Interview with András Léderer, senior advocacy officer of the Hungarian Helsinki Committee’s refugee programme.
Our post is the translation of the interview by Pál Dániel Rényi, originally published on 22 March 2022 at 444.hu.
For weeks, the greater part of Ukrainians arriving to the country were aided by NGOs and volunteers. The majority of refugees are currently still benefitting from the hospitality of non-governmental hosts.
- The Hungarian state was not prepared for the reception of considerable numbers of refugees, partially because the asylum system has been systematically dismantled since 2015.
- Currently, it is not possible to apply for asylum from within the territory of Hungary. The government has recently introduced a temporary protection status, but it is apparent that the government is not encouraging the arriving people to stay.
- The whole country was wallpapered with the posters of the pacifist Viktor Orbán within two days, but the government has been unable to produce an information leaflet in Ukrainian in a month.
What obligations and responsibilities does the Hungarian State have under the Geneva Convention in a refugee crisis caused by an armed conflict sparked off in a neighboring country?
Both the Geneva Refugee Convention and the EU asylum system are based on the recognition of application for asylum as a fundamental human right – a basic human right just like freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, or freedom of expression. The state should grant the possibility to every displaced person who arrives here to apply for asylum. Whether a particular person actually qualifies for that protection is to be decided as part of that procedure.
And does it grant that possibility?
For years, the Hungarian government has been working systematically to undermine the legal possibilities of people fleeing who reach Hungary, , and that has led to the current situation that currently it is practically impossible to apply for asylum on the territory of Hungary. For anyone. That is only possible in Kyiv or Belgrade.
To understand that it is worth going back in time until 2014 when even some considerably progressive steps had been taken within the field of refugee support.
Following the Polish example, an integration assistance scheme was introduced that consisted of a degressive – and not automatic but needs-based – support in the form of cash provided to those recognized as refugees. The support made it possible for refugees arriving here without any social network, knowledge of languages, or sufficiently documented skills to be integrated in a facilitated manner.
Families that undertook to take part in integrational cooperation had the contractual obligation to contact weekly the locally competent family assistance service –that was a prerequisite for the payment of support. Thus, it was possible to follow closely the progress of integration and to monitor in what ways the process could be enhanced. If the assistant was convinced that the there is no substantial will to cooperate – for example, the children did not go to school, the parents did not seek employment, they did not participate at training programmes offered free of charge – support was discontinued.
Back in those times the country could provide accommodation in open reception facilities for thousands. At the end of 2014, when a great number of Kosovars arrived to the country, though camps started to fill-up slowly, conditions were still better than in the nineties or in the 2000s.
What changed as from the summer of 2015?
Asylum became a political issue. The fact that mothers with children and families had to sleep in tents at railway stations not only at Budapest, and that bunches of people were crammed even in the garden of the Bicske refugee camp was due to the fact that there were physically no places where they could have been provided with accommodation. The civil protection service overseen by the government did not create temporary accommodation facilities for the those fleeing in great numbers.
Because the establishment of temporary accommodation facilities is a task that can be carried-out within such a short time?
It is within some weeks, for sure, and the refugee crisis of 2015 lasted for almost four months. The government was fully aware of what exactly to expect because it had started to place its blue posters inciting against refugees already at the end of February, that is at a time when not even one single Afghan on Syrian refugee was present in the country. At least one can safely conclude that they had more than enough time to prepare for the mass influx of people, and to take steps to ensure to have sufficient staff, interpreters, information, and accommodation in place.
Were capacities improved in the neighboring countries?
An important and fast improvement of capacities started in Serbia, also in Austria and Germany, not to speak of Greece. It cannot be expected from the Hungarian State to be able to provide a similar level of assistance to such a great number of people, however, it should be expected to make all possible efforts.
What happened to the asylum system after 2015?
They started to destroy the legal foundations of the asylum system, to dismantle the infrastructure and to lay off staff all at the same time.
In the autumn of 2015, when the construction of the border fence first at the Serbian, and not long after that, at the Croatian border sections were finished and the transit zones were opened, about a hundred people per day could file an asylum application in the transit zones of Röszke or Tompa in the beginning. The majority of those were rejected the very same day on the grounds that the applicants arrived from Serbia, which is to be considered a safe third country, but the application could have been submitted at least.
But they went on. In the summer of 2016, the Fidesz majority adopted another amendment which provided that in case a person, found within an 8-kilometer zone of the border fence, cannot prove their lawful stay they shall be removed by the police to the external side of the border-fence. Not to the border-crossing: he or she shall be accompanied to one of the gates built-in the border-fence, and through that gate, is pushed into the Serbian void. All this without being submitted to any kind of control or identity check or being granted the opportunity to request asylum. In March 2017 this rule was extended to the whole territory of the country. Ever since pushbacks have been carried out on a massive scale. You can read two kinds of news today on the website of the Police next to each other. One: we help those in need fleeing from Ukraine. Two: today 150 persons fleeing have been removed from the country. Those two realities are happening in Hungary at the very same time.
Are they, too, war refugees?
At least a part of them likely, but that is completely irrelevant from the perspective of the Hungarian authorities. They are not asked any questions. A family from Yemen – a single mother and her children – flew here by using a fake passport because they had no other means to flee civil war. At the airport they immediately notified the police that they seek asylum. That very night they were transported down to the Serbian border and the whole family, including a little girl with visible disabilities, were released to the void. The student visa of a young Afghan guy who has been studying here for years has expired. After the siege of Kabul he tried to apply for asylum at the National Directorate-General for Aliens Policing at Budafoki út. The police were called upon him and he was immediately transported to the Southern border.
At the same time the government decided that except for unaccompanied children under the age of 14, all persons should stay in the transit zone until a final decision is brought in their case. That is de facto detention. Less and less people were allowed to enter the transit zones. In the months prior to their closure in May 2020, hardly 4 or 5 persons per week. In a place where, in many cases, people were made to stay for more than one year in a metal container until a decision was brought in their case.
Probably they were meant to be delivered the message: do not even want to come here.
The whole procedure had an obvious purpose related to domestic politics: the government found a topic with which it could suitably tease its supporters, with which it could incite fear and use that before the next election campaign. But there was something else, too.
The field of asylum had become the laboratory of the illiberal state – it was that domain in which the government started to test how far it can go against Brussels; how quickly – or slowly, respectively – the institutional system, Member States, the Court of Justice of the European Union or the Commission react to violations of rights. Also, asylum had become such a toxic topic that for a long time no one dared to speak up against the events taking place over here.
A previously inconceivable woodworking with legal regulations started. At a certain point, the Hungarian government simply revoked the possibility of courts to overrule the decisions of asylum authorities – thereby rendering legal remedies completely void. A Syrian refugee entered the country in 2016, applied for asylum, that was rejected, the applicant turned to court, but the court had no other choice but to refer the case back to the authority, that rejected the application again, and so on and so forth for months, again and again. Our Syrian fellow-citizen was thus made to wait in the transit zone for years.
Until December 2019 it had not occurred that the Hungarian government would not execute a judgment of the Court of Justice of the European Union. However, that too was finally achieved in the case of pushbacks to Sebria, and Minister of Justice Varga referred the case directly to the Hungarian Constitutional Court to have it declared that CJEU decision in the case does not need to be executed.
But in May 2020 the CJEU, in a preliminary reference procedure, finally declared that people were unlawfully detained in transit zones, and as a response to this, the government closed this facilities.
The response of the government to the court decision was typical: instead of clarifying the legal situation, it put an end to the possibility of seeking asylum on the territory of Hungary, and it simply externalised the initation of asylum procedures to the embassies at Kyiv and Belgrade.
The situation that has existed ever since has really got Kafkaesque, and is, as a matter of course, unlawful. Those wishing to seek asylum must first request an appointment personally in one of the two embassies, and then make a declaration of intent. We have a client who had to wait 8 months only for the appointment. At the personal appointment people must fill in a form including questions irrelevant for the assessment of refugee status. If the applicant does not speak English or Hungarian, that is his or her problem.
After that, the embassy sends the form to Budapest, there the asylum authority – the National Directorate-General for Aliens Policing – should examine it within two months and send a suggestion – not a decision, but a suggestion – to the embassy, where it is decided upon whether they provide the applicant with a document authorizing a one-time entry.
In case persons receive a positive answer, they should make it to the border as they can, from which point they are transported to Budapest, where finally the asylum application can be filed, and they are placed in the only still operating open refugee camp in Vámosszabadi.
What happened to the other camps?
If you start preventing people from the possibility of merely filing asylum applications, there is no one to provide accommodation for, so what use would refugee camps have? The biggest in Debrecen was already shut down in 2016.
How many people could apply for asylum in Hungary by that means through the two embassies?
Between May 2020, the introduction of the embassy system, until 31 December 2021 altogether 12 (twelve) people were allowed to file an application by that means. We have no data concerning this year yet.
Meanwhile only between 1 January and 19 March this year a total of 17 425 push-backs have taken place on the Serbian border. That does not mean the same number of persons, as they are thrown back to Serbia without any identification, which can happen to the same person even several times, but the proportions are telling.
So how is the legal situation of the hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians arriving going to be regulated? How can they receive protection?
On 24 February 2022, as usual, very late at night, a government decree was published in the Official Gazette providing that every Ukrainian national and every third-country national legally staying on the territory of Ukraine shall benefit of a temporary protection for a period of one year within Hungary.
Temporary protection status was first introduced in the legal practice after the war in Yugoslavia. Its essential characteristic is that it is not based on individual assessment, but qualification is defined by categories set by the legislator. In this case, every person shall qualify who is a Ukrainian national or third-country national legally staying in Ukraine. They are granted temporary protection lasting for a certain period by means of an automatic procedure. Children are granted the possibility of schooling, everyone is entitled to benefit from health care services, and, in principle also to get accommodation and daily meals. Had the government not taken this step, Ukrainians should have been treated the same way as the student from Afghanistan or the family from Yemen.
The heart of the problem lies in the fact that the asylum authority simply was not present at the border, at railway stations or anywhere where these people showed up in the country. It has not been possible to execute the government decree for weeks now, because most people do not have a clue about the procedure for temporary protection. That was true for the Ukrainians, but also for the Nigerian student who fled Kharkiv, or the opposition activist from Belarus who fled to Ukraine after the demonstrations at Minsk.
We have received several thousands of messages from those fleeing who do not know what to do, how to regularise their legal status. They have not received any information from the Hungarian State. After several days of chaos, finally, registration points were started to be set up in Fehérgyarmat and Vásárosnamény, where administrative work was carried out by different authorities – police, civil protection service, or the asylum authority.
At these points, people arriving there were issued a temporary residence permit valid for 30 days and which serves the mere purpose that those people are not removed by force from the country. Practice has shown that these people have received accommodation – typically from municipalities, – however, they do not benefit from the protection of the Hungarian State.
Then, on 8 March, a new decree entered into force: as from that date, the government grants the possibility to apply for temporary protection only for Ukrainian nationals.
How many people have applied for such status so far?
According to most recent data since the beginning of the invasion 4444 persons have applied for temporary protection, while more than 300 000 people arrived to the country from Ukraine. [The data reflect the situation on March 22.] That means 1,5 % of those coming from Ukraine requested protection. While health care services, schooling, accommodation, and meals are provided to them.
I assume, it is because the authorities do not really want them to stay here. Nevertheless, by having introduced temporary protection it can be demonstrated towards the European Union that everything is alright here, we have legally ensured the due conditions for the reception of people fleeing Ukraine.
Indeed, many people obviously consider Hungary as a transit country, but I assume, a great part of refugees do not want to move away from Ukraine, because they have relatives there, or they hope to return home soon.
It is so much so, that the majority of people – and that is a natural human reaction – is in a state of total denial. From over here, it might be obvious for us that this war will not end within two days, but one does not let his or her home-country go so easily. One of our colleagues tried to explain to a Ukrainian citizen in Szabolcs county how to apply for temporary protection. That woman almost broke down in tears saying that she does not want anything as she would return to Kyiv in a couple of days.
Is it just a matter of providing information?
It is a matter of political will. The organization of staff, accommodation, and interpreters, the establishment of temporary protection registration points, and so on – those are matters of logistics.
Nobody explains to the Roma from the Zakarpattya region who are put up in small villages in Szabolcs county that that status exists, and that they should make it somehow to Nyíregyháza to submit the application. Where are the information materials? Where are the authorities who try to get that information through to the people?
And in the meantime, the scope of persons eligible for temporary protection has been narrowed down retroactively. Students studying in Ukraine, or a Belarusian activist shall not be eligible anymore for that kind of protection. The Indian students for whom the Hungarian government sent a charter plane have returned home – the 30-day temporary residence permit was perfectly sufficient for them. However, I very much hope that Belarusian activists will not be sent home by the government by planes from Minsk.
How has the status of Hungarian citizens living abroad been regularized?
We tolled the bells especially because of that after 24 February. Anyone who has Hungarian nationality, as a matter of course, cannot request protection from Hungary. Accordingly, people with Ukrainian-Hungarian dual citizenship for several weeks were in a situation that allowed them to stay in the country for an unspecified period of time, but they received zero assistance, and were entitled to no support whatsoever. The government decree of 8 March finally declared that Hungarian citizens who have a permanent residence address in Ukraine shall also be entitled to the same services as those receiving temporary protection.
What would have happened at the railway stations if there had been no volunteers or NGOs to assist people arriving?
Something similar as in 2015, although it was clear from the beginning that the government would not let this crisis go so out of hand as seven years ago. However, it was exactly logistics preparedness and experience that were lacking to sufficiently coordinate state organs and authorities. It is backfiring now that there is no meaningful asylum system in Hungary.
It is obvious that they want to help now. The members of the Charity Council have received substantial funds, and normal conditions have also been established with time. But it is impossible to outsource everything to Caritas, the Maltese, or the Reformed Church. Those are the state’s tasks and responsibilities. It is impossible to rely on volunteers in every aspect.
The only authority who is authorized to carry out asylum procedures is not present at the border.
This war has been lasting for almost one month now but up to present day, the persons fleeing still do not receive any information material at the border, neither in Ukrainian nor in English, but not even in Hungarian that would help in orientating and informing these people.
On Monday, a new facility was opened in the BOK Hall in Budapest where, in principle, the asylum authority will be present. But whether this will bring about a substantial change will become clear only within a few days. It is certainly true that in recent weeks it has been again simple Hungarian citizens, NGOs assisting on the field, church organizations, and volunteers who have carried out the work which is otherwise obviously the responsibility of the state.