Fenced Off: A case study on Hungary’s “transit zone procedure”

By Attila Szabó

Since 15 September 2015, a razorwire fence on Hungary’s southern border has hindered asylum seekers attempting to enter the country. The move by the Hungarian government to seal off the border was the culmination of an anti-immigration campaign launched at the beginning of 2015, which has included a dubious “national questionnaire” and an infamous billboard campaign. Many commentators have acknowledged that this campaign was motivated largely by domestic political motives, given the relatively small number of people who migrate to or are granted asylum in Hungary.

However, the situation escalated when the number of the irregular migrants arriving in the country started to dramatically increase from April 2015. The majority were not planning to stay in Hungary or seek asylum there, but rather were passing through on their way to Austria, Germany, Sweden and other western European countries. A large number of the new arrivals were asylum-seekers fleeing from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, while a few of them were from Kosovo and North Africa. The Hungarian government, however, labeled this phenomenon as “economic migration” – a crude generalisation of a complex process. This oversimplification was used as justification by the government for the decision to protect the Hungarian borders with a fence rather than providing humanitarian assistance to refugees and asylum seekers transiting through the country.

Unfortunately, this fence has become a real barrier to refugees and asylum-seekers. There are only a few places where they are able enter to Hungary and submit their asylum applications. These places, called “transit zones”, were established at Serbian and Croatian borders. The transit zones consist of basic facilities in order to keep the asylum-seekers locked-up during the transit zone procedure. According to a report by the European Council on Refugee and Exciles (ECRE), asylum seekers in the transit zones are: “confined within the aforementioned restricted area, which leaves a total space of approximately 140m2 for movement. While the OIN [the Office of Immigration and Nationality, the Hungarian government department responsible for asylum applications] explained that each bedroom has 4 beds and a surface of 20m2 (5 x 4), some container rooms were smaller (5 x 2.5), thereby having a 12.5m2 surface.”

A case illustrating the problematic nature of the transit zone system arose in September 2015, when two Bangladeshi asylum-seekers were detained in the Röszke transit zone. They tried to submit their application under the relevant Hungarian law. Their applications were refused by the OIN, since they had arrived to Hungary from Serbia, which the Hungarian government designated a safe third country in a law passed in August 2015 – a designation which contradicts most international reports about the refugee care system of Serbia (see for example the Amnesty International report on Serbia). Nonetheless, the OIN decided that Serbia would be a safe country to them, saying they have could have applied for asylum there instead of crossing over into Hungary.

Unfortunately, the decision was upheld by the competent Hungarian court despite the fact that a psychiatrist diagnosed that they suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) – a condition which medical services in Serbia are not equipped to treat. Finally, after 23 days in detention these Bangladeshi asylum-seekers were expelled back to Serbia. This occurred without an official deportation procedure: they were simply escorted to the gate into Serbia. All this happened despite the intensive legal support of the Hungarian Helsinki Committee.

This is only one of the stories of the absurd Hungarian asylum system. The law of Hungary provides possibility to be recognized as a refugee, a few details of the regulation hamper the people to access a thorough examination but luckily the comprehensive pictures shows that couple of persons can be granted as refugee or beneficiaries of subsidiary protection. 108 people were recognized in January and February of 2016 while only 98 people were done in the same period of 2015. It is strange that is happening against the stricter rules and lesser asylum-seekers but maybe it indicates the complexity of the asylum systems.


Attila Szabó is a legal advisor at Menedék – Hungarian Association for Migrants. He is a member of the International Preparatory Group (IPG) for the upcoming UNITED conference in Torino.


The next UNITED conference “Moving Stories: Narratives of Migration Crossing Europe”, will focus on the situation of migrants and refugees in Europe, and seek to challenge the prevalent media narrative on migration. Follow all the news on the conference on Twitter, Facebook and the UNITED website.