BUDAPEST (Reuters) - A senior U.N. human rights official urged Hungary on Wednesday to move asylum-seeking families held in "prison-like" transit zones on the Serbian border to other facilities in Hungary that he said are almost empty.
Migrants arriving at the European Union's southern border from Serbia have been held at special holding camps called transit zones while their asylum requests are pending, a practice that has already drawn criticism from the United Nations.
The United Nations Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants, Felipe Gonzalez Morales, said that last week there were 280 people in two such facilities on Hungary's southern border with Serbia, 60% of them children.
Presenting the first findings of a report on the treatment of migrants, he told a news conference that children should not be detained based on their migratory status.
The report had found "very restrictive" conditions for people being held there, he said, adding he had visited a number of other facilities where children could be accommodated with their families, which he said were almost empty.
Prime Minister Viktor Orban leads a nationalist government with a strongly anti-immigrant platform, an issue that has dominated his agenda since 2015, when hundreds of thousands of migrants marched through Hungary en route to western Europe.
Gonzalez Morales said the fact that asylum-seekers were still held in the "prison-like environment" of transit zones, with barbed-wire defenses even on the roofs of sections holding children, might be seen as an attempt to intimidate people there.
"I am afraid that all people held there regardless of age acts as a sort of deterrent," he said, adding that the fact that people could leave the zones toward Serbia "does not prevent me from saying these are places of detention".
Gonzalez Morales said Orban's government, which provided the monitor unimpeded access to facilities it wanted to visit, did not consider transit zones places of detention and did not provide a reason why children with families were held in there.
He also called on Hungary to repeal a declaration of a state of emergency due to mass immigration as the conditions of its application were no longer in place. In any case, no such regulation should override human rights, he said.
"If in reality there is no mass influx of immigration the security situation cannot be considered the same as four years ago," he said, adding the position that a crisis could resurface was not a sufficient reason to keep renewing the measure.
Reiterating Orban's view, a foreign ministry spokesman said that migration remained an unresolved problem and the government had no intention of dismantling the fence on Hungary's southern border or softening its stance on immigration.
(Reporting by Gergely Szakacs; Editing by Frances Kerry and Toby Chopra)