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Hungary's New Migrant Crackdown Might Breach UN and EU Rules

Crowds of people built up at a razor-wire fence clamoring for entry into the European Union on Tuesday, but faced swift rejection under new Hungarian restrictions on the bloc's inundated eastern border.
September 15, 2015, 11:25am
Photo by Andrej Cukic/EPA

A Hungarian crackdown on migrants crossing its southern frontier "looks like" a contravention of its obligations under United Nations and European Union (EU) rules on refugees and asylum, the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) said on Tuesday.

Crowds of people built up at a razor-wire fence clamoring for entry into the EU on Tuesday, but faced swift rejection under new Hungarian restrictions on the bloc's inundated eastern border.

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Hungary "has obligations to follow which it looks like this new legislation would be a contravention of," Magdalena Majkowska-Tomkin, head of the Hungary office of the IOM told Reuters.

"Both the international UN conventions on the status of refugees, but also EU legislation regarding asylum and also regarding criminal procedures."

Majkowska-Tomkin said the IOM saw scope for a legal challenge to the new rules: "From my perspective Hungary needs to respect its international obligations and allow people to claim asylum and provide facilities for them that are adequate for their condition."

Hungary today also declared a state of emergency in two southern counties bordering Serbia and set up transit zones to handle asylum requests from migrants along the frontier.

A day after two decades of frontier-free travel across Europe unraveled in the face of an unprecedented influx of people seeking refuge from war and poverty, Hungary effectively sealed this EU entrance.

Related: So You've Made it to Germany: On the Ground in the New Refugee Mecca

Having spent the night in the open, families with small children sat in fields beneath a new 3.5-metre high fence running almost the length of the EU's external border with Serbia, halted by a right-wing government that hailed a "new era."

Others pressed against gates, confused and demanding passage. More still sat on the main highway from Serbia to Hungary. "I will sit here until they open the border. I cannot go back to Syria. Life in Syria is finished," said a Kurd from Syria who gave his name as Bower.

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The government said it was aiming to deal with asylum requests within a matter of hours, exercising the right to reject them almost immediately on the grounds that Hungary — as of July — considers Serbia a 'safe' country for refugees.

Long queues formed in no-man's land at metal containers built into the fence, where migrants were expected to register.

Hungary has now established two transit zones to handle asylum requests from migrants along its Serbian border, where requests can be assessed within hours, a Hungarian government spokesman said on Tuesday.

Migrants can submit their request between 6am and 10pm each day and the transit zones will operate similarly to airport transit lounges. Those who do not submit asylum requests will have to return to Serbia immediately.

The government spokesman and an adviser to the prime minister confirmed that those who had not submitted an asylum request in Serbia or Macedonia, which are regarded by Hungary as safe, will have their requests rejected automatically by Hungary.

"Once their data is entered into the computer system, the decision can be issued very fast, saying 'you came through Serbia, Hungary considers Serbia safe, so your asylum claim is inadmissible,'" said Marta Pardavi of the Hungarian Helsinki Committee rights body.

"(Language) Interpretation will be over the phone," she said. "Those who apply for legal remedy will have to wait in this transit zone, or no-man's land."

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Nine Syrians and seven Afghans were detained by police and face possible imprisonment on suspicion of breaching the fence, the first arrests under the new rules.

Grenzzaun #Roeske #Ungarn #Serbien ist nun mit Güterwaggon vollständig verschlossen. Rufe: This ins not Europe pic.twitter.com/UQXZ4vQ50J — Thomas Präkelt (@Thomaspraekelt) September 14, 2015

This footage from the previous evening shows the completion of the razor-wire fence at Roszke.

The influx of hundreds of thousands of migrants and refugees from the Middle East, Africa and Asia has triggered discord and recrimination in Europe.

EU ministers failed to break a deadlock on Monday over sharing out responsibility for some of those seeking asylum. Austria and Slovakia followed Germany in re-establishing border controls and Austria said it would dispatch armed forces to guard its eastern frontier with Hungary.

Aid agencies said on Tuesday they were deeply disappointed by the failure of EU officials to reach a final consensus on a plan to share out 120,000 refugees, warning it could lead to further deaths in the Mediterranean.

A majority of EU interior ministers, meeting in Brussels on Monday, agreed in principle to share out 120,000 asylum seekers on top of about 40,000 distributed on a voluntary basis so far. But details of the deal, to be formalized on October 8, were vague with several ex-Communist central European states still rejecting mandatory quotas.

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Related: 'We Want Go!': Desperation and Anxiety Plague Refugees Moving Through Hungary

"We think this is achievable and would have gone a long way to managing the chaos," Melissa Fleming, chief spokeswoman of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), told reporters.

"Decisive agreement is needed without further delay to address the needs, as is bold action based on solidarity from all member states," the UNHCR said in a statement.

Twenty-two migrants drowned and 200 more were rescued when a boat capsized in the Aegean Sea off the Turkish coast while trying to reach the Greek island of Kos on Tuesday, the Turkish coastguard said on Tuesday.

About 72 migrants are believed to have died in past few days trying to cross the seas from Turkey to Greek islands, IOM said.

"As dangers increase we fear that the indecisions in Europe will lead to more deaths in the Aegean (sea)," Leonard Doyle, IOM spokesman, told a news briefing in Geneva. "Decisions made by various (European) governments to put border controls will have a very damaging effect," he added.

A record 20,000 refugees entered Austria on Monday and have already been joined by a further 5,500 on Tuesday morning by 0700 GMT, Fleming said. "So we are expecting large numbers to come into Austria today."

The UNCHR still advises against returning refugees to Serbia which lacks capacity to process their claims and care for them, its policy since 2012, she said.

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An estimated 464,876 migrants have now crossed the Mediterranean so far this year, up from 432,000 as of Friday, which already doubled the total for all of 2014, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) said.

About 3,840 migrants have drowned this year attempting to cross the Mediterranean, it said.

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