A draft bill proposed by the Hungarian government would allow the authorities to automatically detain asylum seekers in transit zones and to summarily return asylum seekers to the Serbian border from anywhere in Hungary, Human Rights Watch and the Hungarian Helsinki Committee said in a February 24 letter to the European Commission calling for it to intervene.

These provisions would apply during under the current immigration “state of crisis,” in effect since September 2015 and in force until September 2017, and any such declared emergency in future.

“The European Commission should not stand by while Hungary makes a mockery of the right to seek asylum,” said Benjamin Ward, deputy director of the Europe and Central Asia division at Human Rights Watch. “Using transit zones as detention centers and forcing asylum seekers who are already inside Hungary back to the Serbian side of the razor-wire fence is abusive, pointless, and cruel.”

If approved, the law would allow authorities to detain all adult asylum seekers on its territory, including families with children and unaccompanied children ages 14 to 18, in transit zones, without any way for them to challenge the detention. It would also permit the authorities to summarily return all asylum seekers and other migrants in the country without permission to the Serbian border from any part of Hungary. This extends countrywide the July 2016 law that authorizes police to return to the border irregular migrants apprehended within eight kilometers of the border.

Human Rights Watch and the Hungarian Helsinki Committee have independently documented Hungarian law enforcement officials’ use of systematic violence and abuse against asylum seekers and migrants during such summary returns to the Serbian side of the border fence.

The proposed legal changes, in combination with amendments already made to laws pertaining to asylum and migration since August 2015, seriously impede access to asylum in Hungary, Human Rights Watch and the Hungarian Helsinki Committee said.

If the bill is approved, the only way those without legal status in Hungary will be able to request protection through the asylum system is to gain admission to a transit zone established on the Hungarian-Serbian border. Currently, authorities admit only 25 people per week into each of the two transit zones, leaving over 7,000 asylum seekers and migrants stranded in Serbia, many in inhumane conditions.

In the transit zones, under fast-track border procedures in place, applications are being declared inadmissible if the person entered the country from Serbia on the basis of a July 2015 safe third country list which includes Serbia. Proposed legal amendments will also shorten the period for appealing inadmissibility decisions and asylum rejections from seven days to three, severely limiting asylum seekers’ ability to challenge negative decisions. The draft law states that court clerks, who are not qualified judges, will have authority to issue judicial review decisions in asylum proceedings. The proposed amendments also include a provision to require asylum seekers to cover their cost of detention unless they are granted protection status.

The European Commission opened infringement proceedings against Hungary in December 2015, based on its problematic asylum legislation, but no further information about the proceedings has been made public. The European Commission has also failed to speak out publicly on the need for Hungarian authorities to investigate violent pushbacks of asylum seekers and migrants at Hungary’s border with Serbia. Finland, Italy and the Czech Republic have suspended all returns to Hungary under the European Union’s Dublin rule, which allows a country to return an asylum seeker to the first EU country they entered, due to systemic deficiencies in the Hungarian asylum system that do not meet EU standards.

The European Commission should act before Hungary further undermines its asylum obligations under EU and international law, Human Rights Watch and the Hungarian Helsinki Committee said.

“These changes will make national courts in other EU countries even more unlikely to approve transfers to Hungary under the EU’s Dublin rule,” said Marta Pardavi, co-chair of the Hungarian Helsinki Committee. “These reprehensible measures undermine much needed solidarity among EU member states when it comes to addressing the refugee crisis in Europe and put people at risk of abuse.”

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