Hungary Systematically Starving Asylum-Seekers At Its Border

Hungary is systematically starving denied asylum-seekers at its border transit zones, according to the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, a Budapest-based human rights group. Those within these transit zones — the small detention areas on the border with Serbia — who have seen their claim for asylum rejected, are then denied food, a policy which the HHC describes as an “unprecedented human rights violation in 21st century Europe”.

The HHC has this week released a report exploring eight separate cases in 2019 so far, where up to 13 people have been denied food. In each case, the HHC had to secure interim measures from the European Court of Human Rights, ordering the Hungarian government to feed those involved, before starvation tactics were ceased.

One case details a Kurdish Iraqi family with six children, who fled to Europe due to fears one child would die as a result of a serious heart condition for which the necessary surgery was unavailable in Iraq. Following rejection of their claim to asylum, they were detained in the transit zone, with the parents denied food for four days before ECHR intervention. Another Iraqi family, who fled to Europe in the hopes of obtaining treatment for their nine-year-old son who suffers from a mental disability, had also been detained, and following rejection of their asylum claim, been informed that the parents would not be receiving food. They were then starved for five days until the ECHR intervened.

The HHC reports that, legally, once the Hungarian authorities have rejected an individual’s claim to asylum and the transit zone is designated as their compulsory place of stay, they are no longer eligible to any services except basic healthcare. This is reaffirmed in the position taken by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s spokesman Zoltán Kovács, who commented on the criticism of the regime’s starvation tactics: “There is no free meal for anyone… [the authorities have provided] everything for people who have a legal right to stay in the transit zone.” This implies that those who are starved in the transit zone have no legal right to be there, and need simply to walk out if they wish to find food.

The reality is very different. In fact, simply walking out would mean a violation of both Hungarian and Serbian laws. Hungarian law states that those facing a deportation order must be accompanied out of the country into Serbia — or their nation of origin — and since 2015, Serbia has refused to admit rejected asylum-seekers from Hungary. Thus, while the Hungarian authorities may argue that these asylum-seekers have no legal right to be in the transit zones and that they could voluntarily leave, the reality is that they have no legal ability to do so.

Moreover, leaving would not only mean a violation of Hungarian and Serbian law, but under international law, it would also entail giving up on their claim to asylum. Indeed, this seems to be the aim of Hungary’s starvation policy. Lydia Gall, the Eastern E.U. and Balkans researcher at Human Rights Watch, claims it “smacks of a cynical move to force people to give up on their asylum claims”.

The cases uncovered by the HHC over recent weeks are nothing new. Hungary has been systematically starving asylum-seekers as far back as August 2018. The ECHR had intervened similarly back then, and ordered Hungary to feed those detained in the transit zones. Yet, this has clearly not prevented a return of the use of such tactics by the Hungarian government.

The HHC states that, without legal changes, the usage of these tactics is likely to continue. As things stand, any asylum-seeker passing through a ‘safe’ country — including Serbia, the most commonly taken route — is automatically rejected. Following this comes detainment in the transit zones, and legally-permitted starvation for all adults except pregnant or nursing women. The HHC argues that regulation to make food a necessary right in the zones is needed.

Hungary’s existing anti-migrant regime is unlikely to change this scenario themselves. Just this month, in launching his European elections campaign, Orbán called immigration the “virus that leads to terrorism”. The use of such brutal anti-migrant tactics falls well within the bounds of their rhetoric.

If Hungary cannot be expected to alter its course independently, the responsibility to prevent and halt the harm being done to asylum-seekers must fall upon other states in the E.U. The Hungarian government should be called upon to regulate these zones, and make food a basic right afforded to all who reside within them. If the ECHR rules starvation measures illegal, as they repeatedly have, it is up to those with political power and influence to ensure Hungary respects these rulings. Until then, vulnerable asylum-seekers — some of those most in need of our compassion — are likely to continue to suffer.