When Hungary sealed off its border this week to the thousands of refugees seeking to make their way to northern Europe, it left them one option to enter the country – theoretically.
That way is through a small door in the new steel-and-razor-wire fence on the border with Serbia, just west of the barriers blocking the main border crossing, where thousands of refugees are gathered. The crossing is a gateway into Hungary, an EU member country that is a signatory of a treaty that allows free movement within in the bloc.
But while Hungary says it created special zones like this for refugees to apply for asylum there, it is seemingly rejecting most such requests. On paper, Hungary is following international law; in reality it is turning refugees away without properly adjudicating their claims.
Zaher Habbal, an electrician from Damascus, went through the door Tuesday to apply for asylum. Mr. Habbal said police fingerprinted him and gave him a ten-minute interview, asking mostly biographical questions, before quickly rejecting his application. “Police said to me, ‘Go to Syria. My home is Hungary, yours is in Syria. Go back there,’” says Habbal.
Habbal left Syria two years ago. The regime jailed and tortured him, he says, after he joined demonstrations against it and helped people displaced by the war. If he went back to Syria, says Habbal, he would face more jail time and torture. The Hungarian police officer told him “that’s not my problem,” according to Habbal.
“I said the most important thing is that I find a safe place, whether in Hungary or Germany,” says Habbal. Instead, police gave him deportation orders – written in Hungarian, a language he can't read – and pushed him out the gate and back into Serbia. “I don’t know what to do now," he laments.
He was not the only one rejected. Many men said they tried to apply for asylum but were told that only families could enter to lodge their requests.
One young man who did manage to make it into the zone, Abdullah Mohamed Arman, from Bangladesh, said his interview was also short. The police did not ask him why he fled Bangladesh, he says, before telling him he was rejected. Mr. Arman says he told police he didn’t want to stay in Hungary but wanted to go to Austria.
Most migrants do not want to stay in Hungary, but prefer to head onwards to more welcoming countries in wealthy northern Europe. Many are also afraid that if they apply for asylum in Hungary, they will be obliged to settle there because of EU rules.
Todor Gardos, a campaigner for Amnesty International who was interviewing those rejected at the border today, said it appeared the Hungarian officials were not conducting detailed interviews to ascertain whether applicants had legitimate asylum claims. Some people were allowed to enter Hungary to process their applications, but he said they appeared to be only very vulnerable people.
Hungary says it now considers Serbia a safe country and therefore refugees there do not have valid asylum claims. Yet Mr. Gardos says Amnesty’s research shows that most refugees are not able to access asylum protection in Serbia – there are excessive waits for processing applications and only a handful of cases have been granted.
He says it’s also problematic that Hungary is giving asylum seekers paperwork only in Hungarian, and that it has in effect made it impossible for refugees to appeal rejections.
Hungarian government officials did not respond to several requests for comment.