(Budapest) – Migrants at Hungary’s border are being summarily forced back to Serbia, in some cases with cruel and violent treatment, without consideration of their claims for protection, Human Rights Watch said today.
New laws and procedures adopted in Hungary over the past year force all asylum seekers who wish to enter Hungary to do so through a transit zone on Hungarian territory, to which the government applies a legal fiction claiming that persons in the zone have not yet ‘entered’ Hungary. Human Rights Watch found that while some vulnerable groups are transferred to open reception facilities inside Hungary, since May 2016 the Hungarian government has been summarily dismissing the claims of most single men without considering their protection needs.
“Hungary is breaking all the rules for asylum seekers transiting through Serbia, summarily dismissing claims and sending them back across the border,” said Lydia Gall, Balkans and Eastern Europe researcher at Human Rights Watch. “People who cross into Hungary without permission, including women and children, have been viciously beaten and forced back across the border.”
Restrictions on the numbers of people who can the enter the transit zones mean that hundreds of migrants and asylum seekers, including women and children, are stuck in no-man’s land in very poor conditions waiting to enter the transit zones. Human Rights Watch found that asylum seekers and other migrants who try to enter informally without going through the transit zone are forced back to Serbia, often violently, without any consideration of their protection needs.
Human Rights Watch interviewed 41 asylum seekers and migrants, as well as members of a nongovernmental group, staff of UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency, human rights lawyers, activists, staff at the Hungarian Office of Immigration and Nationality, and Hungarian police. Those interviewed included three men who had been returned to Serbia from the transit zones after their claims were ruled inadmissible without any substantive consideration of their asylum claims or adequate time to prepare an appeal.
Human Rights Watch also interviewed 12 people who were apprehended on Hungarian territory after trying to enter irregularly who said they had entered Hungary in groups including women and children. They said they were brutally beaten and abused by officials and then pushed back to Serbia. They said that officials often used spray that caused burning sensations to their eyes, set dogs on them, kicked and beat them with batons and fists, put plastic handcuffs on them and forced them through small openings in the razor wire fence, causing further injuries.
One man who had been stopped inside Hungary in a group of 30 to 40 people, including women and children, said they were beaten for two hours: “I haven’t even seen such beating in the movies. Five or six soldiers took us one by one to beat us. They tied our hands with plastic handcuffs on our backs. They beat us with everything, with fists, kicks and batons. They deliberately gave us bad injuries.”
Another member of the group, who still had visible injuries 16 days later, said the police set dogs on the group, causing him to fall, and that a police officer either kicked or hit him in the face as he lay on the ground.
On May 25, the UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR, expressed public concern about reports of pushbacks of asylum seekers at the Hungarian border, in some cases involving violence, and called on Hungarian authorities to investigate.
The Hungarian Interior and Defense Ministries should investigate allegations of abuse implicating their officials and a civil militia that also patrols parts of the border and hold those responsible to account, Human Rights Watch said.
Hungary built a razor wire fence to keep migrants out in September 2015 and two transit zones on its border with Serbia to which it initially returned some people after the government in July declared Serbia a safe third country that asylum seekers and migrants could be returned to. However, under a bilateral readmission agreement with Hungary, Serbia does not accept any returns except for its own citizens and people from Kosovo.
From late September to May, there were few if any actual returns enforced, in part due to an opinion by Hungary’s Supreme Court that stated that individual asylum determinations should be made even in cases where the authorities invoked the safe third country principle. But the court withdrew its opinion in March, clearing the way for asylum seekers to be removed from transit zones to Serbia without consideration of the merits of their claims. To date, Hungarian authorities have returned 13 non-Serbian or Kosovar asylum seekers to Serbia from the transit zones without informing Serbian authorities.
Members of vulnerable groups who are moved into reception centers may still have their claims rejected without any substantive consideration. A cap on daily admissions to the two transit zones, currently at 15 per zone, means that hundreds of asylum seekers are stranded outside the transit zones on both Hungarian and Serbian territory.
On June 8, approximately 550 people were stuck outside the two transit zones in Tompa and Roszke, including 200 children and 160 women, without adequate humanitarian assistance such as shelter, showers, and proper food. A few portable toilets were finally installed by Serbian authorities at the Roszke transit zone in early June.
In June, parliament adopted a law that allows Hungarian border officials to summarily return asylum seekers and migrants apprehended up to eight kilometers inside Hungarian territory to Serbia. The law entered into effect on July 5 and according to a government press release issued the same day, authorities dispatched an additional 6,000 police to the border areas who caught and escorted 151 irregular border crossers back to Serbia during the 12 first hours of the law being in force. On July 5, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights also expressed concern that the law may result in law enforcement agencies not respecting the human rights of migrants and the violation of international law by expelling them by force without any legal procedure.
Human Rights Watch wrote to Hungary’s Office of Immigration and Nationality (OIN), and to the Hungarian Interior and Defense Ministries, on June 13 informing them of these research findings and requesting comment but has yet to receive a response.
Available evidence suggests that Serbia should not be considered a safe third country, meaning it is not a country in which an individual asylum seeker has protected rights in line with the Refugee Convention. Human Rights Watch has documented serious abuse of asylum seekers and migrants and shortcomings in the asylum system, including lack of protection for unaccompanied children. Of 583 asylum applications in 2015, a majority from Syrians, only 16 people received refugee status, and 14 subsidiary protection, a low recognition rate in comparison with the 97 percent rate for Syrian asylum seekers in the EU. Due to the flaws in Serbia’s asylum system, the UNHCR’s current guidance is that Serbia should not be considered a safe third country and urges states not to return people to Serbia.
On December 10, 2015, the European Commission initiated infringement proceedings against Hungary with respect to its asylum legislation stating that it “in some instances, [is] incompatible with EU law.” At this writing, no further information about the proceedings has been made public.
EU member states should refrain from returning any asylum seekers to Hungary until it ensures meaningful access to asylum, including adequate time for a substantive in-country appeal and should halt violent and other summary returns of asylum seekers to Serbia, Human Rights Watch said.
“The abuse of asylum seekers and migrants runs counter to Hungary’s obligations under EU law, refugee law, and human rights law,” Gall said. “The European Commission should use its enforcement powers to press Budapest to comply with its obligation under EU law to provide meaningful access to asylum and fair procedures for those at its borders and on its territory.”
Summary Returns from Transit Zones
A July 2015 decree by the Hungarian government designated EU and candidate countries, including Serbia, safe third countries, which meant that they consider asylum seekers’ rights are protected in line with refugee law in those countries. As a consequence, all asylum claims submitted by people transiting into Hungary through Serbia or in Hungarian transit zones are considered prima facie inadmissible and subject to an accelerated procedure following which, according to Hungarian rules, they can be returned to Serbia.
The restrictive border regime began in September, when the government established the transit zones and made irregular border crossing a criminal offense. As of July 5, 2016, Hungary had prosecuted 2,879 asylum seekers and migrants for irregular crossing since September 2015, and continues to do so.
Those who do not apply for asylum are transferred to immigration detention centers pending deportation — in the majority of cases to Serbia. However, because of the limitation on accepting returns under the bilateral readmission agreement between Serbia and Hungary, migrants risk being kept in immigration detention indefinitely or until Serbia decides to accept them.
Those allowed into the transit zones from Serbia for processing, mostly single males, have their claims determined by the Office of Immigration and Nationality (OIN) under an eight-day fast-track procedure. However Human Rights Watch research suggests that in practice the OIN deems their cases inadmissible within a day, and often within an hour. If applicants appeal their rejections (which they must do within a seven-day time limit), a court has eight more days to determine their appeal. During the appeal, they are kept in the transit zones. Human Rights Watch was told by lawyers that the appeal period is insufficient to adequately gather information for an effective appeal.
Hungary maintains that although the transit zones are on Hungarian territory, people in them have not yet ‘entered’ Hungary, so they can be removed from them, and effectively returned to Serbia without informing the Serbian authorities. In the cases of people admitted to Hungary, however, any removal would necessitate coordination between Hungarian and Serbian authorities based on the bilateral readmission agreement.
Human Rights Watch visited the Roszke and Tompa transit zones on April 7 and interviewed asylum seekers who had been there for up to 28 days, the maximum time they may be held in the transit zones. Asylum seekers there are held in makeshift barracks without means of communicating with the outside world. While they are technically allowed to leave the transit zones voluntarily, leaving before the complete asylum process—including the appeal—terminates the asylum procedure.
Delays in processing and adjudicating asylum appeals mean that finalizing the asylum procedure in the transit zones within 28 days is not always possible. In those cases, the law requires that asylum seekers be transferred to another asylum facility. These are usually open reception centers on Hungarian territory. This raises questions about why they are required to remain in the transit zones in the first place.
Until late April, appeals courts quashed OIN inadmissibility decisions, instructing the agency to conduct in-depth assessments on the merits of the asylum claims based on the Supreme Court opinion. The court said that if the asylum system in a third country is overburdened, that country may not be able to guarantee the rights of asylum seekers, in which case such countries cannot be considered safe in the context of asylum.
But in March, the court withdrew its opinion, basing this decision on alleged new circumstances of asylum and migration in Hungary. Since early May, appeal courts have upheld inadmissibility decisions in at least 13 cases, opening the way for people to be summarily returned to Serbia from the transit zones without any substantive consideration of their asylum claims.
Accounts by Asylum Seekers Returned to Serbia
Human Rights Watch interviewed three asylum seekers, single males from Afghanistan and Iran, whom the Hungarian authorities in early May returned from the Roszke transit zone in Hungary to Serbia without informing the Serbian authorities. They said they were allowed into the transit zone after periods ranging from one night to 45 days outside the zone. Once there, they said, they were told to sign papers they did not understand and their asylum claims were rejected within a few hours. Human Rights Watch identified the papers they were told to sign as inadmissibility decisions made by an OIN official within an hour after the person was allowed into the zone.
The three said that authorities did not adequately inform them about the procedure nor about their right to appeal. They said the interpreter told them they could appeal by writing on a piece of paper that they did not agree with the OIN decision, which they did. After 13, 15 and 17 days, respectively, the appeals court upheld the inadmissibility decisions, and officials returned the three men to Serbia through a door in the fence inside the Roszke transit zone.
“Nasratullah,” 21, from Afghanistan, told Human Rights Watch that he had waited outside the Roszke transit zone for 20 days before finally being admitted:
When I came in [to the transit zone] the translator gave me 19 papers to sign…They didn’t tell me what those papers are that I had to sign and they just asked me my name and where I am from. They [official person] told me I have to wait 27-28 days and then I can go inside Hungary to somewhere. There was a man in uniform, but I’m not sure if he was police or immigration, but he was an official person.
Nasratullah spent 15 days in the transit zone:
They [a person in uniform and interpreter] told me I can’t stay in Hungary and that I have to go back to Serbia. I asked what the problem is, but they said they don’t know anything, just that I have to go back to Serbia. They gave me some papers but didn’t explain what the papers were about. They just said that I’m not accepted and that I have to go. They told me I have five minutes to take my things and go.
“Ali,” 20, also from Afghanistan, said that after waiting 33 days in front of the Roszke transit zone, and spending 13 days inside, he was returned to Serbia:
They [OIN] didn’t ask me questions. They only asked my name and said I have to sign 19 papers. I didn’t speak to anyone from Immigration [OIN] after that. After 13 days they [OIN] came back to me and said the judge said I have to leave. They told me I have five minutes to leave and gave me some papers I couldn’t read. We were 13 people who were returned that day.
Ali was subsequently allowed into the Tompa transit zone, where his second asylum application was deemed inadmissible just hours after he was allowed into the zone. He spent 28 days waiting for the court to hear his appeal. As the procedure was not finalized within the maximum time allowed, he was transferred to an open reception facility on July 3 and continues to wait for the court to decide his appeal.
“Ehsan,” 28, from Iran, said he spent 17 days in the Roszke transit zone in early May before being given a negative decision:
They didn’t explain to me why or what my options were. They just said my decision was negative and that I have to go. They also gave me some papers. They [soldiers] opened the gate and sent me back to Serbia.
Delays in Accessing Transit Zones
Human Rights Watch documented lengthy waiting times for asylum seekers stranded outside the transit zones, including families with small children and babies and pregnant women, who waited to enter for several days, and single males, who waited for several weeks.
The Hungarian government in September 2015 initially capped the number allowed to enter each transit zone at 100 people a day, but over time lowered the cap to 50, then 30. The number is currently capped at 15 per transit zone per day.
Human Rights Watch noted a lack of sanitary facilities and even basic shelter for those stuck outside the transit zones and on both sides of the border with Serbia. Hungarian authorities failed to provide basic humanitarian assistance for these people and Serbia similarly has failed to provide organized aid besides a few toilets set up close to the Roszke transit zone. Aid is provided by international and national aid organizations, including Doctors Without Borders and UNHCR.
There appeared to be no systematic procedure to identify particularly vulnerable groups or an orderly procedure for allowing people into the zones based on time of arrival or other rational criteria. Asylum seekers told Human Rights Watch that admission appeared to be based on the degree to which the migrants could articulate their needs most forcefully to OIN officials.
“Mohammad,” 34, from Afghanistan, travelling with his wife and three children, ages 13, 4, and 20 months, described the poor conditions they endured for 13 days outside the Roszke transit zone on Hungarian territory: “We didn’t even have a tent and couldn’t take showers. We got very little food and it was mainly crackers from UNHCR and no baby items either.”
“Mariam,” a pregnant 27-year-old Syrian woman, and her husband and two children ages 5 and 3, had spent three nights outside the Roszke transit zone when Human Rights Watch met her. She described the arbitrary procedure:
“They pick families at random and only 20 people per day. First, there was some sort of order by arrival but a group came yesterday and they let them in today. Yet, we have waited longer. There is no system for lining up.”
Violent Pushbacks to Serbia
Human Rights Watch interviewed twelve people who were apprehended inside Hungarian territory after trying to enter irregularly and who said they were beaten and abused by people in uniform and then pushed back through the three-layer razor-wire fence to Serbia. Ten of those interviewed said uniformed men sprayed them with something that caused a burning sensation to their eyes, eleven said they were kicked or hit with fists and batons, and five said they were tied with plastic handcuffs before being taken back to the border and forced to cross back to Serbia.
Eleven of the twelve described being apprehended by people wearing uniforms and insignia consistent with those worn by Hungarian police and Hungarian military personnel. Hungarian police wear dark blue uniforms and sometimes grey coats. Hungarian military personnel wear camouflage uniforms. Several people had been pushed back more than once and were not able to identify those responsible in every incident.
A Hungarian civil militia, so called field guards, established by local authorities in the town of Asotthalom also operates along sections of the Hungary-Serbian border. The militia wear camouflage uniforms, are equipped with weapons, batons, torches, and gas spray and use vehicles with similar color and markings as Hungarian police vehicles. Currently, only five civil militia personnel operate in the Asotthalom border area, on a stretch of 25 kilometers. The similarities between the uniforms worn by army and field guards make it difficult to distinguish between them, particularly in dark and poor weather conditions, which raises the possibility that some of the abuses could have been carried out by civil militia.
Three men interviewed separately gave a consistent account of a particularly brutal incident involving people wearing uniforms on the night of May 11. They described the men as soldiers or police, although the civil militia, or field guards, wear similar uniforms. They said they were wearing dark blue and grey uniforms while some wore uniforms the color of tree trunks (brown and dark green). One man stated that he saw what he described as markings on the shoulders of some of the uniformed men.
“Farhad,” 34, from Iran, said:
We were about 30-40 people in the group, including women and children. It was at night and we crossed the fence and walked about two kilometers into Hungary when we were caught by a group of approximately 30 police and military – they wore different uniforms, some dark blue, some grey but covered in rain gear. It was difficult to see because of it being night and they lit torches in our faces. They encircled us and told us to sit down with hands on our heads staring down. We asked for help and to go to a camp. They didn’t say anything. Four or five of them took out some white powder spray and sprayed all of us, they even lifted our heads one by one to spray our faces. All except women and children, but they still inhaled it.
Next, according to Farhad, a near two-hour beating followed:
I haven’t even seen such beating in the movies. Five or six soldiers took us one by one to beat us. They tied our hands with plastic handcuffs on our backs. They beat us with everything, with fists, kicks and batons. They deliberately gave us bad injures. We asked why they are beating us but they just said go back to Serbia. We kept saying we want to go to a camp.
Farhad said that, as it was raining heavily and it was in the middle of the night, there was confusion during the beating. When he tried to protect a younger girl with his own body, despite being handcuffed, he said men in uniform threw him off the girl and asked why he protected her and then proceeded to beat him:
Instead of the girl, they started beating me. The soldiers were taking selfies and laughing at us. We were all angry about the beating but the selfies made us even angrier.
Ehsan, the 28-year-old from Iran, was also part of the group. He said:
They just kept beating us wherever they could reach. When they sat us down, we [single males] tried to protect the families by sitting around them…A police officer lifted my head up and sprayed white powder in my face at close range. I couldn’t breath and I couldn’t see. Those who tried to cover their eyes to protect themselves from the spray were beaten so as to force them not to cover their eyes and to inhale the powder. I could hear them protest and I could hear how they were beaten when doing so. We couldn’t see for another 30-40 minutes because our eyes were burning. They were still beating us while we suffered the spray. We sat like that on the ground enduring the beating for about 1 hour and 15 minutes.
Ehsan then described how men in uniform, keeping the men among the asylum seekers in plastic handcuffs, dragged and forced the group back to the fence:
Once we got to the fence, they started beating us again. All of a sudden, we saw vehicles and we thought that finally they will bring us to a camp. But instead, they just lifted the fence, beat and kicked us as they forced us to crawl through a small hole in the fence, which consists of three layers. There they took our cuffs off. There were some police on the other side of the fence but I don’t know what kind. They just told us to go back to Serbia…The ones who caught us used walkie talkies to communicate with the groups of police or soldiers on the other side of the fence. Once we got through the fence, the border officials on the other side also started beating us and kept telling us to go back to Serbia and kept pointing in that direction.
Human Rights Watch obtained a photograph taken shortly after the beating on May 11, showing Ehsan with a bleeding injury by his right eye. The photo markings showed that it was taken on May 11 at 04:23 a.m. Ehsan said:
I was the last in line to cross the fence back to Serbia. They let the dogs on me. There were three dogs. They had, but I didn’t see that so I tried to defend myself against them and I grabbed one dog which jumped on me by the collar. I fell to the ground trying to grab his collar and a police officer struck a blow to my face from the side. I was lying on the ground so I think he kicked my face or perhaps he hit me.
Human Rights Watch observed bruises on Ehsan’s right eye 16 days after the incident occurred.
Ali, the 20-year-old from Afghanistan, was in the same group. He said:
The police caught us in the jungle [forest]. There were 15 or 16 of them. They didn’t ask anything, didn’t say anything to us, they just started beating us with their batons. They beat all of us and they used pepper spray. While doing this they said “Welcome to Hungary” and they were laughing at us and taking selfies.
“Abdullah,” 26, from Afghanistan, said he was with eight other people when they were caught by uniformed men near a Hungarian village on May 23. The men forced them to run for about 20 minutes until they once again reached the border fence:
We were tired but if we lagged behind they would beat us with their batons to keep us going. They took us back to where we crossed the border and made us stop about 100 meters from the fence. About 30 police were gathered…They wore dark blue uniforms, there was also one in grey. They told us to sit and put our heads in our hands and not lift our heads to look around. But I managed to see that they brought two big spray canisters from the cars. They started beating us with batons while we sat and stared at the ground. Then they told us to stand up and run up to the fence and they kept beating us as we were running. We came about 10 meters from the fence and saw a small hole, full of razor-wire and sharp edges in three layers.
They brought plastic cuffs and tied our hands in front of our bodies. I was the first in line and all of a sudden a police officer came and sprayed my face. I couldn’t see as he made me crawl through the razor-wire, so I cut my leg and hands badly. After that, I was inside the layers of the fence when he started kicking the fence to make the razor injure me. He then kept kicking my butt to make me crawl faster through the fence. My eyes were full of tears and my hands cuffed in front of me. They swore and laughed at me during the whole time.
Human Rights Watch observed wounds on Abdullah’s right arm and injuries to his lower legs and thighs consistent with marks caused by batons and cuts from razor-wire.
Another Afghan man, “Zaid,” 19, described what happened when he crossed the border with a group in early May:
I entered the border…We were about 15 of us, including women and children…Ten minutes later about 20 army soldiers surrounded us and beat us. They put plastic handcuffs on me and threw me down on the ground and kicked me in the stomach, shoulder and head… They had four dogs without muzzles. One dog jumped on me but I managed to escape it. As I was lying on the ground, the soldiers used their batons to hit us on our legs and our heads. They didn’t say anything and we didn’t dare to say anything. After that, they brought us back to the fence, took our cuffs off and started pushing us through the fence and kicking us as we tried to crawl through the layers of razor-wire.
Unaccompanied children were among those abused at the border before being pushed back into Serbia by uniformed men. “Arsalan,” 15, from Afghanistan, said he had been twice violently sent back at the border. He described how his group of about 21 people were captured after crossing the fence:
The Hungarian police did not behave well…As we entered through a hole in the fence, the police started shouting in their own language. Seven of us managed to run ahead, including me, but fourteen were caught. I could hear them tell the police that they want to stay in Hungary, that they love Hungary but the police just told them, ‘We love Hungary, not you.’ The seven of us kept walking further into Hungary but were captured [by police] after about 9 or 10 hours. They [police] took us to the border. There was a door in the fence, a steel door. They [police] opened it and sprayed our faces. They pushed us through and said ‘No Hungary, just Serbia.’
“Faruz,” 17, from Afghanistan, said he crossed the border with a group on about May 24:
I was in a group of 15 people who crossed the fence. I ran fast for approximately 500 meters when the soldiers came. There were about four soldiers, and two dogs with muzzles. The dog jumped on me and knocked me over but it didn’t bite me. As I was lying there the soldiers beat me with a baton. When I tried to stand up they hit me on the arm and the shoulder and beat me back down. Then they told us to sit and take our heads in our hands. We sat like that for five minutes. Then they beat us again and told us to go back to Serbia. They dragged us back to the fence, lifted it and forced us to go through.
Human Rights Watch researchers carried out research in Hungary including in the Roszke and Tompa transit zones and in Serbia between April and May. Researchers conducted private and individual interviews with 41 asylum seekers and migrants of our choice. Each interviewee was informed of the purpose of the interview, its voluntary nature and the goal and public nature of our reports. They were told that they could end the interview at any time or decline to answer any specific questions. All migrants and asylum seekers gave their oral consent to participate in the interview. No interviewee received compensation for providing information. Pseudonyms have been used for all interviewees to protect their identities. Human Rights Watch also interviewed members of one nongovernmental group, UNHCR staff, human rights lawyers, activists and officials at the Hungarian Office of Immigration and Nationality as well as officers of the Aliens Police. Human Rights Watch wrote detailed letters on June 13 to the Hungarian Office of Immigration and Nationality, and the Interior and Defense ministries setting out the research findings and requesting comment within three weeks. They have not responded.