Central Europe Review: politics, society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 1, No 19
1 November 1999

C S A R D A S:
Safe Haven?
The problems of refugees, asylum, immigration and citizenship

Gusztav Kosztolanyi

The conflict in Kosovo presented a number of challenges to Hungary as a new member of NATO. Should Hungary allow allied aircraft to fly over or launch offensive strikes from her airspace? Should Hungarian troops become involved in ground force actions? Should Hungary remain strictly neutral though loyal to her Treaty commitments? At the same time, there were widespread fears of a mass influx of refugees either from Kosovo itself or from the Vojvodina, where the Hungarian minority feared that they would be the logical next targets for a campaign of ethnic cleansing (or for reprisals against Hungary for joining NATO and thus the ranks of the enemy).

The refugees did not assume the proportions outlined in the more pessimistic predictions, but the steady stream of arrivals from the former Yugoslavia did place a considerable strain on resources and threw the problems of provision for refugees into high relief.

In March 1998, the new law on asylum came into force, for the first time abolishing the so-called "territorial restriction" (teruleti korlatozas). This meant that asylum could be granted to applicants from outside Europe if they could prove that they were being persecuted in their country of origin. By August of that year, 2000 applications for asylum had been examined and of these 1500 came from non-European nationals. Most of the remaining 500 were Yugoslav nationals. Only one in nine was actually given asylum.

It was also in August 1998 that the cracks began to appear in the respectable facade of Hungarian policy towards the victims of conflicts wherever they occurred in the world. The columns of Austrian newspapers were filled with reports of the appalling conditions that prevailed in accommodation for refugees in Hungary (the chief complaint being that of overcrowding). The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) cast doubt on whether Hungary could actually be deemed a safe country from the point of view of the fate awaiting refugees seeking sanctuary there. The High Commissioner swathed his criticisms in a mantle of apology: the Vienna office of the UNHCR did not wish to suggest that Hungary lacked a proper legal foundation for its refugee policy, confining itself instead to making a number of proposals as to how the shortcomings of the Hungarian situation could best be rectified.

According to the statement, a number of Kosovo Albanians, who had made their way to Austria via Hungary, had first been sent back to Hungary by the Austrian authorities and had subsequently been shunted back over the Yugoslav border by the Hungarian authorities. As Istvan Dobo of the MMH (a Menekultugyi es Migracios Hivatal, the Asylum and Migration Office) pointed out, the statements were primarily intended for the consumption of the Austrian authorities, encouraging them to process applications from refugees arriving via Hungary rather than turning them away automatically (Austrian and Hungarian law is in line with international conventions on this front: asylum-seekers arriving from a safe third country are not to have the merits of their individual cases examined thoroughly, but are to be returned from whence they came without further ado).

The then Austrian Foreign Minister, Karl Schlogel, met his Italian, Swiss, French and German counterparts in Bergenz to discuss how best to assist Hungary, should the country be inundated with refugees. Although such considerations undoubtedly show laudable solidarity, it is also possible to analyse them from the point of view of crisis aversion: a sort of NIMBY ("not in my back yard") syndrome, with the Minister acutely aware of the detrimental effect on opinion poll ratings of huge numbers of dispossessed knocking on the door. Far easier to throw money at the problem in Hungary than to tackle it at home.


Conditions in the temporary accommodation run by the Hungarian Frontier Guards' Directorate in Gyor also came under fire. Although designed to house some 80 individuals, the numbers actually living there have often exceeded 200. One particularly distressing account concerned two Algerian women being put up in the same room as twenty Albanian men. New accommodation, scheduled to be completed by the end of 1998, would boost capacity by 150. The price tag for all this was over HUF 70 million (USD 3.5 million). At similar shelters in both Bicske and Bekescsaba (run by the MMH), there was likewise no room at the inn. Here, however, Kosovo Albanians were not the only group represented: Bosnians and Croatians from the days of the previous conflicts had not yet been able to move on. By way of contrast, the shelter at Debrecen had room for some 450 more.

Indeed, the case that attracted most media attention, that of the Vojvodinian Istvan S, focused attention on the shelter at Gyor. On 11 September, Schlogel sealed his promise o the refugee to investigate the merits of his application further with a handshake on the premises. For almost two years, the hapless Istvan S had recounted, unaltered, his tale of woe to the Hungarian frontier guards: he had only come to Hungary as a tourist, but his car had been stolen. His personal documents and all his money had disappeared along with it. His protestations fell on deaf ears. Branded as a foreigner illegally residing in Hungary, he was prohibited from crossing any frontiers whatsoever. Unfortunately for Istvan S, the Minister kept his word. In the course of examining his record, it emerged that he had been lawfully expelled from Austria in 1996.

This highlights one of the dilemmas faced by frontier guards. They are called upon to take on the spot decisions concerning someone's future, yet how can they sift the truth from the lies. Fraudulent claims are detrimental to the cause of refugees as a whole, confirming the assumption that no one can be trusted, that you are guilty until proven innocent, tarring the genuine with the same brush as "refugees of convenience". For those whose motives are pure, who have been driven out of their homes and have witnessed the murder of their loved ones, this veil of suspicion must place an unbearable burden on already traumatised psyches. The distinction between acceptable versus unacceptable categories of refugees is commonly applied throughout Europe. The former fleeing persecution, the latter comprising undeserving individuals chancing their luck in the greater cause of increased personal comfort and gain. This provides a fertile breeding ground for prejudice. Asylum seekers are to all practical intents and purposes treated like prisoners, their crime that of crossing the border illegally. Their accommodation is spartan, they are kept locked up behind bars, literally and metaphorically banished to the outer margins of the host society.

In Hungary, refugees in temporary accommodation have not been prevented from receiving permission to leave the centres. Last year, the majority of those who were allowed out made use of the opportunity to take to the road again, heading for the green frontier with Austria, away from the supervision of the frontier guards. There have been incidents where such individuals have been intercepted at the green frontier and have lodged an application for asylum on hearing that they would otherwise be sent to the refugee centre at Debrecen (at the Eastern frontier of Hungary, as far from Austria as it is possible to go).

Wising up

As a result of a marked increase in such practices, the rules governing inhabitants of refugee centres were tightened up in September 1998. From then on, only those refugees who were in possession of documentary evidence of their identities would be granted leave, reflecting greater awareness on the part of the authorities of the tricks employed to thwart efforts at deportation (the refugees concerned concealing their passports so that they cannot be sent back to their country of origin). The Yugoslav authorities, moreover, refused to accept the return of Hungarian or Albanian refugees without valid papers.

As part of the package of measures intended to clamp down on organised crime, it was proposed that current practice vis-a-vis refugees and foreign nationals should be elevated to the status of law. Once it came into force, it meant that foreigners residing illegally in Hungary (including all residents of the centres) would only be permitted to leave the centres on an exceptional basis (for medical visits, to go to their country's diplomatic representation or in the interests of procuring the documents they required). If they were due to be expelled from the country, if their identity had not yet been satisfactorily established or if they had been referred to secure accommodation due to involvement with organised crime, they would not be let out under any circumstances.

If a foreign national has to be remanded in custody, the period spent in police cells or the penal complex at Nagyfa does not usually exceed one month, in theory at least. Ferenc Koszeg, the director of the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, points out that appearances can be deceptive: if the criminal concerned cannot be expelled he could end up languishing in prison for years, even if the original crime might have carried a maximum sentence of 12 months.

In 1998, the grounds for keeping a foreign national remanded in custody under the regime was subject to judicial review every six months. Some unfortunates slipped through the net, however, such as the young man from the Vojvodina who broke into summerhouses not for purposes of burglary, but to put a roof over his head. He spent a year on remand. The sentence for his offence was exactly the same amount of time, but, since he was not made subject to an expulsion order, he was transferred to secure accommodation. Having received leave to go out, he got blind drunk, forgot to return at the appointed hour and was remanded in custody again under the regime for foreign nationals.

The only way out

By December 1998, the first scandals involving inmates of secure accommodation had filtered through to the media. As the Nigerian Haens Edyghaen, an inhabitant of the Frontier Guard-run secure accommodation at Kiskunhalas, recounted in a letter addressed to a journalist from HVG: "I was contemplating suicide. I got an opportunity to escape, however, so that I could reach Bicske or Bekescsaba. I tried to jump out of the window. I broke my left leg and dislocated my right ankle. The frontier guards handcuffed my wrists and dragged me 25 metres to a room before calling in an officer. [...] If I ask for painkillers or complain they just laugh at me, saying that blacks are animals." Edyghaen claims that he was thrown into jail by the military regime in his country between 1994 and 1997 and that, back home, only the death penalty or life imprisonment awaited him. (HVG, 5 December 1998)

Suicide was the course chosen by a Kazakh refugee, Boris Zoltajev, who hanged himself in the toilets on 13 November. On the previous day, following an official hearing, he had learned that he did not stand the remotest chance of being given refugee status in Hungary. He too was a resident of the centre at Kiskunhalas, a former barracks where one level had been converted to house refugees. On the day of Zoltajev's death (he had been successfully revived by an ambulance crew, but passed away six days later in the intensive care unit), a letter asking for help arrived at the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, listing a number of complaints. For example, there were only four showers available for the use of almost 200 people and only two hours a day were set aside for that purpose. (HVG 5 December 1998)

According to Major Zoltan Nemeth, press spokesman for the centre, conditions are indeed unsatisfactory and there is a chronic lack of resources to tackle the deficiencies. Until the suicide, crisis was unknown in Kiskunhalas. The inhabitants have the opportunity to exercise in the fresh air, their children are allowed out to play separately, the staff collect toys and gifts for them. Health care is a real problem: although a medical orderly is at hand, a thorough examination, such as the MMH provides, cannot be given to new arrivals. The tension between inmates and guards shimmers through when the Major broaches the subject of the blocked drains in the toilets. He accuses the residents of wilfully blocking them with the contents of the cans of food they receive to heat up at the weekends. The Muslim residents, by contrast, describe the food they are given as inedible, as it is well nigh impossible to find Hungarian tinned food which does not contain pork or pork products. To compound this, they maintain that the guards encourage them to eat and, once they have swallowed a few mouthfuls, gleefully inform them that they have consumed pork.

The response of the Helsinki Committee was to write to Hungarian Members of Parliament, appealing to them as guardians of Hungary's good reputation abroad and pointing out that the new, more stringent rules are superfluous in terms of boosting the safety of the public at large.

In February 1999, the details of a decision taken in the previous year by the Austrian Administrative Court concerning the case of a woman who had arrived in Austria from Yugoslavia were finally made public. The Austrian authorities were instructed to open procedures to ascertain her entitlement to refugee status. The woman had requested refugee status on reaching Austria from the Hungarian green frontier, but her request had been denied on the grounds that Hungary was a safe country. She contested this, citing the report from Asylkoordination Osterreich (Asylum Co-ordination Austria), which contended that Hungary evaluates requests for refugee status on a protectionist basis and that refugees are often expelled before the procedures have been concluded. The Austrian Court also supported her on the issue of the conditions prevailing at the refugee centre in Gyor. In future, the Austrian powers that be will be called upon to examine the merits of each individual case when a refugee turns up at the frontier with Hungary.

Paid to return

In August, Kosovo Albanians once again hit the headlines, this time in conjunction with their voluntary return home, relinquishing their rights to temporary protection in Hungary. Supplied with free air tickets, cash and food packages, they were photographed grinning widely at Ferihegy airport. This initiative was the outcome of co-operation between the Hungarian authorities and international organisations, the most prominent role being played by the IOM (International Organisation for Migration). In the first week of August 185 Kosovars returned home in two groups, followed almost immediately by two further groups of comparable size.

The volunteers had to confirm in writing that they waived their rights in the host country to temporary protection and to the board and lodgings which formed part of their regime. There would be no turning back. In return, the Hungarian authorities issued a one-way permit to leave the country's territory. The IOM then took responsibility for organising the journey itself, buying the flight tickets and ensuring that the repatriated Kosovars had buses and cars ready to take them back to their former homes once the plane had touched down.

In the last five years, the IOM has been responsible for helping to repatriate an average of 200 to 300 individuals, including 68 from Bangladesh. The success rate has not always been uniformly high, as proven by the Bosnian refugees who sought succour in Hungary during the earlier conflict. Only one group of 54 Bosnians has left Hungary, with modest numbers returning on an individual basis. One of the reasons for this is the continued refusal on the part of their home authorities to remove the administrative obstacles to their return: each family must obtain a permit from the local government as well as references. Their situation was exacerbated by the expiry in August of the temporary protection regime applied to them, leaving them open to deportation unless they apply for refugee status. Most of them (there are some 300) live in private accommodation around Harkany and have been able to fend for themselves, setting up restaurants and working in commerce.

According to unofficial statistics, refugees who are formally deemed to be resident in Hungary actually use the country as a springboard into the EU. Every third or fourth holder of an official Hungarian refugee passport uses it as a means of seeking his or her fortunes elsewhere, finding work in neighbouring EU countries whilst posing as a tourist and returning to Hungary once every three months to have their passport stamped.

Guilty until proven innocent

For those who remain behind legally, their problems are not over. The 1993 law on the admission, immigration and residence of foreigners in Hungary, states that: "In the absence of grounds of exclusion as set out in this law, foreigners legally residing in Hungary may be issued with a temporary residence permit from the police offices provided that the period of residence does not exceed one year." In July 1998, it emerged that this law could be interpreted in a distressingly elastic fashion. Peter Gergely, Chief of Police in Bacs-Kiskun County announced that foreign nationals would henceforth only be issued with residence permits for one month at a time, though they would be renewable. Exceptions to this rule would represent a special favour on the part of the local police force. Here we encounter another stereotype of the disruptive and dangerous alien elements as the source of all woes, particularly as the perpetrators of crime.

According to the data of the National Police Headquarters from August 1998 , 4923 crimes were known to have been committed by foreigners, representing 4.5% of all registered crimes, a drop compared to the year in which the law on foreign nationals was passed. Yet in Borsod-Abauj-Zemplen County, the local police have decided in their infinite wisdom to monitor foreigners residing there more closely with a view to crime prevention. The law on foreigners does not preclude this, entitling the police to swoop on foreigners regardless of their whereabouts ( including private grounds and private dwellings) on the pretext of checking compliance with the rules that apply to them. This overt harassment could act as a serious brake on EU accession, as the treaties explicitly outlaw discrimination on the basis of nationality.

Laws concerning citizenship have also been reviewed. To qualify, the applicant must have resided between three and eight years in Hungary, must be able to prove that he can support himself and his dependants financially, must have somewhere to live, prove that he has an unblemished record and that he is not the object of criminal proceedings. He must also pass an examination demonstrating a basic knowledge of the Hungarian language and of the Hungarian constitution.

There are, however, exceptions to this. There is no need for a lengthy wait for those, for example, who were deprived of their Hungarian nationality on political grounds in the Communist era, nor for those who declare themselves Hungarian and who have descendants who were Hungarian citizens. Three years is the period stipulated for individuals officially classified as refugees and for those who are married to a Hungarian national.

One further category of exempted persons exists, the tiny elite who are eligible to be dealt with under the so-called "exceptional procedure" and where it is deemed to be in the country's special interests to waive the above rules. The President of the Republic may confer citizenship through personal intervention under this procedure, though the Minister of Home Affairs makes the recommendation having first consulted his colleagues in the other Ministries. Even here, the conditions relating to an unblemished record remain valid. Between 1993 and May 1998, two new citizens were created under this system, an eminent scientist and an economist.

Marriages of convenience existing only on paper were targeted by the then government in this exercise. A minimum of three years of cohabitation in the same household must precede the lodging of an application and then the applicant can look forward to years of bureaucratic processing of documents. The concept which holds sway is that citizenship is not an automatic entitlement, but may be granted by the benevolent condescension of the Hungarian State. One improvement is that citizenship may no longer be withdrawn for political reasons. The sole exception here is if it transpires that the applicant deliberately misled the authorities by providing false information or hushing up important facts. Since the law became enforceable, there have been no incidences of this.

In the past, Hungary was not a particularly appealing destination for migrants or refugees because of her relative economic backwardness and her Communist regime, but this is rapidly changing. Her geographical proximity to the island of prosperity which is the EU is making her an ever more attractive target for unscrupulous profiteers wishing to make a quick profit by smuggling illegal immigrants over the loosely patrolled green border with Austria. At the same time, the more Hungary gravitates towards EU membership and the larger accession looms, the more investments will flow in and the better off Hungary will become. This will act as a magnet to job seekers from her non-EU neighbours. Once her frontiers also become the external frontiers of the EU, the problem of illegal immigration will take on new proportions. Hungary will become the gateway to the Schengen states, including Germany, an area of unlimited free movement and unlimited opportunity. Particularly since Romano Prodi's statements in October about the timetable for EU enlargement, Hungary has been extremely anxious to demonstrate that she is ripe for accession and to avoid any complication which could jeopardise the earliest possible date of entry. This implies a hard-line approach on issues such as checks at the external frontiers.

A new iron curtain

This brings us to the final question, that of the Hungarian minorities in neighbouring countries and the implications of Hungary's EU membership for them. "A second Treaty of Trianon" is the phrase coined by certain representatives of Hungarian minorities (in reference to the harsh peace treaty Hungary was forced to sign at the end of World War I, stripping the country of a large portion of its territories) to describe the worst case scenario which would have the effect of raising a new Iron Curtain between Hungary and her Romanian, Vojvodinian and Ukrainian neighbours. Since the collapse of Communism, Hungarian minority members from these countries have been able to enter and leave Hungary free of restrictions. That would come to an end once Hungary joined the EU, as Romanian, Yugoslav and Ukrainian citizens would require a visa to enter the country.

There is little prospect of this obligation changing in the near future. To take Romania as an example, the main sticking point is the country's open frontier with Moldova to the northeast. Romania is unwilling to sour its relations with a country it looks upon as a close relative, to the extent that Moldovan citizens are afforded equal treatment to Romanians when it comes to employment. The Hungarian view is that this will have to change once Romanian entry into the EU becomes realistic. In the meantime, Romania is putting off the changes as long as possible. Romania also has agreements with virtually every third-world country to the effect that no visa is needed for entry.

In April of last year, the World Association of Hungarians tabled a proposal to resolve the future situation of members of Hungarian minorities wishing to travel between home and Hungary. Dual nationality was put forward as the neatest solution to the problems foreseen. A representative of the RMDSZ (Democratic Alliance of Hungarians in Romania) and member of the Romanian Parliament, Sandor Tamas, supported this concept in the Kolozsvar journal Hungarian Minority.

Official Hungarian reactions to the proposals were lukewarm: Maria Ugroczky from the Ministry of Home Affairs focused on the potential difficulties dual nationality would give rise to: if a conflict were to take place, to which state would the holder of two passports owe loyalty?

An alternative could be the issuing of a "national visa", which would only be valid for travel to the issuing country. The authorities of the Member States are thus responsible for the issue of such a visa in accordance with their own rules on the admission and residence of foreign nationals. At the present juncture, such visas are only issued after a thorough examination of each individual case, and this might prevent national visas from becoming a solution to the Hungarian minority problem where large numbers are involved.

One thing is certain: the ragged armies of refugees and the dispossessed, stigmatised as a burden on already overstretched welfare systems, cannot count on an unequivocally warm welcome and will continue to be shunted around from one grudging host to another until their fate is finally sealed and the doors opened or closed.

Gusztav Kosztolanyi, 1 November 1999

HVG, 1 May, 1 August, 26 September, 5 December 1998 and 6 February, 24 April, 22 May, 19 June and 28 August 1999.



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Jan Culik:
Czech Communists Back on Top

Sam Vaknin:
The Myth of Greater Albania (part 3)

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Czech Saint Turned on His Head


Interview with Marta Meszaros


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