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The Guardian | 04.06.2018

Parliament debates bill that could lead to activists and lawyers facing jail time

Shaun Walker in Röszke

The border between Hungary and Serbia is already one of the most fortified in Europe. A tall fence runs along its length, electrified, topped with thick swirls of razor wire and patrolled by police.

At two official “transit zones”, heavily guarded and closed to journalists and rights activists, just one person per day is allowed to enter to officially begin the asylum process. They will live in shipping containers locked inside the zone for months while the legal process is under way.

Now, Hungarian authorities plan to go after the few people trying to help asylum seekers to navigate the system. This week parliament will debate a proposed law that could lead to activists and lawyers facing jail time for advising asylum seekers on their rights.

The prime minister, Viktor Orbán, has positioned himself as Europe’s most anti-migration leader, constructing the border fence in 2015 and more recently bombarding the population with scare stories about migration-linked crime and terrorism through state-controlled media.

Orbán won another term in office in April elections, after his Fidesz party campaigned almost exclusively on an anti-migrant platform, and the new bill, known informally as the “stop Soros” bill, was a key part of his electoral campaign.

The campaign accused the Hungarian-American financier and philanthropist George Soros of funding media and NGOs aimed at bringing migrants to Hungary and destroying Christian Europe, and Orbán has said the two-thirds majority that Fidesz won gives it the mandate to push ahead with the legislation.

The bill is targeted at a supposed network of Soros agents in the country. Specifically, it targets those who help asylum seekers.

“Arranging asylum status for an illegal immigrant or enabling someone who has entered Hungary illegally to acquire residence rights will be seen as facilitating unlawful immigration, a crime punishable by a custodial sentence of five to 90 days,” wrote Orbán’s spokesman Zoltán Kovács on his blog last week.

He said committing these “offences” on a regular basis could lead to a jail sentence of up to a year. The bill also includes a provision to forbid anyone who has undertaken such activities from travelling within 8km (5 miles) of the border.

The vague language of the bill as it stands means anyone who provides advisory or counselling help to refugees could get into trouble. If an asylum seeker makes a claim that is later rejected by Hungarian authorities, even if they entered the transit zone legally, according to the law anyone who helped the person make the claim could be punished.

Timea Kovács, a lawyer from the city of Szeged, near the border, whoworks with asylum seekers to help them to make their claims, said the bill made no legal sense. “Everybody has the right to seek asylum, it’s for the courts to decide if their claim is valid,” she said. “All I do is help people understand their rights.”

She is one of a small number of lawyers who work in the transit zone and who could be affected by the law. Some of her asylum-seeking clients have been stuck in the transit zone for many months.

“It can be psychologically important for people to know that at least someone is taking an interest in them. Many of these people have been travelling for a number of years and have accumulated different traumas,” Kovács said.

Debate on the bill is due to begin on Tuesday. Fidesz officials have brushed off international criticism, though they have removed clauses in the bill that would have made NGOs subject to national security checks and taxes on foreign funding. Civil society groups say the bill in its current form is just as bad.

The UN’s refugee agency, the UNHCR, has called on the Hungarian government to abandon the legislation, saying it would “deprive people who are forced to flee their homes of critical aid and services and further inflame tense public discourse and rising xenophobic attitudes”.

In 2015 hundreds of thousands of migrants and refugees passed though Hungary, most of them aiming to travel on to western Europe. Since then the numbers have decreased dramatically.

According to Serbian government figures, there are around 3,000 people in Serbian centres for refugees and migrants, waiting for an unlikely chance to enter the Hungarian transit zone. Some of those who have given up hope of being invited try to cross the border illegally or pay people traffickers.

At a derelict collective farm outside the town of Horgoš, a few miles inside Serbia, three Pakistanis and a dozen Afghans said they would continue to try to make their way into Hungary.

“I’ve tried more than 20 times to cross but every time they catch me and send me back – they just say ‘your country is Serbia’,” said Kamran, 18, from Jalalabad in Afghanistan. He had spent a year travelling from Afghanistan and has spent another year stranded in Serbia, trying to get into Hungary and then further into Europe, ideally to join a cousin in France. “I don’t know what to do now.”

After a resounding election win based on anti-migration rhetoric, the Hungarian government is in no mood to stop its anti-migrant campaign. The new law plays to its voting base and also takes aim at troublesome independent NGOs.

“This bill has nothing to do with migration, it’s all about targeting civil society,” said Péter Márki-Zay, the anti-Orbán mayor of Hódmezövásárhely, one of a handful of Hungarian towns not controlled by government loyalists. “We have to help these people and not conduct hate campaigns against people of a different skin colour.”

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