Welcome to Hungary, welcome to Europe

In Hungary, the European Union’s policy of “securing the borders” finds expression in Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s support of a “homogenous culture” without immigrants. Consequently, asylum-seekers and refugees who are fleeing war, poverty and ecological catastrophe are forced to struggle with an opaque asylum process and inhumane conditions in the refugee camps run by the Hungarian Government.

Our bus parked just in front of the open camp, a former Soviet Army base in which children living with their families play amid the barbed wire and steel frames of renewed garrison posts. Under the impassive eyes of the policemen who were there to ensure our safety throughout the day, a group of Jobbik protesters came to provoke us into creating a media scandal: the dangerous refugees who wanted to rape their women and steal their property were now being visited by foreigners and God knows who else from Budapest. We turned our backs to them, refusing to play their game, until finally they gave up and left.

Grassroots resistance

We had been planning this protest against the detention and subsequent inhumane treatment of asylum seekers in the refugee camps in Hungary for about a month. Together with the people living in the camp, we marched from the gate of the reception centre (1) until we reached a point outside its grey walls where the detained refugees in the closed-off building inside the perimeter of the camp could see us. At that distance we could just barely see them waving their hands in support from behind steel-barred windows.

The date of the demonstration had finally been set for the 17th of May, a Saturday, and we began a media campaign (2) to reach out to as many Hungarians as possible. A legal permit from the local authorities was secured, a bus to transport both members and sympathizers was hired, and the night before we were writing large banners with “No one is Illegal” in Arabic, Farsi, Hungarian, English and other languages spoken by those who live in the camp. Instead of a performance fraught with drama, we planned the day as a celebration of solidarity between refugees and non-refugees; we brought musical instruments with us to play and dance together, and we also brought one of the most sought-after goods in the camp – books in various languages collected from donations in Budapest. We brought tea and fruits, and Food not Bombs Budapest (3) donated food for us to organize an ad-hoc afternoon picnic.

And who are we? We are MigSzol (4), the Migrant Solidarity Group of Hungary; a grassroots group fighting for the recognition and enforcement of the basic human rights of migrants in Hungary. We are a non-hierarchical, inclusive group that was founded by refugees and activists in November 2012 during our struggle to raise awareness of the poor living conditions in Hungary’s refugee camps. As the situation for migrants in the country worsened with changes in the state integration policy that put refugees with recognized status in danger of homelessness, and a powerful racist media campaign condoned – if not supported – by the ruling party Fidesz, the group consolidated itself to wage a along-term struggle for human rights of all migrants. Currently, MigSzol comprises refugees, asylum-seekers, Hungarian citizens and expatriates, as well as foreigners studying at Budapest’s ELTE and CEU universities.

Detention, Hungarian style

In June 2013, new legal provisions allowed for the detention of asylum seekers in Hungary. This means that people forced to flee their home country are often jailed upon arrival in Hungary. Recent reports (5) by the Hungarian Helsinki Committee and index.hu (6) confirmed what we already know from our regular visits to Debrecen (and wrote about in our blog (7): detention is an arbitrary and schematic decision applied with extreme prejudice, regardless of individual circumstances (in April 2014, over 40% of adult male first-time asylum-seekers were detained). Conditions inside detention are also alarming: detainees are beaten in the Debrecen detention center, they are under constant supervision by armed guards apart from when they are arbitrarily put in solitary confinement, leading some of the detainees to attempt suicide.

Arbitrary detention of migrants is a practice often extended to entire families, without clear rationale. In autumn 2014, the majority of people housed in the Debrecen refugee camp were comprised of Kosovar families who were detained by police whilst on their way to wealthier countries such as Germany or Austria. Commonly these are large families of 4-5 members with children between the ages of 2 to 13 years old. As far as can be ascertained, families just arrived in Debrecen camp are put directly in the cells of the detention centre for a period of up to two weeks, and then released to the reception centre whilst their asylum applications are processed. Needless to say, international law does not recognize economic causes of migration as dire enough to warrant protected status, therefore an applicant from Kosovo has practically no chance of being granted asylum.

Among the most grievous problems inside Hungarian reception centers are the constant presence of bedbugs (most children have bite marks on their bodies) (8), lack of decent food or sufficient money to procure it (refugees until recently received a specified allowance), and a generally tense atmosphere between asylum-seekers due to inadequate allocation of resources, over-crowding, and lack of activity. People housed in refugee camps in Hungary also lack proper health care facilities and services as doctors inside the camps can legally do little more than give out aspirin if their patient’s condition is not life-threatening. There have been cases in which people suffering from dental problems (swollen gums, nerve necrosis etc.) were denied antibiotic medicine, and given aspirin. If the patient’s condition worsened, the only course of medical action available was outright extraction.

There is also little space for children to play in the camps, and they are by far the most vulnerable to disease in these overpopulated environments. Their mothers are reduced to boiling their clothes and beddings in 60C hot water in an effort to rid themselves of bed bugs.

Much of this information comes from eyewitness testimonies of people who were eventually released from detention into open camps, as the lack of transparency with regard to decision-making on migrant issues and developments in the living conditions in Hungary’s refugee camps is a long-standing issue. Access inside the camps, especially in the case of the detention centers such as Nyirbator and Bekescsaba, is heavily restricted from outsiders whether they be journalists, civil rights advocates, or ordinary taxpayers. This shroud of secrecy is partially lifted by communications that groups such as MigSzol establish with refugees and asylum-seekers living in the open camps. But with the exception of NGOs providing social services for people in the camps, organizations such as the Hungarian Helsinki Committee (9), Menedek Association (10), and the Cordelia Foundation (11), it is rare for someone outside the immigration system to be permitted to see how migrants are treated or to see with any transparency how applications for asylum are processed.

The failure of nation-states

Refugees and asylum-seekers are today one of the groups most vulnerable to the abuse of power or negligence at the hands of the State due to their effective exclusion from participation in the politics of their home country caused by war, environmental catastrophe, or economic precarity. The asylum seekers’ flight from their home country renders them stateless, no longer possessing the basic human rights of which the State is the guarantor. That is, if the State from which they hailed wasn’t already overcome by criminal political regimes, economic deprivation, or structural adjustments imposed by the European Union.

As we witness in the news coverage of the asylum seekers losing their lives traversing the Mediterranean, and while reading the anti-refugee rhetoric of EU governments prevalent in today’s mainstream media (12), it is quite clear that once lost, the protection of membership in a political community is very difficult to regain. Formally, the rights of refugees and asylum-seekers are recognized in international law, but in practice host countries are extremely reluctant to receive refugees as a political force within their own borders. Ironically, this rejection has many elements consistent with the refugee’s experience of persecution for ethnic or religious reasons; we all know that ever since September 2001, islamophobic discourse has become not only an accepted, but a mainstream political discourse, rendering all those who look “like a Muslim” subject to disproportionate ID checks, humiliating treatment at airports, and everyday racism. This discrepancy between a humanistic moral discourse employed by countries towards the plight of refugees and asylum-seekers, and the frequently inhumane “containment” practices effected along their borders is one of the most blatant failures of the contemporary democratic system.

At the heart of the matter is that the idea that the nation cannot remain unchanged in a world characterized by an accelerated development of communication and transport systems for a global flow of capital, goods, and – whether desirable in the eyes of the state or not – people. Invariably, states playing the game of capitalist economic development are confronted with the issue of opening up their borders to people seeking entrance to their political community, with complex social and economic dilemmas and consequences in tow. The European Union’s discourse of “unity” and “free movement of goods, capital, and people” obscures most of these problems from the public agenda; the contradictions reach grotesque dimensions as, for example, in the case where the President of the EU Parliament publicly mourns the tragedy of Lampedusa (13) whilst the President of the EU Commission promises “A New Start for Europe” (14) that includes “securing EU’s borders” with a corresponding multi-million euro increase in funding to its border guard agency FRONTEX. In the case of the Lampedusa strategy, those who passed away were granted posthumous Italian citizenship, while many survivors ended up in detention. Welcome to Europe.

Who do we label illegal

“In certain media reports I see illegal immigrants holding up a sign reading ‘I’m not a crime’’. But they really are a crime. There are rules that tell you how you can legally enter a country, and if somebody does not follow them, then he violates the law. So the kind of thinking excusing such activities based on some kind of moral grounds is a completely liberal attitude in today’s Europe and profoundly differs from our understanding of the matter”.
– Viktor Orban, Prime Minister of Hungary, August 2014 (Source: www.budapestbeacon.com) (15)

In the context of international migration, Hungary is often spoken of as a “transit country” for refugees and asylum-seekers on their way to wealthier destinations such as Germany or the Scandinavian states (16). But in practice, Hungary is a “destination country” used as a repository where these wealthier states deport their influx of migrants under the Dublin regulations. The recent high number of refugees and asylum-seekers coming to Hungary have for the most part been fleeing wars in Syria and Afghanistan, as well as poverty in Kosovo. Once in the country, they are routinely and arbitrarily housed in camps with poor living conditions scattered all over Hungary, and some even put behind bars, in detention centers. What is going on with refugees in Hungary, the geographical Central-East European corner of our precious Schengen area, is of course only one aspect of the nationalist thinking that exists in this country. Following the ruling party Fidesz’ reorganization of the Hungarian electoral map, and silent removal of the word “republic” from the official name of the country in the Constitution (17), Hungary appears to function more as an autocracy than the democracy its leaders proclaim. Apart from placing restrictions on the media, adopting contradictory economic policies, and reorganizing the country’s education system, the Hungarian government has also waged a war on those who fall outside the imagined nation: that is, the poor and the non-white. Examples include the recently legalized racial segregation in the education systemx (18), the abolishment of unemployment benefits (19) by 2018 (to be replaced by notorious “public work”), and of course the criminalization of homelessness in the constitution. It was in this environment, then, that Hungary saw an 800% increase in asylum applications in 2013, and by the end of 2014 the nominal figure of applications exceeded 40 000 for that year (20). We may not be surprised, then, that the government merely extends its racially discriminatory policies to asylum seekers and refugees.

In the past it may have been easier for the European Union to turn a blind eye to Fidesz’ policies in Hungary, but now is the time for a wake up call and severe political and economic pressure on the country. The vast amount of individual testimonies from refugees that have been subjected to inhumane treatment, and expert reports such as the recent damning Council of Europe report (21) on human rights cannot be ignored any longer. Not just for the sake of the refugees, the Roma, and people who are homeless, but for the sake of the “imagined” white majority of Europe: by excluding those different from us, we are laying the foundation for a future of fear and hatred.

1 The official designation for the “open camp” or that part of the camp from which one is free to go out within a pre-established daily timeframe
2 http://www.migszol.com/press-releases/stop- detention-in- hungary-invitation- to-protest- on-may- 17th
3 http://foodnotbombs.blog.hu/
4 http://www.migszol.com/who-we- are.html
5 http://helsinki.hu/wp-content/uploads/HHC- Hungary-info- update-May- 2014.pdf
6 http://index.hu/belfold/2014/05/05/bantalmazzak_a_fogvatartottakat_a_debreceni_menekulttaborban/
7 http://www.migszol.com/blog/living-conditions- in-the- debrecen-refugee- camp
8 http://www.migszol.com/blog/bedbugs-crawling- in-debrecen- becoming-a- serious-issue- of-health
9 http://helsinki.hu/en/
10 http://menedek.hu/en/about-us
11 http://www.cordelia.hu/index.php/en/
12 http://www.euractiv.com/sections/global-europe/britain- opposes-operations- save-migrants-
13 http://www.europarl.europa.eu/the-president/en/press/press_release_speeches/speeches/speeches-
2014/speeches-2014- october/html/lampedusa– 3-october- 2014– -speech- by-martin- schulz– president-of- the-european- parliament
14 http://ec.europa.eu/priorities/docs/pg_en.pdf
15 http://budapestbeacon.com/public-policy/orban- attacks-liberal- eu-immigration- policies-annual-
16 http://helsinki.hu/wp-content/uploads/angol_2013.pdf
17 http://www.polgeonow.com/2012/01/hungary-shortens- official-name.html
18 http://www.amnesty.org/en/news/governments-urged- end-segregation- roma-schools- after-european-
court-rules- against-hungary- 2013-
19 http://budapestbeacon.com/public-policy/work- or-starve- hungary-to- phase-out- unemployment-
assistance-by- 2018/
20 Out of the total of 42.777 asylum applications submitted in 2014 to the Hungarian Office of Immigration, 240 were granted refugee status, 236 subsidiary protection (persons that haven’t received refugee status benefit from this in case they risk serious injury by returning to their country of origin), and 7 were awarded a one-year refugee status subject to re-evaluation with possible extension. More information is available (only in Hungarian) from the website of the country’s Central Bureau of Statistics (KSH), and the numbers quoted are available at http://www.ksh.hu/docs/hun/xstadat/xstadat_evkozi/e_wnvn001.html
21 https://wcd.coe.int/com.instranet.InstraServlet?command=com.instranet.CmdBlobGet&InstranetImage=26 58043&SecMode=1&DocId=2218468&Usage=2