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Is Hungary 'starving' asylum seekers to deter immigration?

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FILE: A Hungarian policeman and a military personnel patrol at the border station between Roszke, Hungary, and Horgos, Serbia, Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2020
FILE: A Hungarian policeman and a military personnel patrol at the border station between Roszke, Hungary, and Horgos, Serbia, Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2020   -   Copyright  Zoltan Gergely Kelemen/MTI via AP
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The European Court of Human Rights has ordered Hungary - for the 28th time - to stop depriving an asylum seeker of food during his stay at the transit zone.

The Afghan man's pregnant wife and daughter had to give him food from their own portions during the course of a week, according to media reports.

"He is the 28th person starved by the Hungarian authorities since August 2018," the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, an NGO which provides free legal assistance to asylum seekers in Hungary, stated on Tuesday.

The Helsinki Committee and other human rights organisations accuse the Hungarian government of using starvation as a tactic to deter migrants from claiming asylum. Each time, the NGO has appealed to the Strasbourg court - and won.

But the Hungarian government says there is "no free lunch for illegal immigrants".

Euronews looks at Hungary's handling of asylum-seekers at a time of growing controversy.

What's the context?

Hungarian authorities have been pointing to a noticeable increase again since October in the number of migrants coming north through the Balkans -- from usually less than 300 a day to around 1,000 a day, or more, in recent weeks.

Meanwhile, restrictive changes in recent years to Hungary's asylum and immigration laws have made it nearly impossible for asylum-seekers presenting their applications at the Serbian border to win protection in Hungary.

In 2018, Hungary approved 367 requests for asylum or similar protection.

Prime Minister Viktor Orban has campaigned nearly exclusively on an anti-immigration platform during the 2018 election, which saw him re-elected for a third consecutive term.

What's the procedure like?

Those seeking asylum in Hungary have to go through the following steps:

Step 1. Asylum request

The individual or family arrives at the Hungarian border from Serbia and requests asylum from Hungarian authorities.

Single men have little chance to take part in the procedure, which is reserved for families and women.

Hungarian authorities say Serbia is a safe country and therefore don't see the need for single men to request asylum in Hungary.

Step 2. Transit zone

As the procedure starts, asylum-seekers have to settle in the so-called "transit zone" -- a closed area with 3-meter high barbed wires, CCTV cameras, and container buildings.

They don't have the right to contact the outside world during the course of the procedure unless they want to report legal harm. In that case, they can contact a civil rights lawyer of the Helsinki Committee.

German news agency DPA wrote last year that these zones acted as "unofficial prison camps on the border with Serbia" - which the government denies.

Step 3. Examination

In the next step, authorities examine if the asylum request shall be accepted or denied.

If it is a first-time request in Hungary, the procedure is free. Otherwise, the asylum-seeker has to incur all the costs of the procedure (including interpreters, legal aid, etc.).

If the asylum seeker is older than 14, her/his fingerprints are taken and sent to an EU database. The purpose is to check whether they have already requested asylum in another EU member state and whether they have a criminal record.

The asylum seeker is also submitted to a mandatory health check.

According to the immigration ministry website, the following services are provided on the transit zone:

  • Meals three times a day for the general public and five times a day for pregnant women, women with small children and minors under the age of 18
  • Healthcare and social services (especially for those in need of specific treatments)
  • Beds, bed linen, permanent hot water service, sanitary package, laundry, safe for private belongings, clothing
  • Access to telecommunication services
  • Places of worship
  • Childcare, playground, small library
  • Sports and other entertainment

The asylum procedure usually takes 60 days but authorities can request an "accelerated procedure" which takes two weeks or less.

In other cases, authorities will need more time and the procedure will take months.

Step 4. Decision

If the asylum request is accepted, the asylum seeker becomes a refugee with a legal right to stay in Hungary. She/he will be removed from the transit zone to a refugee centre or another facility.

If the request is denied, the asylum seeker can appeal the decision so the court may order authorities to repeat the procedure.

But under these circumstances, authorities will still consider the individual as a rejected applicant. It is in those instances that cases of food deprivation have happened.

Is the practise legal?

Hungarian authorities say the practice is legal. In July 2018, a law allowing the government to deny food supplies to "rejected" asylum seekers was passed.

"Hungary is not responsible for those who have not requested asylum and those whose requests have been denied. There’s no free lunch for illegal immigrants," a government official wrote on the blog About Hungary at the time.

Authorities say those rejected applicants are not "in custody" and have every right to leave the transit zone through Serbia. But many do not want to leave their families behind, so they end up staying. And in many cases, they are not exactly welcome back in Serbia either.

In earlier statements to Euronews' Hungarian service, the immigration ministry said:

"Hungarian laws are clear: they say that for every migrant seeking asylum in the transit zone, we give them the right [to launch the procedure] and we guarantee accommodation, which costs the Hungarian State 700,000 Ft (€2, 050) per person and per year."

"In case asylum was denied, the migrant has to leave the transit zone, which is clearly stated in the law."

But human rights advocates, notably the Helsinki committee, have rejected this argument:

"Guaranteeing food supplies for people in closed facilities is a basic obligation of the state, no matter if the concerned individual is an asylum-seeker or an expelled person."