The far-right ruling Fidesz party has introduced harsh anti-migrant policies in a bid to deter asylum seekers and refugees from entering the country.
Reports of starvation and depictions in the media of asylum seekers and migrants as invaders have called into question Hungary’s policies on refugees.
There has been increased scrutiny by numerous international bodies and local non-governmental organisations in recent years, even as the number of asylum applications drops.
The government, headed by the far-right nationalist Fidesz party, has made anti-migration rhetoric a central theme of its rule over the past four years, making it a darling of the international right-wing, anti-liberal nationalist movement.
The harsh stance on immigration, some claim, is meant to 'deter' asylum seekers from seeking refuge in the Central European state.
Hungary received roughly 175,000 asylum seekers in 2015 at the height of what has been called the European refugee crisis.
Many of those asylum seekers went on to other EU states and the number of asylum applicants to Hungary dropped to roughly 565, with 354 being granted protected status.
Following these concerns, Felipe Gonzalez Morales, the UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants, conducted an eight-day visit to Hungary from July 10 to 17, to “assess existing laws, policies, and practices in relation to migration governance and their impact on the human rights of migrants of all categories”, he said in a statement.
Morales said that “anti-migration discourse has become pervasive in both official and public spheres. In campaigns run by the Government, migrants have often been associated with security threats, including terrorism.”
This depiction of migration as a crime and threat to national security “is reflected in a series of very restrictive measures adopted by the authorities in the area of migration governance”, which fuels Hungary’s "security-orientated approach”.
For example, Hungary’s Immigration and Asylum Office changed its name to the National Directorate for Aliens Policing and half of the employees there became police officers, affording them increased powers to apprehend and imprison migrants.
Hungary operates two “transit zones”, Roszke and Tompa, on the border with Serbia, where migrants are held. When Morales visited these sites, there were roughly 280 people, and more than 60 percent of those in transit zones were children with many of them having been detained for over a year.
The government also passed a series of bills called the 'Stop Soros' package, which included a 25 percent tax on organisations that "support migration" and for participating in “propaganda activity that portrays immigration in a positive light”.
The bill’s name referred to Hungarian-American financier George Soros who champions liberal causes across the globe. The government has accused him of supporting immigration to dilute Hungary’s national Christian character.
The government’s campaign against Soros, who is Jewish, has been called "anti-Semitic” by critics.
While many of the Hungarian government’s strategies are rhetorical, some are practical.
The Hungarian Helsinki Committee (HHC), the only civil society organisation in Hungary that offers legal advice to migrants and asylum seekers at little or no cost, said on July 18 that it knew of 24 people who had been starved in Hungary’s transit zones by the country’s immigration authorities.
“A young man was transferred from a community shelter to transit zone on 9 July [and] hasn’t received food since then”, the HHC said in a tweet.
The asylum seeker is a 20-year-old Iraqi who applied for asylum in Hungary last July, according to the HHC. He was previously held in a northern community shelter, where food was accessible, and he could have remained there, the rights group highlighted.
HHC said it was their 15th case and 24th client in which the group had to ask the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) to order Hungary to feed a migrant in their custody.
Typically, the people who are not given food have had their asylum claims rejected by the Hungarian government.
International rights groups such as and Human Rights Watch (HRW) have written about Hungary’s denial of food to rejected asylum seekers since August 2018.
“The government has stooped to a new inhumane low by refusing food to people in their custody, apparently revelling in breaching human rights law," Lydia Gall, Eastern EU and Balkans Researcher at HRW said in 2018. “This disregard for people’s wellbeing smacks of a cynical move to force people to give up their asylum claims and leave Hungary.”
UN expert Morales noted sustained Hungarian emigration in recent years which, coupled with other societal factors, created a serious labour shortage.
These migrants and asylum seekers, Morales said, could help alleviate that shortage.
When asked for comment, the Hungarian government pointed TRT World to statements made by International Spokesman Zoltan Kovacs: “Migration is a security risk, the border fence stays right where it is, it ensures the security of Hungarian people … Hungary says illegal migration must be stopped.”