Hungary's controversial move to criminalise support of asylum seekers infringes EU law, the bloc's top court has ruled.
The so-called "Stop Soros" legislation, which was passed in June 2018 by the Hungarian parliament, outlawed helping illegal immigrants claim asylum and apply for residence inside the country, with punishments of up to one year in prison for anyone charged with the offence.
The text also made it more difficult to access international protection by restricting the right to asylum only to cases where people arrive from a country where their life or freedom are considered at risk.
The legislation, supported by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and his ruling party Fidesz, was immediately condemned by Brussels.
Orbán is one of the EU's leading voices against migration and often exploits the divisive topic to attack his political adversaries, including billionaire and philanthropist George Soros, whom the Prime Minister repeatedly accuses of promoting an open-borders, mass migration agenda.
The European Commission opened an infringement procedure in July 2018 in a bid to force Budapest to reverse course. As the law stayed in place, the Commission ended up referring the matter to the EU's Court of Justice (CJEU).
In a ruling published on Tuesday morning, the CJEU said Hungary "failed to fulfil its obligations" under EU law, including several directives that determine whether a third country is safe or not.
If the country of origin is considered safe, member states can legally dismiss the asylum application. But the "Stop Soros" law alters this scope and makes it easier for Hungarian authorities to argue the country is secure and therefore reject the application.
The judges also found Hungary breached EU law by criminalising the actions of those who assist in making and lodging asylum requests for migrants who know their claim will be rejected.
The Hungarian legislation "restricts, first, the right of access to applicants for international protection and the right to communicate with those persons and, second, the effectiveness of the right afforded to asylum seekers to be able to consult, at their own expense, a legal adviser or other counsellor", the court said.
The CJEU concluded these restrictions don't justify the introduction of the "Stop Soros" law and its stated objective of cracking down on the misuse of the asylum procedure.
The law "suppresses actions which cannot be regarded as a fraudulent or abusive practice", the judges noted.
Hungary is now compelled to abide by the CJEU's findings "without delay", which in practice would mean amending or withdrawing the controversial legislation. If the government doesn't comply, the Commission can ask the court to impose financial penalties.
Hungary remains defiant
Reacting to the news, Zoltán Kovács, a spokesperson of the Hungarian government, said Budapest accepts the ruling but will continue to stand up to "pro-immigration plans".
"Hungary's position on migration remains unchanged: Help should be taken where the problem is, instead of bringing the problem here. In other words, migration to Europe must be stopped and Europe's future must be based on families," Kovács wrote in a statement.
"We reserve the right to take action against the activities of foreign-funded NGOs, including those funded by George Soros, seeking to gain political influence and interference or even to promote migration."
In Brussels, two of the main groups in the European Parliament – the socialist S&D and the liberal Renew Europe – welcomed the judgement and called on the Hungarian government to cease the mistreatment and intimidation of asylum seekers.
Amnesty International also celebrated the ruling, calling it a "great relief" for civil society, and asked Budapest to withdraw the legislation in its entirety.
"The law created a very great level of chilling effect in civil society organisations and amongst others because the law was deliberately very vaguely worded. Basically no one could interpret the law. Not even lawyers," Áron Demeter, program director at Amnesty International in Hungary, told Euronews.
"It was very hard to assess whether, for example, if we are doing a training on migration or if we are teaching kids their schools on the rights of refugees or migrants, would that be considered as a criminal offence under the law?"