Can Europe Make It?

‘Blatantly xenophobic’ and ‘shameful’ anti-refugee laws are passed by new Hungarian government, says UN

Hungary is at the forefront of delivering nativist and xenophobic laws that target refugees, migrants, and those that assist them. But the state is only a canary in the coal mine.

Mohamed Elmaazi
4 July 2018

04 July 2018, Berlin, Germany: Viktor Orban, Prime Minister of Hungary, sitting in front of a European flag at a meeting with Bundestag President Schaeuble in the German Bundestag. Bernd von Jutrczenka/ Press Association. All rights reserved.

On World Refugee Day, 20 June 2018, Hungary passed anti-migrant laws championed by right-wing nationalist Prime Minister, Viktor Orban.

The Hungarian parliament voted overwhelmingly to pass the legislative package by 180 votes 18.

Amnesty International blasted the laws as ‘draconian’. The UN has decried them as “shameful”.

The Council of Europe is the latest major organisation to weigh in. On 25 June it demanded that the rules pertaining to “illegal immigration” be ‘repealed’. On 26 June 2018, it released its full report.

Criminalising support for refugees

The new laws target individuals and groups who provide assistance – including legal advice – to asylum seekers. Those convicted face up to 1 year imprisonment. NGOs that provide advice and assistance to refugees also face a potentially crippling tax of 25%. Amnesty has detailed the new rules in an easy to read briefing[pdf].

The legislative changes were labelled the ‘Stop Soros‘ laws. George Soros is a Hungarian-American billionaire financier and philanthropist. He has given large sums of money to immigrant and human rights groups over the years. He has also long been the target of far-right and antisemitic conspiracy theorists, including in his native Hungary.

Shameful and blatantly xenophobic

UN Human Rights Chief, Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein, denounced the laws as “shameful” and “blatantly xenophobic” in an unequivocally harsh written statement.

Al Hussein decried the ‘disgraceful’ scapegoating of people, “simply because they are foreign”.

 “As I have stressed repeatedly, we recognize the responsibility of the Hungarian State to govern its borders”, the outgoing UN head of human rights wrote, “But this legislation threatens the safety and human rights of migrants and refugees, as well as the vital work of NGOs and human rights defenders providing protection and assistance to them. It makes illegal the act of helping those who may be in dire need”.

In violation of EU law

The Council of Europe has also warned that the laws breach human rights standards. The “continent’s leading human rights organisation” was established in 1949. It is made up of 47 states, including the 28 EU member states. Hungary joined the Council on 06 November 1990, after the fall of the Berlin wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The Venice Commission is the body in the Council that is charged with providing legal advice to member states on matters involving elections, human rights, and constitutional justice. The 61 member body asked Hungary to hold off passing the ‘Stop Soros’ legislation until it had time to properly review the laws, and offer its opinion. Hungary ignored this request.

The Venice Commission was therefore compelled to rush its review of the rules and only considered certain aspects of the laws. But it has already called upon the eastern European nation to “repeal” the provisions targeting "illegal migration" saying they criminalise:

“the initiation of an asylum procedure or asserting other legal rights on behalf of asylum seekers, it entails a risk of criminal prosecution for individuals and organisations providing lawful assistance to migrants”

First they target the migrants…

Hungary’s rule changes have also targeted its constitution. The laws have amended[translated into English] the Fundamental Law of Hungary.

The most serious amendments to Hungary’s Fundamental Law include, prohibiting foreign populations from settling in Hungary, imposing a legal duty on all public bodies to protect the “identity and Christian culture” of the country, “forbidding homelessness”, and restricting the right of public assembly.

The UN Special Rapporteur on the right to adequate housing slammed “Hungary’s move to make homelessness a crime” as “cruel and incompatible with international human rights law” in an open letter[pdf].

According to Hungarian news site index[translated into English], 159 amendments to Hungary’s ‘Basic Laws’ passed with 159 votes in favour, five votes against, and zero abstentions.

The Daily News Hungary also reported on 27 June 2018 that new laws restricting the right to assemble without a licence have also just been proposed. According to Daily News Hungary, the law defines a meeting of two or more people as ‘an assembly’, plans for public events must be reported to the police at least 48 hours before hand, and the police will be able to ban a meeting if deemed:

“likely to jeopardise public order or security” or if it involves “unnecessary harm to the rights or freedoms of other people ”.

Organisers of public gatherings will also be personally liable for any “damage” caused at the event.

A long time coming

As far back as February 1999 Ferenc Koezeg, the executive director of the Hungarian-Helsinki Committee, told the BBC World Service:

"The Fortress Europe idea does exist. [Hungarian] [a]uthorities really believe Hungary's only duty is to keep out any migrant, even asylum seekers. They consider all asylum seekers as illegal, irregular migrants. And they don't understand that European practice requires humane treatment of asylum seekers."

Steve Peers, professor of EU law and Human Rights, told the BBC in the same programme:

“It's often the larger member states that have been the strictest on asylum seekers. In the UK, for instance, certain types of appeals won't prevent you from being expelled. In some countries it's almost impossible to stop yourself from being expelled on an appeal which has a huge practical impact on whether you can make a successful claim for asylum."

What's next after ‘liberal democracy’?

While restrictive policies towards migrants and asylum seekers have fluctuated over the years, Europe is becoming more harsh and even violent in its treatment of foreigners. The Council of Europe has itself just reported that: “Xenophobic populism and hate speech have continued to be on the rise in 2017”.

The annual report of the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI), which operates under the Council of Europe, attributes the increase in “fear” and “resentment” as being “largely due to high levels of migration, religious extremism, and terrorist attacks”. It is noteworthy that in a 52 page report on the resurgent far-right in Europe, the word “austerity” is mentioned only once. The ECRI calls “austerity-driven socio-economic climate” an ‘exacerbating’ factor. And leaves it at that.

The report also ominously notes that:

“The era of security threats also brings with it a move to normalise the state of emergency in some countries. Worse, these concerns have been exploited to justify huge trade-offs in fundamental rights of migrants and other vulnerable groups.”

Unfortunately, the report offers little in the way of real solutions. Instead the recommendations focus on more effectively “managing migration”, “promoting equality” “prevent discrimination” and “awareness raising”.

Viktor Orban declared the era of ‘liberal democracy’ to be over, during his most recent victory speech. He won his third consecutive, fourth overall, term as prime minister. Orban’s pronouncements may be somewhat premature, but he is not completely out of step with the prevailing mood. The battle for what will replace (admittedly self-proclaimed) liberal democracies has long been underway but how it concludes is far from certain.

Any movement that seeks to push back against this resurgent nationalism will have to address not only the policies themselves, but the root causes that fuel their popular support.

This article was corrected on 5 June 2018. An earlier version stated that the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI) is a European Union body. In fact, it is a Council of Europe body.

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