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Critics question new law to keep out refugees

Along with casting doubt on the legality of Hungaryʼs decision to make it easy to deport people coming into the country from Serbia, lawyers said that there are not enough judges available to handle all the asylum cases.

A drone shot of the border.

In the first days after Hungary’s tougher laws on border crossings went into effect on September 15, some refugees who were blocked at the Hungarian-Serbian border began to head to Croatia, where they hoped for a better welcome, while others clashed with Hungarian Police. Meanwhile, Hungarian officials and their Serbian and Romanian counterparts were trading verbal barbs over the very real barbed wire fence that Hungary is putting along its border.

But many were questioning the legality of the new law, and the additional measures that were due for a vote on September 22. Critics also questioned whether Hungary had the capacity to enforce the law, especially because it was planning on returning refugees without arranging anything with Serbia.

“It’s clear from the start that these plans just simply can’t be carried out. There does need to be far more cooperation,” said Marta Pardavi, co-chair of the Hungarian Helsinki Committee.

The riot started late on the afternoon of September 16, after impatient refugees trapped behind the fence that Hungary built on the border with Serbia tore down a gate and sought to move past it en masse. Hungarian police responded with water cannons and tear gas.

Hungarian Police fire water cannons to push back rioting asylum seekers at the Serbian border.

Others who had been blocked by the fence headed for Croatia, after that country announced that it would not stop refugees coming over the Serbian border. Croatia is an EU member but not a Schengen country. Still, refugees could enter the Schengen zone if they leave Croatia to go to Slovenia or southern Hungary.

For all the criticism of the law, on the first day it did seem to have the desired impact on the flow of refugees coming into Hungary. A record 9,380 crossed the Serbian border on September 14, as refugees rushed to beat the deadline. On September 15, police said, 316 were stopped at the border, and under the new law, they are likely to be sent back after summary judgments. By September 16, roughly 50 penal procedures had been initiated against people who were charged with crossing into Hungary illegally.

By making it a crime to cross the border fence without permission, and by deeming Serbia a safe place to return asylum seekers, the law makes it possible for Hungary to expel virtually every refugee who enters the country using expedited deportation procedures.

Hard law to implement

Dealing with those procedures could be a problem, critics of the law say.

According to Pardavi, Hungary does not have the judiciary personnel necessary to process the cases. A group of 88 Hungarian lawyers who signed a statement on Facebook agreed with her assessment.

“The Hungarian judiciary is not an immigration authority. It is incapable of dealing with this number of cases under such conditions. Impartial, just and equitable decisions are severely threatened by the new legislation,” their statement said.

The statement also said the law was flawed in many respects and called on Parliament to rewrite it.

“New legislation coming into effect on September 15, 2015 constitutes a direct breach of treaties signed by Hungary, the directly applicable EU law, the Hungarian constitution and principles of law,” the statement said.

But Hungary’s Parliament is expected to strengthen the law on September 22 by spelling out the specific emergency powers of the police and the army.

Kim Lane Scheppele, a noted scholar on Hungarian politics, published an article in Politico on September 14, in which she strongly criticized the first package of legislation that went into effect on September 15, and the legislation that is to follow.

“This second anti-migration law gives both soldiers and police additional powers. Both may stop cars, block particular locations, and prevent anyone from entering specially marked areas. Perhaps most chillingly, in a state of emergency, both police and military are authorized to ‘use force’ and ‘restrict personal liberty’. The law is vague on these crucial points,” Scheppele wrote.

Not popular with the neighbors

Another problem that Parvadi saw with the system was that it would push the refugees back toward Serbia. “We’ll see how Serbia reacts to this, because it would actually mean that very soon, within a matter of days, it would be looking at receiving thousands” of rejected asylum seekers, Pardavi said. “And the incoming – the people who are just moving northwards through Serbia – would also be present in the territory.”

Indeed, Serbian officials said they were not pleased. On September 15, Aleksandar Vulin, Serbia’s minister of labor, said the situation of refugees at the Serbian-Hungarian border is getting worse, and could get out of control.

And after Hungary made the September 15 announcement that it would extend its border fencing into Romania, that country’s Prime Minister Victor Ponta wrote on his Facebook page criticizing the “provocation of the representatives of the Hungarian government”. He added that “as a human and a citizen of Europe” he feels “outraged at measures like those experienced in Europe in the 1930s and 1940s”.

Hungary’s Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó claimed that Ponta had lost his “self control” when he made the statement.

Hungary apparently plans to continue with its plans to extend the fence along the Romanian frontier, but given the reactions already from that country and Serbia, you could be forgiven for asking whether the old expression that “good fences make for good neighbors” really applies in this case.