Refugees in Hungary have been caged, starved and denied legal representation. Civic organizations that have tried to help them have been harassed and censored. And courts meant to protect refugees’ rights are under immense pressure to do the bidding of the country’s increasingly authoritarian government.
In a sweeping report on the Hungarian government’s treatment of migrants over the past eight years, Europe’s leading human rights agency, the Council of Europe, detailed a pattern of abuses that “have a negative effect on the whole protection system and the rule of law.”
“They must be addressed as a matter of urgency,” the council’s commissioner for human rights, Dunja Mijatovic, wrote in the 37-page report.
It is the latest in a series of examinations documenting the systemic abuse of human rights and the threat to the rule of law under Viktor Orban, the right-wing nationalist prime minister. But with public media and most private news outlets controlled by Orban’s allies, it is likely that the report will be interpreted as an attack on Hungary’s sovereignty.
As much as anything else, the report from the Council of Europe, which represents 47 member nations, offered a reminder of how Hungary has been able to erode civil liberties and democratic institutions with virtual impunity, despite years of warnings.
It cites reports by the Venice Commission decrying the threat to judicial independence. It highlights court cases against Hungary in the European Court of Justice and the European Court of Human Rights. It notes reports from the United Nations critical of Hungary’s human rights record.
And it reminds readers that the European Union has initiated a procedure that could, in theory, strip Hungary of its voting rights in the bloc. That is unlikely to happen, because it would require unanimous approval of member nations.
Despite condemnation and threats of legal action, Orban has continued to amass ever-greater control, creating a state within the E.U. where dissent is suppressed and some of the forms of a civil society are observed, but not its substance.
The government was dismissive of Mijatovic’s findings, issuing an 18-page rebuttal denying the most serious charges, including reports that it was starving refugees held in detention in “transit zones” along its border with Serbia.
“The claim that the Hungarian authorities would have any obligation to provide catering after the final closure of the asylum procedure is not substantiated,” the government said. “Food can be bought in the transit zone at any time, the conditions for self-care are met, and the state must not be expected to provide additional care from the state budget.”
It is the same reasoning the government has given since the issue of withholding food was documented last year by two human rights groups, the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, based in Budapest, and Human Rights Watch.
“Nobody but the Hungarian government — no lawyer, court or human rights body — has found that people who are held behind barbed wire, guarded by police officers and surveilled by cameras 24/7 are not being deprived of their liberty,” said Marta Pardavi, co-chair of the Hungarian Helsinki Committee.
Critics say that the government, unable to simply deport those who have been denied asylum — in many cases without meaningful assessment of their claims, instead tries to force them out by making conditions intolerable for them.
The report by the Council of Europe’s human rights commissioner is not legally binding. However, the commissioner’s reports are used by the council’s other institutions, like the European Court of Human Rights Court, whose judgments are binding.