New Hungarian migrant laws could cause chaos, UN warns

Nina Lamparski
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Refugees sit at a bonfire at a migrant collection point near Roszke village on the Hungarian-Serbian border on September 8, 2015

Refugees sit at a bonfire at a migrant collection point near Roszke village on the Hungarian-Serbian border on September 8, 2015 (AFP Photo/Attila Kisbenedek)

Budapest (AFP) - The UN refugee agency warned Tuesday that Hungary's tough new emergency migrant laws, which are due to go into effect next week, could cause further chaos in the EU member state.

Speaking to journalists in Budapest, UNHCR's Europe director Vincent Cochotel also warned that criminalising illegal border crossings could violate the UN Convention on Refugees if it involved asylum seekers.

"It is important that the implementation of that legislation is well thought through... Otherwise that could lead to chaos after September 15 at the border," he said, referring to the date when the laws go into effect.

The legislation, which was passed by parliament on Friday, grants more authority to the police and lays down stiffer penalties for crossing the frontier illegally in a bid to halt the number of people entering the EU state.

The new penalties include three years in prison for anyone climbing over the newly-built razor wire fence along the border with Serbia, and also allow for new border "transit zones" to hold asylum seekers while their applications are being processed.

Hungary, which is one of the main gateways to the European Union for refugees coming via Greece, Macedonia and Serbia, has already seen 162,000 people crossing its borders illegally this year, and its conservative government is struggling to cope.

The new laws will allow the deployment of soldiers to reinforce newly-created "border hunter" patrols. The legislation also criminalises attempts to vandalise the 175-kilometre (110-mile) fence along the border with Serbia.

- Not thought through -

But Cochetel warned that criminalising people for crossing the frontier illegally could be in violation of the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, which states that no one shall be prosecuted for illegal entry if they have a refugee claim -- as opposed to seeking a better life for economic reasons.

"What do we think about the legislation that foresees that people can be prosecuted if they try to cross through a non-authorised territory and not through the border crossing?

"Well, there is an article in the 51 UN Refugee Convention that says no one shall be prosecuted for reasons of illegal entry as long as the person has a refugee claim," he said, noting that 85 percent of coming to Europe are considered refugees because they had fled wars in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.

"We will have to see whether the Hungarian courts apply international standards, and if they don't, those matters will be referred to the European Court of Human Rights."

The legislation also involves the establishment of transit zones within a 60-metre no-man's land area? outside the Hungarian border for the purpose of temporarily accommodating migrants and processing asylum claims on a much faster basis.

But Cochetel expressed unease over the move, saying it was unclear who would have jurisdiction there.

"We don't like the idea of transit zones if transit zone means that the Hungarian legislation or European standards do not apply here," he said.

"In those 60 metres, the authorities cannot have the space, capacity or staff to change (asylum) procedures on September 15. I don't think the authorities have fully thought through how it can work in practice," he said.

"There is a need for much better coordination between all the actors: police, the office of nationality and immigration, the army eventually, local authorities and humanitarian agencies at the border."