Hungary announces plans to detain all asylum seekers

February 7, 2017, 3:18pm

Hungary’s ruling right-wing government, already known for its harsh response to Europe’s migrant and refugee crisis, has a new plan to detain asylum seekers in “shelters” for the duration of their asylum application.

The controversial proposal, which will be submitted to the European Union and likely face blowback from Brussels policymakers, would prevent migrants from moving freely in the country or elsewhere in Europe while they await a decision on their application.


“No migrants, not even those who have already issued their request for asylum, will be able [to] move freely until there is a primary legal decision whether they are entitled for political asylum, refugee status, or anything else, so they are not entitled to move freely in the country,” the government’s chief spokesman, Zoltán Kovács, said Monday.

Kovács argued that the new measures were a necessary response to current arrangements that he said were being abused — asylum seekers currently have freedom of movement, including those appealing previously rejected applications.

“If we maintain the existing regime, we are not able to control what is happening at the borders or within Europe,” he said, claiming that many who appealed their rejected applications then moved on to other countries in the European Union.

Kovács acknowledged such a proposal would likely be received unfavorably at EU headquarters in Brussels. Indeed, the yet-to-be-detailed plans will likely run up against EU rules that stipulate asylum seekers “seeking international protection” may not be detained except for “clearly defined exceptional circumstances.”

He said although migrants and refugees would not have freedom of movement within Europe, the camps should not be described as detention centers, as migrants would have the opportunity to return to their home countries whenever they wanted.

Despite Kovács’ pledge that the centers will be equipped according to international standards, Hungary’s track record gives little in the way of assurances to asylum seekers familiar with the government’s previous actions and rhetoric.


Hungary, a so-called “transit state” along the major overland route taken by migrants from the Middle East and Africa to Northern Europe, has drawn regular criticism for its tough stance on immigration during the world’s worst refugee crisis since World War II. The country has erected a huge razor-wire fence along its borders, and refuses to accept EU-mandated quotas for asylum seekers. Rights organizations have documented cases of Hungarian border officials beating migrants caught illegally attempting to enter the country. (The Hungarian government denies such allegations.)

Here’s why Hungary’s latest announcement is significant:

The new proposals, if implemented, will make Hungary even more inhospitable to migrants, many of whom are escaping war and conflict in their home countries.

Last month, VICE News spoke to a group of migrants among hundreds living in dire conditions in unofficial camps in Belgrade, the capital of neighboring Serbia, many of whom had been pushed away from the Hungarian border.

Most were reluctant to move into official Serbian camps because they believed they could face restricted freedoms and possibly abuse. They were also wary after having heard stories of other migrants being deported from such camps to countries further back along the migrant route, such as Bulgaria.

Hungary’s Orbán continues to position himself as at the vanguard of Europe’s swing to the right


Prime Minister Viktor Orbán was a loud and dissenting voice at the peak of the migrant crisis in 2015, when he advocated a hard-line stance on the new arrivals. But as attitudes across the continent have hardened, other countries such as Austria have shifted theirs toward Hungary’s.

Orbán now sees himself as a pivotal regional leader in a populist pushback against the liberal Brussels elite.

His vision extends beyond the response to the migrant crisis. Hungary’s increasingly repressive government has clamped down on the press and civil society, while Orbán has said his project in government is the creation of an “illiberal state.”

His chief spokesman, Kovacs, said Monday that Trump’s rise to the U.S. presidency had further bolstered “a change of mood in Europe,” vindicating Hungary’s tough stance on migrants.

Hungarian officials told VICE News that more than 29,000 applications for asylum were filed last year, although the number this year has dropped sharply, with only 607 applications so far in 2017. Officials could not provide data on how many applications were accepted in both periods.