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Hungarian aid groups would rather go to jail than abandon refugees

“It is a new low point in an intensifying crackdown on civil society, and it is something we will resist every step of the way”

by Tim Hume
Jun 22 2018, 12:30pm

Hungarian humanitarian groups that help asylum seekers are standing in defiance of new draconian laws imposed by Viktor Orban’s authoritarian government that criminalize their work.

Under the laws, anyone who assists undocumented migrants in legalizing their immigration status in Hungary could be punished with a 12-month jail term. The laws create a new offense of “facilitating illegal immigration,” which is not defined in the bill but which civil society groups fear could be widely applied to routine humanitarian work such as providing legal advice, interpretation services, publishing leaflets, or funding these activities.

Hungary’s Parliament on Wednesday approved the laws – officially dubbed the “Stop Soros” package, in a swipe at George Soros, the Hungarian-American philanthropist who funds human rights projects supporting asylum seekers ­– despite widespread condemnation by international bodies including the United Nations, the Council of Europe and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, who say it contravenes European law. They’ll go into effect once President Janos Ader signs off.

It's the latest and most significant blow against the country’s embattled civil society sector, which has been under constant attack from Orban’s populist campaign against immigration. But groups at the front line of the fight told VICE News they were determined to continue their work, despite the perilous legal environment they now faced in doing so.

“We won’t be changing,” said Marta Pardavi, co-chair of the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, a human rights group that provides legal advice to asylum seekers.

“We’re very convinced that what we do is absolutely legitimate – we give free lawyers to people seeking asylum so they know what the process is about,” she said.

“I find it horrendous that I have to explain this in 2018 in an EU member state that lawyers have the right to give people legal information. But, sadly, things have come to this, that in Hungary this is apparently being called into question.”

She said her organization was prepared to throw everything at challenging the law, and defending any enforcement action against staff, associated lawyers and other activists who were targeted. “We would mobilize all our resources and skills to defend these people,” she said. “If there was any procedure started against them, we would be absolutely ready.”

Amnesty International, which also supports organizations assisting migrants in Hungary, has taken a similarly defiant stance. “It is a new low point in an intensifying crackdown on civil society, and it is something we will resist every step of the way,” said Gauri van Gulik, Amnesty International’s Europe director.

Csaba Csontos, spokesman for the Soros-funded Open Society Foundations in Budapest, told VICE News that the local migrant-focused groups his organization funded were “very firm and confident that they would like to continue their work,” and his group intended to continue to fund them.

“But they also don’t know how the government could use this law against them,” he said. “It’s absolutely threatening and it might stop people from having contact with asylum seekers at all.”

NGOs and leading European rights bodies say the vague framing of the laws leaves groups assisting migrants at the mercy of authorities, who could apply it to a wide range of standard humanitarian activities.

“At first glance, no one can judge who is an illegal migrant and not eligible for refugee status,” said Csontos. “Therefore, every human rights lawyer, civil society activist, NGO and even Hungarian citizens who provide any type of assistance are targeted by this law and threatened by criminal penalties, including imprisonment. We don’t know and no one knows how it will be applied concretely, so the threat and intimidation is there.”

With Hungary’s Constitutional Court dominated by judges appointed by Orban’s ruling Fidesz party, NGOs are focusing their hopes on European institutions, such as the European Court for Human Rights and the Council of Europe, to challenge the laws.

But Orban, whose government has been increasingly defined by its populist opposition to immigration, relishes his clashes with European partners over the issue and has refused to budge in the face of criticism and threats from Brussels. His hardline anti-migrant stance, which saw Hungary grant protection to only 1,291 migrants last year, has also played well with the voting public, which returned his party to power in a landslide win in April.

“Mr. Orban has proven many times he’s prepared to cross red lines,” said Csontos. “This defiant and belligerent behavior is absolutely unpredictable for European institutions.”

On Wednesday, the Hungarian parliament also passed a constitutional amendment stating that “alien populations” cannot be settled in Hungary – a direct riposte to EU-mandated quotas of asylum seekers for each of its member states, which Hungary has steadfastly challenged.

Orban, who portrays his government as the defender of a Christian European identity from waves of Muslim immigration, and frames immigration as a national security issue, said in a speech Sunday that he would never back down.

“Unlike liberal politics, Christian politics is able to protect people, our nations, families, our culture rooted in Christianity, and equality between men and women ­– in other words, our European way of life,” he said.

Cover image: An Afghan family rest in the makeshift refugee camp near the border crossing into Hungary, near Horgos, in Serbia, Tuesday, March 28, 2017. Hungary's new legislation allowing for the placement of all asylum-seekers in border container camps took effect Tuesday, with the European Union's commissioner for migration saying that it needs to comply with the bloc's rules. (AP Photo/Darko Vojinovic)