Grusa Matevzic, Hungarian Helsinki Committee (HHC) ELENA-Coordinator, Photo: HHC

Switzerland should not be sending asylum seekers back to Hungary

Interview with Grusa Matevzic, Hungarian Helsinki Committee (HHC) ELENA-Coordinator during the ECRE-Meeting in Vienna on 15 January 2016 (The European Council on Refugees and Exiles ECRE).

By Adriana Romer, Legal Expert, Swiss Refugee Council

How is the general situation in Hungary at the moment?

The situation is quite depressive. Since the elections in 2010, the current governing party has systematically undermined the rule of law in Hungary, seriously disrupting the system of checks and balances. The adoption of the new constitution without the consent of the opposition and the widely criticized media regulation were followed by legislative steps weakening independent institutions (e.g. the Constitutional Court, the judiciary and the Ombudsman system) and violating human rights (e.g. the right to fair trial) in mass numbers. These legislative steps were accompanied by the early removal of leaders of independent institutions and the «court-packing» of the Constitutional Court. As shown by the international criticism e.g. on behalf of the European Union and the Council of Europe, several rules adopted by the governing majority are not in compliance with democratic values and international standards. The series of governmental attacks against Hungarian NGOs, which organizations operate by their nature as checks and critics of the state power and fight for reinforcing the rule of law and ensuring the protection of human rights, was another step in the above process aimed at establishing an «illiberal state».

In September 2015 borders have been sealed, the newly enacted migration laws which in our opinion violate international and European law are still in force and applied in practice and the government is still using anti-migrants discourse. At the moment we are listening and watching a new media campaign claiming that «the quota increases the terror threat and endangers our culture.» It is the first time in history that there are more asylum seekers in detention than in open reception centers.

What is the HHC doing to support refugees?

We are the implementing partner of UNHCR since 1998. We are the only organization in Hungary that provides free-of-charge legal assistance to asylum-seekers. In the first nine months of 2015, we assisted 1201 asylum-seekers (one third of whom were in detention) and two thirds of the asylum-seekers represented by us won at the court. We conduct regular monitoring visits to detention facilities for irregular migrants and asylum-seekers. Litigation plays a crucial role in our strategy and represent a main success factor in our impact on asylum, statelessness, equal treatment, detention and other related issues. We have been managing since 2004 the Refugee Law Reader, the multilingual online curriculum for the teaching of refugee law. We regularly issue information materials in English, and as a major advocacy success, the European Commission has initiated two infringement procedures against Hungary (in 2012 and 2015) for the violation of various asylum-related EU rules, based on the formal complaint submitted by the HHC.

What is the most challenging part in your every day work?

The most challenging part is the sense of helplessness when seeing all these laws being passed that clearly breach rights of asylum seekers. Meeting clients (including Dublin returnees) that receive inadmissible decisions based on Serbia being safe third country grounds and telling them that we will do our best and represent them at the court, but that the chance of success is scarce. As well as meeting asylum seekers in detention, especially those with special needs not being addressed at all or «minors» whose age assessment is questionable.

What happens to people that are being sent back from Switzerland to Hungary under the Dublin regulation? 

Some end up in asylum detention, some in open reception centers. There is no clear policy on who is detained and who is not. Alternatives are not being used. Access to healthcare, especially mental health is seriously limited. There is a lack of effective judicial review of detention orders.

Most of asylum seekers Dublined back receive inadmissible decisions, due to Serbia being considered as a Safe Third Country. Persons returned to Hungary therefore do not have their asylum applications examined on the merits. The judicial review is ineffective (insufficient legal safeguards, including very short time-limits to appeal and a lack of mandatory, free-of-charge legal assistance of good quality, no reformatory power of the judges) and therefore these people are exposed to a very high risk of being subjected to deportation to Serbia and to further refoulement to other countries. The Safe Third Country rule is applied also to Dublin returnees who first entered Hungary before the governments decree declaring Serbia a safe third country entered into force. If asylum seekers do get one of the protection statuses in Hungary, their integration is very hard since Hungary is lacking effective integration measures. Due to these serious flaws in Hungarian asylum procedure, I believe Switzerland should not be sending asylum seekers back to Hungary, because by this it would expose them to the risk of refoulement and arbitrary detention.