the Serbian side of the border, with officers reportedly taking bribes to let people cross into the transit zones.

The Hungarian government says people are free to leave the zones whenever they like — as long as they return to Serbia and abandon their quest for asylum in Hungary.

In addition to human rights violations, the Helsinki Committee says authorities have used the extension of the “crisis” to circumvent public procurement procedures.

Hungarian police spent around 42.6 million euros on new cars, which would have been impossible in normal times, it said.

The government-financed Centre for Basic Rights (Alapjogokert Kozpont) defends the government’s approach to migration and says fundamental rights have not been violated.

The crisis measures simply allow Budapest to “speed up” certain procedures such as public procurement and asylum claims, it adds.

Critics say that while Orban has perfected the art of crisis management in a time of false emergency, he now faces a real calamity that will put his government to the test.

Unlike migrants, microbes are immune to scapegoating, they say.


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Balkan Insight

Balkan Insight

The Balkan Insight (fornerkt the Balkin Investigative Reporting Network, BIRN) is a close group of editors and trainers that enables journalists in the region to produce in-depth analytical and investigative journalism on complex political, economic and social themes. BIRN emerged from the Balkan programme of the Institute for War & Peace Reporting, IWPR, in 2005. The original IWPR Balkans team was mandated to localise that programme and make it sustainable, in light of changing realities in the region and the maturity of the IWPR intervention. Since then, its work in publishing, media training and public debate activities has become synonymous with quality, reliability and impartiality. A fully-independent and local network, it is now developing as an efficient and self-sustainable regional institution to enhance the capacity for journalism that pushes for public debate on European-oriented political and economic reform.

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