Transit zones: the Hungarian Helsinki Committee’s inflammatory statements are misleading

The point of the much-criticised transit zones is that they can be used to properly initiate asylum procedures, and that they enable the Hungarian state to provide basic services to asylum seekers until their asylum procedures are complete.

Contrary to the disinformation spread by the Hungarian Helsinki Committee and other rights organisations, the services provided in transit zones – as specified by current regulations – include the following: meals provided three times a day (five times a day to pregnant women and mothers with small children and anyone under the age of 18); additional provision of dairy products and fruit; and provision of basic health and social care, with special focus on those with special needs.

The Hungarian Helsinki Committee’s longstanding and frequently-voiced “expert opinion” that the Asylum Office has had to “find a legal loophole” so that “all asylum seekers in transit zones can receive food”[1] is incomprehensible when compared with the relevant legislation. The latter contains the fundamental requirement of such provision for asylum seekers – including women, children and victims of torture – who choose to enter the country by legal means and who cooperate with the authorities. The claim that the Hungarian authorities are deliberately attempting to pressure asylum seekers into “voluntarily” abandoning their asylum applications and returning to Serbia due to a chronic lack of food is also untrue.

Just as the Hungarian state is not starving anyone, it is also not restricting anyone’s freedom of movement: it is possible at any time to freely leave the transit zone in the direction of Serbia. In relation to detaining asylum seekers in transit zones, last November the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled in favour of the Hungarian state, clearly declaring that the practice does not constitute unlawful detention.[2] The Court’s Grand Chamber ruled in favour of Hungary in the second instance. In March 2017, in the first instance the ECHR had ruled by a majority for the plaintiffs on matters which included the transit zones. Hungary appealed the ruling, and the case was put before the Grand Council, on which all the ECHR’s most senior judges sit, and which ultimately changed a significant part of the original ruling.[3] 

By providing meals and other basic services, the Hungarian authorities are enabling people to live in humane conditions in the transit zone. This is also true for asylum seekers who are in the transit zone with their children and whose request for asylum has been rejected in the second instance, but who are waiting for a final decision on where they can settle temporarily. In such cases it may not be necessary for them to have to wait for their expulsion in the transit zone. Hungary’s asylum practices are also not in violation of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (Article 37), meaning that it does not deprive children (those under the age of 18) of their freedom, and it always strives to maximise the opportunities guaranteed by legislation to serve both parties, in order for procedures to be as swift and efficient as possible.

Human rights organisations, including the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, refuse to recognise the important role in Hungarian immigration regulations played by transit zones since they were introduced in 2015: these zones are where asylum seekers may remain until the authorities have made legally binding and enforceable decisions; this in turn means that no one may be sent back over the border immediately. Thus current Hungarian practice fully conforms with the basic requirements of international humanitarian law.

The ECHR ruling in the transit zone case is particularly important because the asylum seekers involved were represented in Strasbourg by the Hungarian Helsinki Committee – an organisation which receives a high level of funding from the American businessman George Soros’s Open Society Foundations (OSF). In 2015 alone, the OSF distributed 4.1 million dollars among Hungarian applicants, 40 per cent of which was shared between the Hungarian Helsinki Committee and the similarly pro-immigration Hungarian Civil Liberties Union (TASZ).[4] [5] It is widely known that over the past 3–4 years the case law of the ECHR related to Hungary has included a string of lawsuits against the Hungarian state which the liberal rights organisations and the complainants they represent (applicants) can expect to win for the most diverse range of reasons – but generally with highly predictable outcomes.

Article XV, Paragraph 5 of Hungary’s Fundamental Law states that “By means of separate measures, Hungary shall protect families, children, women, the elderly and persons living with disabilities.” This is independent of the fact that everyone in the transit zones is entitled to several meals a day and basic healthcare provision (which in practice they receive). Contrary to the statements of the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, legal regulations also provide a practical guarantee that the Hungarian authorities will not use the general procedural regulations to process the asylum requests of persons with special needs.

In Hungary today everyone has the right to seek legal redress against any decision delivered by a court, authority or other public administration body that violates their rights or legitimate interests. Naturally this also applies to complaints that may arise in relation to transit zones; but it does not entitle anyone to attempt to create the impression internationally that Hungarian asylum practices are inhumane, or that the people accommodated in transit zones are being deliberately starved while in detention.

In reality it is the professionally unsubstantiated attacks mounted by the Hungarian Helsinki Committee that represent a negation of the traditional interpretation of human rights treaties. These attacks also encourage Brussels – which is in any case ill-disposed to national sovereignty – to renege on the EU’s founding treaties. The attacks against our country in recent years could also have led to the sanctions procedure launched under Article 7 of the Treaty on European Union – a procedure that, at the decision of the Council of the European Union, can result in suspension of a Member State’s voting rights.