Every year on June 20th, countless NGOs, civic organizations, and international institutions around the world celebrate World Refugee Day in order to draw the public’s attention to the millions of refugees worldwide who have been forced to flee their homes due to war, conflict and persecution. This year, Fidesz, Hungary’s ruling party, has come up with a different way to commemorate June 20th. On Wednesday, the parliament approved a package of amendments called “Stop Soros.” The bill introduces a new category of crime: “illicit assistance for immigration.”
Szilárd István Pap, a Hungarian anthropologist, political analyst, and journalist, explains how the newly approved “Stop Soros” bill will affect those who help the refugees, and how it fits into Fidesz’ anti-migrant rhetoric.
Marysia Ciupka: In 2015, more than 391,000 refugees crossed into Hungary. What happened to them? Where are they right now?
Szilárd István Pap: 2015 was the year when most of the refugees were passing through Hungary with the purpose of reaching Western Europe, Germany, France, and also Scandinavian countries. Part of the the reason why there were so many refugees in Hungary is associated with the EU Dublin procedure [editor’s note: Dublin Regulation is an EU law that determines which EU member state is responsible for examining asylum seekers’ application seeking protection under the Geneva Convention within the EU.] The procedure prescribes that a refugee should make their application for asylum in the member state through which they entered the EU. So a lot of people who entered through Hungary, an EU border country, thought that they should start their asylum process there. This is why there were huge numbers of people staying in Budapest close to the Keleti railway station, or camping in other squares in Hungarian cities.
For a while, the Hungarian government did not allow them to board trains or go westwards. Then, at a certain point in the Summer of 2015, the refugees started marching towards the Austrian border. It was an organized march of several thousand people. That was the moment when the government decided to suspend the Dublin procedure and provide buses for the refugees heading westward. So basically, in a couple of days, most of the refugees present in the territory of Hungary were leaving on buses and traveling toward Austria.
The number of refugees in Hungary dropped to just 203 in 2018, according to the Ministry of Interior in Hungary.
The big change came on September 15th, 2015, when the border fence at the Hungarian-Serbian border was built. Since then, nobody has been able to actually enter the territory of Hungary. Thousands and thousands of people who gathered at the border fence in September and October were unable to cross. There were some protests there. They were sleeping in the open air because the government allowed only a few people into the transit zone. Most of the asylum applications were rejected and refugees were sent back to Serbia. That was the situation in 2015.
Since then, we cannot talk about any significant number of people entering the country illegally, because the border fence has made it impossible. Only the people whose asylum applications are considered favorably can enter. This amounts to around 1000 people per year. But most of the people who apply for asylum are rejected.
Last Wednesday, the Hungarian government passed “Stop Soros” bill that criminalizes helping illegal immigrants. Was this a novel proposal?
Yes, and no. It’s not a novel proposal. The government wanted to adopt this law already a couple of months back, before the elections of April 2018. But before the elections they did not have the two-thirds majority needed for it to be passed by the parliament. So, they waited until after the election, and now they have a two-thirds majority again and they can adopt this legislative package. It is not a separate law, but a package of amendments to existing laws entitled the “Stop Soros” bill.
What exact changes does the “Stop Soros” bill introduce?
Basically, the bill introduces a new category of crime called “illicit assistance for immigration.” It means that you cannot give any kind of assistance to people who entered the country illegally. Or, you cannot even offer assistance in applying for asylum to people not eligible for asylum. So this is a very strange and circular kind of argumentation. In practical terms, it means that if an organization offers assistance to a person starting the asylum procedure and at the end of the procedure the authorities decide that that person is not eligible for asylum, then the assisting organization becomes a criminal. Since you can’t know whether someone is eligible for asylum or not without applying, (because only the authorities can decide whether he or she is eligible), the only thing I can do is to help initiate the asylum application. But at the end of the process, if the authorities decide that they are not eligible, if I have given assistance I will have committed a crime. This can be punished with a prison term lasting from five to 90 days. The law also forbids people from assisting illegal immigrants in obtaining legal residency status.
Additionally, new legislation changes the refugee law and states that no person who is passing through a “safe third country” is eligible for asylum in Hungary. All the countries neighboring with Hungary are declared “safe countries.” Anybody who is passing through one of the neighboring countries in order to enter Hungary is thus not eligible for asylum. So let’s imagine a Syrian person is coming, and they are passing through Serbia, for example. Serbia is a “safe country,” so the government says: “Ok, you are not eligible for asylum in Hungary, because Serbia is a safe country, why not stay there?”
And of course, if you commit these so-called “crimes” repeatedly, or you give financial aid to asylum applicants, organize networks, distribute leaflets or informational materials…then the punishments can be more severe. If you do it repeatedly or in an organized fashion, or you give financial assistance as well, then the prison sentence can be harsher, even up to 2 years.
Compared to the initial proposal from February, this is a less strict version of the law. The initial version included two more things. One was that all the NGOs and organizations dealing with migration need to be registered by the Ministry of Interior. The second one was that these registered organizations have to pay 25% tax for any donation coming from abroad.
How is the new law going to affect the work of NGOs and activists who help refugees and asylum seekers in Hungary?
In my opinion, the purpose of this law is to generate fear among the NGOs, civic organizations, and activists. There are two possibilities: one, that because the law is so vague and circular that it won’t even apply to anybody.
All the civic organizations that help asylum seekers are dealing with people who have legal status in Hungary. They have already started their asylum procedure and until the decisions are made, they can stay in Hungary legally. So basically nobody is actually helping illegal immigrants in coming to the country. They cannot come to Hungary because there is a fence at the border. So in one sense, this is all a rhetorical tool for the government — to show how tough it is.
The other possibility is that because the law gives so much space for interpretation, basically anybody will be able to be prosecuted under it. It will either be applied to everybody or to nobody, it’s that kind of situation. It’s such a vague and “rubber” law that it can be bent according to the will of the government. But honestly, I don’t think anybody will be prosecuted based on this legislative change. I believe that it’s mostly for show.
What other political goals is Fidesz trying to pursue with the “Stop Soros” bill?
I think that the ruling party’s principal aim is to somehow keep up this fight, which is a non-existent fight: to show that they are protecting Hungarian people from immigration and that they are punishing the hostile agents that want to help immigrants enter Hungary. This is all bullshit, of course. It’s the central part of the government’s rhetoric: that they’re stopping immigration and protecting the Hungarian people from immigrants. And this legislation is part of that rhetorical campaign to show this, to demonize NGOs, demonize people who are fighting for human rights, or who are fighting for a better asylum procedure.
Is there any political opposition against the new legislation proposed by the Hungarian government, or against this anti-migrant rhetoric in general?
No, unfortunately, there is no strong opposition to these. Of course, some NGOs issued a couple of press releases and statements. The Hungarian Helsinki Committee issued a press release stating that this is a law seeking to criminalize people trying to assist the most vulnerable people on Earth. Amnesty International had another press release, and United Nations Higher Commissioner for the Refugees had a press release asking the government to repeal the proposal. Of course, the opposition parties issued some press releases, but you cannot call this a strong or organized political opposition. In the Parliament, the government had the necessary majority to adopt this law, so they adopted it.
How about the attitudes among the Hungarian society? Is there a significant group of people who buy into the rhetoric propagated by the current government?
I think that in many respects the majority of the population is agreeing with the government on these topics. The topic of migration was very smartly chosen by the government because a lot of problems that people face in their everyday life can be somehow projected onto the migration issue.
So people’s frustrations related to poverty, material insecurity, lack of jobs, or existential insecurity can somehow be channeled into this kind of anti-migrant rhetoric. The government plays into a sentiment present in the Hungarian society, which is something like: “we are poor enough so we don’t need more people that require money and assistance. Rather than giving the money and assistance to immigrants and refugees, we should give assistance to Hungarian people who are poor themselves.” This is what explains the success behind that anti-migrant rhetoric.
You also mentioned that a number of international organizations reported their concerns over the new law. Does what they say can have any effect on what the Hungarian government does?
Not really. The EU could have some kind of leverage, but the EU is very reluctant to take measures against the Hungarian government. International NGOs have no effect or power on the government. There is a theory in the Hungarian media that the government made the new proposal less strict due to pressure from the EU. People believe that these two provisions that I mentioned earlier, the mandatory registration in the Ministry of Interior and the 25% tax for donations from abroad were the most problematic parts of the bill. The government, not wanting to receive negative opinions from the Venice Commission, or from Brussels, took out these two problematic parts to save the rest. The rest of the bill remains there because they want to show that they are tough and they take steps against these horrible NGOs.