On Thursday 21st May, the Hungarian government announced that it would close the migrant ‘transit zones’ along its border with Serbia. The decision comes after the European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruled that the zones are a form of illegal detention.
First established in 2017, the transit zones are the only places where migrants coming to Hungary can apply for asylum. The applicants are not allowed to leave during this process. They are, in essence, trapped. Four migrants brought this issue to the attention of the ECJ after their asylum applications were rejected. The two families are currently stranded in a camp in Röszke after they were refused re-entry into Serbia.
Hungarian Government Admits Defeat
The ECJ argued that denying asylum seekers the right to leave the transit zone amounts to a ‘deprivation of liberty.’ Human rights organizations have welcomed the ECJ’s intervention. The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) described the zones as `inhuman,’ while Márta Pardavi – who represented the four asylum seekers in court – called the decision a ‘significant victory.’
The Hungarian government, led by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, had initially promised to fight the ECJ’s ruling. Just days ago, Justice Minister Judith Varga claimed that the Hungarian judiciary had the authority to overrule the decision. However, the Orbán administration has now backed down, admitting that it ‘is obliged to comply with the verdict’ and can therefore ‘do nothing but eliminate the transit zones’.
Hungary Hostile to Migrants
The Hungarian government has pushed a vehemently anti-migrant agenda ever since the 2015 migrant crisis. By December that year, the country had received 177,130 asylum applications. Hungary responded by constructing a fence along its borders with Serbia and Croatia. It also began to deny entry to nearly all refugees.
In 2019, 91.5% of asylum applications were rejected. Orbán, the mastermind behind these policies, has argued that they are vital in stopping the ‘replacement of the population of Europeans with others’. This attitude has brought Hungary into conflict with the EU on several occasions. In 2018, for instance, the EU commission stated that Hungary’s actions contravened the European convention on human rights.
The ECJ Steps Up
The COVID-19 epidemic has intensified the debate over Hungary’s treatment of migrants. Back in March, the Hungarian Parliament passed an ‘emergency law’ in response to the crisis that granted Orbán the right to rule by decree indefinitely. The new law led the NGO Freedom House to recently claim that Hungary is ‘no longer a democracy’.
Freedom House also had some choice words for Brussels’ failure to stop this encroaching authoritarianism, arguing that it has not done nearly enough. The ECJ’s intervention is the first major challenge to Orbán’s sovereignty since the emergency law’s introduction. The Hungarian government buckled under the pressure, realizing it was in a fight that it couldn’t win. This result is therefore a promising sign for the health of Hungarian democracy. It demonstrates that Orbán’s power is not all-encompassing given the economic importance of EU membership to Hungary.
Hope for the Future
It seems that Brussels has gone from making empty threats to finally taking a stand against Orbán. With the rise of authoritarianism across Eastern Europe, this is a positive and crucial development. In an age when the COVID-19 crisis is empowering strongmen and dictators across the world, organizations like the EU and the ECJ must act to defend democracy.