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Hungary: Demonstration against fence on Serbian border says "Jesus was a refugee too"

20.7.2015 19:57
Photo:  Facebook page of a demonstration against the border fence in Hungary, 14 July 2015
Photo: Facebook page of a demonstration against the border fence in Hungary, 14 July 2015

Reuters reports that approximately 1 000 people demonstrated on 14 July in the center of Budapest against the construction of a fence on the border with Serbia that is supposed to prevent immigrants from entering Hungary. The declaration of the civic initiatives who organized the demonstration reads as follows:  "As far as the construction of the wall goes, the Hungarian Government seems to exceptionally competent. The Government is erecting ever-newer walls between the various layers of society... It is blowing up bridges between politics and society... After so many symbolic walls it has now, at the height of its own cynicism, arrived at an actual wall... There have been enough walls - let's instead build hospitals, houses and schools for Hungarians and immigrants! Asylum seekers are neither angels nor devils but human beings, and as such they have a right to humane treatment and a dignified reception procedure... The money allocated to build this wall is already, at this phase of design planning, the equivalent of the entire budget of the Hungarian state for refugee matters for the last 11 years."  

The demonstrators assembled near the biggest cathedral in Budapest, the Basilica of St. Stephen. They were carrying signs reading "Jesus was a refugee too" or "My best friend is a refugee".

They then marched toward Parliament, where they destroyed a mock-up of the planned fence. Protester Edit Gyantar called the fence immoral and reminded demonstrators that it was not so long ago that hundreds of thousands of people were fleeing the countries of Eastern Europe, Hungary included, for a better life in the West.  

The fence that Hungary began erecting last week is supposed to be four meters high and will cover 175 kilometers of the border with Serbia. Hungary has registered more than 70 000 migrants so far this year.

A correspondent for Romea.cz attended the V4 Refugee Forum earlier this month in Budapest and reported that anti-immigration sentiment there is similar to that in the Czech Republic. The forum was a meeting of experts on migration and refugee issues in the Visegrád Four area (the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia).

Academics and NGO workers got an opportunity to meet and network at the event. The meeting drew attention to the challenges each V4 country will probably face in the near future with respect to migration.  

Balkan Route makes collaboration necessary

The most recent data show that for some time the attractiveness of the so-called Balkan Route into the European Union has been rising, which means collaboration between the V4 countries in the area of migration will be necessary in future. Even though the journey from Turkey through Greece, Macedonia, and Serbia to Hungary is more expensive and takes longer than the route across the Mediterranean Sea, it is considered generally safer.  

Ordinarily it takes less than 20 minutes to sail from Turkey to Greece. The risk of accidents is rather low, as long as the Greek Coast Guard doesn't directly attempt to force the boats to turn around.

The migrants then continue on, most frequently by foot, but sometimes they use bicycles or go by bus, taxi or train. In recent months Hungary in particular has become the second-most important entryway into the Schengen area after Italy.

Last year more than 40 000 persons applied for asylum in Hungary, and in just the first quarter of 2015 another 30 000 people have applied for asylum there as well. Hundreds and perhaps thousands more people are heading further into Western Europe without ever registering with police.  

This development is due in particular to the long-growing accident rate of boats heading for Italy across the Mediterranean Sea. If the EU embarks upon military operations against smugglers in the Mediterranean, the Balkan Route trend will continue.  

The significance of the Czech Republic will also grow as a transit country, and in the long term perhaps even as a destination country. Czech media have reported in recent weeks on the growing numbers of migrants being apprehended by Czech Police for their lack of documents.

Compared to the widespread panic about the issue in the media, the Czech Republic is not actually at risk of an uncontrollable barrage of migrants (only 554 new asylum applications have been filed there since the beginning of this year). However, it is evident that V4 collaboration on questions of asylum and migration will be key in future.

Differences between refugee facilities

The standards of asylum facilities differ significantly with respect to the differences in their occupancy in each V4 country. While the Czech Republic is able to arrange for accommodation of asylum seekers in the Interior Ministry's asylum facilities (although not always of the quality required), the situation in Hungary is significantly more serious.

Asylum seekers there frequently sleep crammed onto the floors of the centers and sometimes, for sheer lack of room, even sleep outside in the courtyards and gardens. The Hungarian Helsinki Committee views the current state of affairs not as an insoluble matter, but rather as a "technical problem" given the predictability of developments in the numbers of asylum requests and the availability of financing through EU funds.  

A good practice example of collaboration between the nonprofit sector and the state in the area of upholding asylum and detention facility standards is Poland. In response to several media scandals, the Polish Helsinki Committee was asked by the state three years ago to undertake extensive monitoring of such detention facilities and design proposals for their improvement.  

The Committee said their repeated audits have led to significant improvements, especially in the area of upholding the fundamental rights of detainees. Those improvements have lasted to this day.

Little emphasis on vulnerable migrant groups

A shared Achilles' heel of the asylum facilities in all V4 countries is that they are disproportionately used for administrative detention and pay too little attention to especially vulnerable groups of asylum seekers. In the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland, minors between the ages of 15-18 and families with children are placed in detention facilities for the purposes of identifying them or processing them administratively for deportation.  

This practice has been repeatedly criticized by both the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and the UN's Committee on the Rights of the Child. Little attention has been paid so far to refugees from war, the number of which is expected to grow given ongoing conflicts, mainly in Syria and Ukraine.

There is an increased risk of psychological difficulties, most frequently post-traumatic stress disorder, among refugees from war in particular, many of whom have been subjected to inhuman treatment, torture and other traumatizing experiences. Their mental state can deteriorate without the necessary care, but this is frequently ignored in asylum facilities and especially in detention facilities.

Barriers to integration

Despite the growth in the significance of the Balkan Route, the V4 countries are still more of a transit destination than a target destination. That fact is frequently explained by a lack of local immigrant communities or by the lower standards of social support provided in the V4 compared to Western Europe, and therefore serves as a pretext for the V4 countries to avoid receiving refugees.

The low attractiveness of the V4 countries may also be determined by systemic barriers, typically de facto discrimination against foreign nationals on labor markets or significant restrictions of voting rights for foreign nationals, even those who have long been residents. The impossibility for foreign nationals to be involved in the active labor and political life of the societies where they reside can prevent their full integration in the long run and increase the chances that they will not settle permanently.  

This is demonstrated by experiences from Slovakia, where migrants in some cases have left the country after failing to integrate even during several years of residency. If the V4 countries decide to receive refugees, they must pay increased attention to the potential barriers to their inclusion.  

There must be serious efforts to remove these barriers. Otherwise all of the money spent on integration and the efforts of the NGOs and the refugees themselves will be in vain.

Identical arguments everywhere, but Czech MP Okamura is unique

While the numbers of asylum seekers and the state of facilities for them in the V4 countries differ significantly, the public debates on asylum and migration are framed similarly throughout the V4 area. NGOs tend to traditionally back a human rights approach, criticizing what they see as a trend toward placing too much emphasis on national security during debates of the issue, and appealing for the adoption of binding quotas on refugee reception by EU Member States.

State authorities across the V4 place an emphasis on security aspects and on the need for the entire process of refugee reception to be voluntary. The classic arguments made against refugee reception are surprisingly identical across the V4.

A stalwart, undying trope in the migration debates in all V4 countries is a challenge to those in favor of receiving refugees to personally take them into their own homes. The Czech Republic, however, can "pride itself" on one specific phenomenon.

Czech MP Tomio Okamura is someone who has personally experienced migration and who has then, in his own political program, turned against migrants in the most populist way imaginable. He remains a unique case whom audiences abroad find it difficult to understand.  

adg, mik, Zuzana Pavelková of the Post-Conflict Research Center, translated by Gwendolyn Albert
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EU, Hungary, Immigration, integration



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