'Welcome to Hungary (But not wholeheartedly)’

Finally, Europe. But forget about a warm welcome. Hungary is notorious for its harsh treatment of refugees and an inhospitable political climate. The problem is, once arrested at the border, a refugee is obliged to ask for asylum and give his fingerprint. This cripples their chances of being recognised as refugees elsewhere seriously.

  • © Zair Detention Centre © Zair
  • © Zair © Zair
  • © Zair Detention Centre © Zair

In the light of the first spring sun, the open centre of Debrecen doesn’t look too bad. The building, a complex of former army barracks dating back from the time the Iron Curtain was still firmly in place, consists of a few blocks, enclosed by a wall. Outside the windows, the laundry hang to dry. But the guard at the entrance, also a Soviet relic, is categorical: No entrance for me.

Fortunately, a few people loiter outside the camp. Arif for example, from Afghanistan, and clearly not satisfied with his life in Debrecen.

‘It’s no good here. You sleep like a chicken and wait for food like a dog. I can not stay here, I want to go to Germany.’

© Zair
Detention Centre
© Zair

John is a little more positive. He left Nigeria after a journey, according to him, too long to retell which ended up her in Hungary. ‘I’m here for two weeks now. We are treated well, but that is it. Eating and sleeping, that’s all that happens inside there. I’m bored like hell, but what can I do? It is the will of God’, and he points upwards to the sky. John does not know exactly where he would like to go. ‘If I can find work somewhere here I would stay. Otherwise I’ll try Austria.’

A few entrepreneurial Hungarians have discovered the potential of migrants. On the opposite of the camp, an internet cafe,  a copy shop and an office of Western Union, a service to send money worldwide, have popped up. The cafes near Debrecen Refugee Camp are also getting their share of the cake. An example of migration triggers all kinds of economic activities that address the specific needs of people on the move.

A crisis foretold

Migration is not new to Hungary, though. In the nineties, during the Balkan wars, the country faced already a considerable influx of refugees, explains Gabor Gyulai, head of the Department of refugees from the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, one of the largest human rights organisations in Hungary.

Hungary has a functioning asylum system, but just when it was needed the most, it was completed torn down by the government.

© Zair
Detention Centre
© Zair

‘After the unrest in the Balkan, migration became a less prominent issue, but still, every year a thousand people would applied for asylum in Hungary. Until 2010 the main point of entry was the border with Ukraine, but that has reversed completely. Now around 95 percent crosses somewhere along the Serbian-Hungarian border. In no time,  Hungary has become the main gateway to Europe, after Greece and Italy. Last year alone, 43 000 people were intercepted at the border, and this trend will persist this year definitely.’

‘But to be honest, this should not have come as a surprise if you take into consideration what is happening just outside our borders. This recent influx from Kosovo could not have been foreseen, but it has stopped as suddenly as it started. Almost all the refugees we see now do have a valid reason to seek asylum. Still, the numbers of those recognised as refugees in Hungary is very low. Hungary has a functioning asylum system, but just when it was needed the most, namely since 2010, it was completed torn down by the government. In recent years, the focus shifted more and more from reception to detention.’

Worse than a prison

Nizar, a Syrian from Damascus, remembers the Hungarian detention cells all too well. For eight days he was imprisoned there. His attempt to cross the Serbian-Hungarian border failed, the border police arrested him and his companions.

Nizar refused to seek asylum in Hungary. That did not go down well, so he was imprisoned. ‘It’s worse than a prison. There is nothing in such a detention centre, just some dirty mattresses inside something resembling a cage. We got water nor food. Eventually we could give some money to the guards to buy something to eat for us. The place had no toilet. If you had to go to the bathroom, they gave you an empty bottle.’

After eight days Nizar was deported. The Hungarian police put him back over the border with Serbia. All in all, he was lucky. Some refugees have been locked up for two months in detention.

For those who have their fingerprints taken in Hungary, the journey is over…

The reason why Nizar refused to apply for asylum in Hungary can be traced back to the Dublin Convention. For Nizar, as for many others, Hungary is the first country in the European Union where they set foot, which gives him the obligation to ask for asylum there by the Dublin Regulation. This means that  his fingerprints will be taken to be stored in a European database. Should he leave from Hungary and apply for asylum elsewhere, the second country has the right to send him back to Hungary, which is effectively put in practise. In other words, for those who have their fingerprints taken in Hungary, the journey is over…

Burnt fingers

But no one wants to stay in Hungary. The chance to be recognised as a refugee and therefore receives protection is small. The recognition rate is among the lowest in Europe. Economically, the country doesn’t have good papers, so the prospects for building a new life are rather limited, not at least because the government does not provide integration support.

Hungary is a country where xenophobia is deeply rooted among the population. The treatment of migrants at the border, where people are crammed into improvised detention centres without food or water, where every one has to strip naked  for a “health check”, and where the police is known to use ecxessive force, this treatment can hardly be called a warm welcome.

He tells how one of his friends burned anyway his fingertips in order to not have his prints taken.

Nizar has been thinking about a second attempt to cross, something still possible because he refused to give his fingerprints and weathered out detention. But now he has doubts. He didn’t like at all what he saw in Europe. He tells how one of his friends burned anyway his fingertips in order to not have his prints taken. Gabor Gyulai of the Hungarina Helsinki Committee heard similar stories.

‘The refusal to seek asylum in Hungary is a trend that we have been observing for the last few months and worries us a lot. It clearly shows the failure of  the common European migration policy. If a Syrian war refugee chooses to be deported back to Serbia rather than to stay in Hungary where there exists  such a thing as an asylum system, than something is going seriously wrong.’

Vicious circle

Since 2010,  Fidesz, the party of Prime Minister Viktor Orban, rules Hungary in an increasingly authoritarian manner. Fidesz stands for a right-wing policy, but migration was never really an issue. Until recently. The last half year, president Orban came with muscular statements that ‘Hungary needs no migrants’ and promised ‘to keep Hungary Hungarian, whatever Brussels may decide’.

A national consultation, a kind of would-be plebiscite, was announced with migration as a theme. The anti-immigration discourse of the ruling Fidesz party goes along with their declining popularity. But this strategy has not worked, on the contrary. Fidesz continues to lose votes to Jobbik, the ultra-nationalist opposition party.

The Hungarians have something else to worry about than migration, which is pretty much invisible in the society, since almost all of the refugees leaves the country as soon as possible, half of them in the first days of their stay in Hungary.

Detention Camps

© Zair
Detention Centre
© Zair

Part of the problem lies in the absence of any form of integration, according to Gabor Gyulai. ‘There was a kind of  an integration policy, but it implied that people had to stay in so-called integration camps. You can imagine how well you can integrate sitting a camp somewhere far away from Hungarian society. Under pressure from ngo’s, a new policy was mapped based on the Polish model. But it turned out to be an empty box. For example, throughout the procedure, no translator is provided, so the family support units that are responsible for the integration of recognised refugees simply can not communicate with them.’

The reason why people leave as fast as possible is simply due the fact that Hungary has nothing to offer. But it’s more complicated than that, says Gabor Gyulai. ‘We have fallen into a vicious circle. The government assumes that no one wants to stay, and uses this argument to refrain from working on  integration. But people leave just because there is no opportunity here to build a life and the system treats them badly.’

Also in this dossier:

‘Europe, still one country ahead’
Greece: The starting line
MO*reporter undercover in human trafficking in Macedonia
Bulgaria: Exquisite back door to the Balkan
‘I saw on TV how everyone was leaving Kosovo, so I went myself’
‘Do you know the way to Hungary?’
‘Human traffickers never keep their word’
Why some refugees do return to the hell of their homeland

‘Hungary is never really going to be a destination country  in the near future. But I firmly believe that certainly 20 percent of the refugees would remain in our country if the opportunities were there. For that 20 percent who could be persuaded to stay, we need a proper reception, not Sovjet barracks where thousands of people are crammed together. And certainly no detention.’

Gabor believes that the EU needs to play it more clear. ‘Now Hungary receives very ambiguous messages from Brussels. On the one hand, the government is under pressure to be a good border guard and let inside as few people as possible. On the other hand there is criticism that the human rights of refugees are not respected. We must be honest. The problem is  bigger than Hungary only, and so will be the solution. If we want to offer something in order for refugees to stay in Hungary, we need help. Hungary is not a multicultural society, but it could become one.’

This report was produced with the support of Fonds Pascal Decroos.

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Over de auteur

  • Freelance journalist

    Toon Lambrechts is freelance journalist tegen beter weten in. Behalve in MO* Magazine en op MO.be is hij ook te lezen in onder andere Knack, EOS en Vice.