Budapest, Hungary – This is not the first country that comes to mind when one thinks of refugees.
But the nation sits on the front line of the Schengen Area – meaning that once one is inside Hungarian borders, one can move freely among the 26 European countries that comprise the area. This makes it a popular entry point for asylum-seekers and other migrants.
However, recent controversies have brought attention to the central European nation’s treatment of asylum-seekers and, many believe they have caused the government to launch a new refugee support and integration system this month.
The old system provided little monetary or housing support, and it detained asylum-seekers along with immigrants who crossed Hungarian borders illegally. It was criticised by the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and Amnesty International.
The frustration culminated in June 2013, when a group of refugees fled to Germany in protest against Hungary’s asylum regime.
The past system was clearly dysfunctional, and the government saw that.
In their statement concerning the departure, the group said its actions were in protest against the “increasing hopelessness for our integration prospects in Hungary”, and the possibility of being placed in homeless shelters and separated from their children once their time in the Bicske reception centre ended.
In January, Hungary announced a comprehensive new immigration policy, including an integration contract for those who have received refugee status. “The past system was clearly dysfunctional, and the government saw that,” András Kováts, director of the Hungarian association for migrants, Menedék, told Al Jazeera.
The new plan provides roughly $400 per individual each month for their first six months in Hungary.
“The level of funding is also highest during the initial period, after which it is gradually reduced every month, thus helping to achieve self-care,” said a spokesman from the Office of Immigration and Nationality.
Abdul Ghassan, a Syrian refugee who has been in Hungary for eight months, said the monetary support under the new plan was a great help. “Before, you had to choose between smoking and eating. Now, with the new law, you can do both.”
There are drawbacks to the plan, though. Refugees must have submitted individual applications by March 1, and there is concern that many were unable to meet this deadline due to a lack of legal means. “The problem is the fate of those who are the first to apply under the system,“ Kováts said. “However, in regards to the new scheme, we are optimistic. We believe there is a way of sorting it out.“
Detention as deterrent
Though things appear to be improving, many concerns remain – especially over the issue of detention.
In 2012, Hungary’s detention of asylum seekers was found to be in violation of Article 5(1) of the European Convention of Human Rights by the European Court of Human Rights. The ruling caused Hungary to temporarily halt its detention of asylum seekers.
Following the change, the number of asylum applications jumped from approximately 1,000 to more than 18,000 in 2012-2013. But because of this sizable increase, Hungary reinitiated its detention policy in the second half of 2013. The detention of asylum-seekers is legal under a new EU directive adopted last summer, but it is meant be used as a last resort.
“Roughly 30 percent of asylum-seekers are in detention. It’s actually quite common,” said Márta Pardavi, co-chair of the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, an organisation that provides legal counsel to refugees. “The motivation was to deter people from coming here.”
The country has two closed asylum detention facilities, Nyírbátor in the northeast and Békéscsaba in the south, and another inside an open refugee reception centre named Debrecen.
Pardavi expressed worry on another issue – the detention of children. “Over the past three weeks we’ve visited the three main asylum detention facilities and we saw a number of people where it’s questionable, to say the least, that they’re over 18.”
Countries that are further away from the frontline of immigration trends can deal with their caseload better.
Shahzad Ali, an Afghan refugee who was detained for six months in Nyírbátor in 2012, corroborates Pardavi’s claim. “When I was apprehended by the authorities I was 16 years old,” Ali told Al Jazeera.
Before he was placed in Nyírbátor, Ali had to fill out an application for asylum. He alleged that he informed the asylum authority of his age. In response to the claim, the Office of Immigration and Nationality said that “when the asylum authority has reasonable ground to assume that [the asylum-seeker] is not a minor [they will order] a medical expert to determine [their] age”.
Ali said his exam took place after two months of detention. “The doctor told me to strip, then turn around. He said I was 18.”
A European problem
These are substantial problems, but Hungary is not the only country in which they occur. EU law requires that member states receive refugees, but each country is allowed to develop its own policy in regards to their reception.
“Greece… in 2010 received 90 percent of irregular migration into the European Union. It was a huge number,” said Magdalena Majkowska-Tomkin, the chief of mission of the Hungarian branch of the International Organisation for Migration. “In the case of Bulgaria, it didn’t seem to have been very well-prepared to receive such large numbers of asylum seekers.”
Under the Dublin II Regulation, EU member states must deport migrants who have been unsuccessful in their bids for asylum, back to their country of entry. However, in light of the considerable criticism Bulgaria has received in recent months, the UNHCR recommended that EU member states halt deportations to the Balkan state.
“Countries that are further away from the frontline of immigration trends can deal with their caseload better,” Majkowska-Tomkin said. “There are huge disparities in the numbers of asylum applicants countries receive and what resources they have.”
Though nations such as Germany and the Netherlands currently admit more refugees and asylum seekers, they are better equipped to deal with the burden.
“There is this trend to make Europe the same in terms of asylum conditions,” said Majkowska-Tomkin. “But realistically it isn’t there at the moment.”
Follow Creede Newton on Twitter: @CreedeNewton