‘We don’t have a life here’: refugees find scant solace in hardline Hungary

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Rightwing government of Viktor Orbn is charging asylum seekers 1,200 to move them to open camps that prove to be anything but

Pias, a young Iraqi refugee who made it to Hungary, was initially keen to show off his English. But after four months in a detention camp, fear and uncertainty had rendered him mute.

Despite paying the Hungarian authorities 1,200 (1,018) to send him to a more open facility, the 19-year-old feared being hauled back into custody under a draconian new law.

Drafted by the rightwing government of Viktor Orbn, Hungarys strongman prime minister, and passed overwhelmingly by the Hungarian parliament on Tuesday, the measure transfers all asylum applicants to a network of new camps made out of shipping containers. It is due to come into force in a week.

The major intensification of the Orbn governments anti-migrant offensive, has been condemned as a flagrant breach of EU law by lawyers and human rights groups, who are urging fellow member states to act.

The consequences for refugees like Pias would be particularly onerous. He arrived in Hungary as a refugee last year and was dispatched to one of the countrys detention centres characterised as prisons by critics before accepting the offer of release to an open reception centre in exchange for a payment, officially described as bail.

Because his asylum application is still being processed, should the new proposal become law Pias could be taken from his current home, a dorm on a shabby backstreet in Budapest, and hauled back to a detention facility.

For Pias this would be a doubly cruel blow: the open facility he was originally sent to after paying his bail was little more than a network of tents in Kormend, near Hungarys western border with Austria. Human rights groups have called the conditions there inhumane.

The open reception centre for asylum seekers and refugees in the town of Kormend, Hungary. Photograph: Robert Tait

Set back from public view within the grounds of a police training academy on the outskirts of Kormend, the open camp consists of seven round tarpaulin tents; there is a pervading smell of burning peat from the makeshift heating. Public and media access is denied. When the Guardian approached the camp gate, a police officer emerged from a nearby cabin and shouted aggressively: Go, go, go.

Campaigners have denounced Hungarys practice of charging detainees to transfer them to facilities that are even more primitive. The cash is officially designated as bail and theoretically returnable if asylum seekers meet a pledge not to abscond across the border to another EU member state.

The Hungarian government has profited from taking bail money off people wanting to be moved from closed detention centres and then they transfer them to places like Kormend, where there is nothing to do and not even proper heating, said Marta Pardavi, co-chair of the Hungary Helsinki Committee. Its cynical and disgusting.

Under pressure, the authorities last month agreed to transfer from Kormend eight refugees who had paid to be released from closed detention centres. They were transferred to a dormitory in Budapest run by Oltalom, an evangelical charity.

The Kormend camp is still open, however, although only five migrants remain.

At the Oltalom hostel, there is anxiety that an even worse fatemay lie in store: that refugees and migrants will be rounded up on the streets and put in camps.

Its true we are afraid of the Hungarian government because they could take back our documents, said Afridi Sohel Khan, 42, a Pakistani refugee from a Taliban-infiltrated region whose five-year subsidiary protection status expires in a few weeks. He too could face detention if it is not renewed, an outcome human rights experts say is possible.

I think its very sad news for refugees and those who are seeking human rights, he added. We are not terrorists and we are not criminals. I didnt come to Hungary for the good life but because I had a problem in Pakistan. We dont have a life here.

Farhad Osmani, 19, who left his birthplace of Iran because he was not entitled to Iranian citizenship because his parents were Afghan refugees, was more blunt. If they try to send me to prison, I will be forced to escape to another country like Austria or Germany, he said.

Hungarys hardline prime minister, Viktor Orbn. Photograph: Radek Pietruszka/EPA

Andras Rakos, a social worker at Oltalom, said the situation had become a moral question for the EU. We are very worried about these people. They are already in enough trouble and its a great shame what the government is doing to them, he said.

But the big question is why does the EU let it happen? When they see that whats happening in Hungary is against the values of the EU, they should not send money to this government. Once they stop sending them money, the government will have big trouble and people will stop voting for them.

Orbn who has trumpeted his plans for an illiberal state and called for ethnic homogeneity, claiming his anti-refugee policy protects European Christianity appears unfazed by that prospect.

In a recent speech, he taunted more liberal western European countries by offering to accept refugee applications from their disaffected citizens angry about the wave of migration. We shall let in true refugees, he said. Germans, Dutch, French and Italians, terrified politicians and journalists who here in Hungary want to find the Europe they have lost in their homelands.

Campaigners believe Orbn is deliberately flouting European law, which demands that every asylum case be treated on its individual merits, as a tactic calculated to keep the migration issue on Hungarys domestic political agenda in the runup to next years general election. At the same time, they say, he is sending a signal to the estimated 7,000 refugees currently hoping to reach the EU from neighbouring Serbia not to enter Hungary.

It will also stop asylum seekers being sent back to Hungary under the Dublin regulations, which is extremely important, said Pardavi of the Hungarian Helsinki Committee. At least 29,000 transited Hungary in 2016 and if other EU countries wanted to return them, Hungary would be obliged to take them. But with this all-encompassing detention policy, all those EU countries would probably say it would be a grave human rights abuse to send them back.

This negates the fundamentals of European asylum policy. Its is a grave headache for European institutions and politicians.

It is also a headache for asylum seekers and a haunting return to the fearful conditions that drove them from their homelands in the first place.

I was scared of the government in Iran, said John, a 33-year-old Iranian Christian convert and pro-democracy activist who left the country in 2014 after learning that the authorities were trying to arrest him. They could take my life, my family, my job. But I can say on behalf of all refugees and asylum seekers here that we are afraid of the Hungarian government.

We are afraid for our futures and the documents the government gave us. We feel Hungary doesnt have a good future in Europe and I was shocked when I saw Vladimir Putin [the Russian president] here recently. I just saw him as a murderer. Its a dangerous time for us and a dangerous path Hungary is travelling on. 100%, people are scared.

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