Hungary Criminalizes Aiding Undocumented Migrants Seeking Asylum

Hungary has proposed the “Stop Soros” bill, a set of laws which criminalize the act of assisting refugees and undocumented migrants seeking asylum. The Hungarian parliament has approved legislation which will allow for the persecution or imprisonment of any individual or organization that aids undocumented migrants entering the country illegally. This legislation was passed on World Refugee Day (20 June). 160 lawmakers voted in favour, and just 18 voted against, despite condemnation from the European Union (EU) and the United Nations (UN). However, the bill must be finalized and signed into law by Hungarian President Janos Ader before it can take effect.

The “Stop Soros” bill is named after Hungarian-American financier and philanthropist, George Soros. He is a supporter of Hungarian rights organizations and advocates for liberal democracy and the acceptance of refugees in Europe. The bill targets non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and rights groups deemed to be “facilitating illegal immigration.” Under the legislation, offering food, water, or legal advice to migrants will become a criminal offense. Distributing information about the asylum process or providing financial assistance could lead to a 12-month prison sentence.

Rights groups and international organizations have condemned the controversial measures as draconian violations against human rights. Amnesty International’s Europe director, Gauri van Gulik, said in a statement, “Criminalizing essential and legitimate human rights work is a brazen attack on people seeking safe haven from persecution and those who carry out admirable work to help them. It is a new low point in an intensifying crackdown on civil society and it is something we will resist every step of the way.”

The legislation reflects Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s right-wing, anti-immigration rhetoric. In 2017, for example, he referred to migration as “a poison.” Hungary claims immigration threatens its national security and that Muslim asylum seekers pose a danger to Hungary’s “Christian culture,” although Muslims only make up 0.4 per cent of Hungary’s population. Orbán believes it is necessary to protect Hungary’s Christian identity. The government erected border fences after an influx of migrants during the peak of the European migrant crisis in 2015, when 400,000 people travelled through Hungary to reach Western Europe. Of the 177,000 people who sought asylum in Hungary, only a few hundred were accepted. The fences have successfully deterred migrants, and few have tried to enter Hungary since 2015. Last year, the number of asylum claims dramatically decreased to around 3,200. Orbán has used the refugee crisis to instigate fear and prejudice to further his own agenda. His influence over Hungarian media has convinced the public that migration remains a persistent threat. This has given him a mandate to enforce anti-migration laws.

Hungary also opposes the EU’s mandatory refugee quota and the organization’s attempts to resettle migrants from Italy and Greece to other EU states. In addition to the “Stop Soros” bill, the government also proposed an amendment to the constitution which bans the resettlement of “alien populations” in Hungary and criminalizes homelessness. It also restricts people’s ability to protest peacefully. These amendments undermine human rights and threaten the right to seek asylum, freedom of movement and expression, as well as the right to be free from discrimination.

Displaced people need international protection and require humanitarian aid. Therefore, aid agencies must be granted unhindered humanitarian access in order to provide for families in a safe and dignified manner. Amnesty International has urged the Hungarian government to halt the implementation of these laws to ensure Hungary complies with international human rights commitments and EU law. The UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, has also encouraged the government to scrap the draft legislation, stating that “UNHCR is seriously concerned that these proposals, if passed, would deprive people who are forced to flee their homes of critical aid and services, and further inflame tense public discourse and rising xenophobic attitudes.” The work provided by these humanitarian organizations is vital in defending the rights of vulnerable people. The government must remove these restrictions to ensure asylum seekers are free from intolerance and institutional discrimination.

Jenna Homewood