At the end of 1999, Hungary hosted about 6,000 refugees and asylum seekers in need of protection. These included 2,653 asylum seekers with pending cases, 313 granted refugee status during the year, 1,776 individuals "authorized to stay," and about 1,300 rejected asylum seekers from Yugoslavia, who nevertheless still needed protection.
During 1999, a total of 11,499 persons applied for asylum in Hungary, a 60 percent increase over the 7,118 asylum seekers who applied in 1998. The largest groups of asylum seekers originated from Yugoslavia (4,783), Afghanistan (2,238), Bangladesh (1,314), Iraq (543), Bosnia (322), and Pakistan (322). The increase of applicants stems from changes in the asylum law (described below) and an increase in the number of Yugoslav asylum seekers following the NATO bombing campaign.
In 1999, Hungary granted asylum to 313 persons, an approval rate of 6 percent. Authorities granted an additional 1,776 individuals authorization to stay. Some 3,534 persons, representing 1,990 cases, were denied asylum and other statuses in 1999. Between March 1998 and December 1999, some 7,003 applications were discontinued, mainly because the applicants failed to appear.
Under its 1998 asylum law, Hungary lifted its geographical limitation of the UN Refugee Convention, which had excluded refugees originating from outside Europe for asylum consideration. After the law changed, the Hungarian Office of Refugee and Migration Affairs (ORMA) assumed responsibility for processing the asylum claims of non-Europeans, previously the role of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). The sharp increase of asylum seekers in Hungary followed or resulted from the change.
Asylum seekers arriving by air must submit their applications immediately upon arrival, while asylum seekers arriving by other means have no deadline for filing a claim. ORMA interviews claimants within five days of submission of their asylum application. After interviewing the applicant, ORMA forwards the file to the National Security Office (NSO), which offers an opinion on the case within 30 to 45 days.
The Hungarian authorities should issue an asylum decision within 90 days of receiving the application. However, UNHCR reports that the dramatic increase in the number of asylum seekers in 1998 and 1999 created a significant backlog, and first instance decisions took up to six months.
The authorities may grant refugee status or two other types of protection authorization to stay and temporary protection. ORMA grants authorization to stay to individuals who may face capital punishment, torture, or other inhumane treatment upon repatriation. Such permits last for one year, after which ORMA reviews the case for possible renewal.
The 1998 legislation authorizes the government to grant temporary protection on a group basis to victims of foreign aggression, civil war, ethnic conflicts, and grave human rights violations in the country of origin. The government determines situations for which it will offer temporary protection. Hungary did not grant any nationality temporary protection in 1999.
ORMA must consider the NSO's opinion in issuing a first-instance decision on an asylum application. The NSO may appeal an ORMA decision in which its opinion has been ignored. By law, ORMA must communicate its decisions in writing and orally in a language understood by the applicant.
The denied applicant can appeal ORMA's decision in local courts, but not to a higher central authority. In practice, the court makes most decisions based exclusively on written documents, although the applicant's representative may request an oral hearing. The court must render a decision within 15 days of the appeal. During the year, 1,095 applicants submitted appeals to the Budapest Capital Court. Statistics on the court's decisions were unavailable.
During the asylum procedure, asylum seekers reside either in open reception centers or closed detention centers. Because of a large increase in the number of undocumented migrants in 1998, the government converted its open reception centers into closed detention facilities. In addition, Hungary significantly expanded the grounds for detaining aliens.
The 1999 "Anti-Mafia" legislation (described below) transformed into law what was already practice. To transfer an asylum seeker from a closed facility to an open reception center, the ORMA must request permission from the aliens police. During the year, transfers frequently could not take place because the open reception centers were filled to capacity. UNHCR noted the government's tendency to increase capacity only at the closed centers while failing to expand the open reception facilities.
UNHCR and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) reported poor conditions in the closed shelters, including serious overcrowding, unsanitary conditions, a lack of educational and recreational facilities, and inadequate separation of facilities by gender. In February 1999, Hungary's parliamentary ombudsman for human rights, Katalin Gonczol, reported that the closed facilities were "uncivilized and intolerable." Asylum seekers in four shelters reportedly went on hunger strikes to protest the poor conditions and long waits for asylum adjudication.
Recognized refugees receive permanent identity cards and the same social benefits as Hungarian nationals. Recognized refugees are also eligible for additional integration assistance. In coordination with UNHCR, NGOs also provide such assistance as job counseling and language training to ease the integration process.
The Hungarian authorities issue identity cards and work permits to persons "authorized to stay." They are housed in reception centers and receive renewable travel documents.
Barriers to Asylum
Despite improvement in Hungary's asylum procedure in recent years, problems remain. The asylum law outlines exclusion and cessation clauses that generally go beyond the scope of those included in the UN Refugee Convention. Article 47 of the asylum law allows the aliens police and border guards to prepare to deport asylum applicants who are awaiting status determinations.
UNHCR has expressed concern regarding Hungary's restrictive application of the 1998 asylum law. The Hungarian authorities, UNHCR said, sometimes deny asylum and authorization to stay to asylum seekers unable to establish their identity or provide documentary evidence supporting their claims. While Hungary does extend these asylum seekers protection against refoulement under Article 32(1) of the aliens law, they do not receive the same social benefits as recognized refugees.
The 1998 asylum law outlines an accelerated procedure for applications deemed "manifestly unfounded." Hungary considers applications manifestly unfounded if the applicant makes no reference to persecution or fear of persecution in the asylum application, refuses to establish his or her identity or citizenship, or supplies a false document and insists it is genuine.
In the accelerated procedure, ORMA must examine and render a decision for a case within seven days. The NSO is required to provide an opinion within five days. A denied asylum seeker has three days to file an appeal.
The 1998 asylum legislation also includes an accelerated airport procedure for asylum seekers arriving from "safe third countries" and "safe countries of origin." Hungary does not employ an official list of safe countries of origin or safe third countries. Instead, individual asylum officers judge when safe country principles should apply. According to UNHCR, the principles are rarely applied.
Under the airport procedure, ORMA interviews the applicant and makes an immediate decision on whether to grant or deny entry. As in the accelerated procedure, a rejected asylum seeker has three days to file an appeal.
A December 1999 report by the Hungarian Parliamentary Commissioner for Human Rights found conditions for asylum seekers at Budapest's International Airport to be poor. The airport staff and border guards work in unsanitary conditions, are overburdened, and need psychological counseling, the Commission added. Asylum seekers do not receive adequate legal counsel at the airport, the report said, adding that the Hungarian authorities consider the transit zone to be outside Hungarian territory to deny asylum seekers due process rights. The commission recommended changing this legal interpretation so that the airport transit zone would be considered Hungarian territory.
Although UNHCR reported that Hungarian authorities generally grant asylum seekers access to the asylum procedure and allow them to remain in the country pending appeals, the agency nevertheless cautioned other countries against returning asylum seekers to Hungary during 1999, given the lack of legal safeguards.
In September, a new "Anti-Mafia law" to combat "illegal" migration took effect. The new law amends several laws and decrees already in force, including the aliens law and the asylum law.
To comply with European Union (EU) standards, the law introduced provisions to suspend deportation of asylum seekers awaiting an appeals decision. The law also limits the time that undocumented aliens may be detained to 18 months and sets standards for detention. Not all facilities complied with the new standards, UNHCR reported, but the Ministry of the Interior set aside funds to refurbish all detention facilities.
In November 1999, the government created a central office for migration issues the Office of Immigration and Nationality (OIN) within the Ministry of the Interior. The agency set to begin work in January will assume responsibility for three areas: nationality/citizenship issues; refugees (including the administration of government-run reception centers and the first-instance asylum procedure); and aliens policing issues, from visa issuance to expulsions. The OIN will also be responsible for drafting legislation to further align Hungarian law with EU standards.
Fleeing the Balkan wars of the 1990s, many former Yugoslavs have sought asylum in or attempted to transit through Hungary on the way to countries farther west. In June 1999, Hungary ended temporary protection for the 450 Bosnians remaining in the country.
After the Kosovo province's descent into open conflict in 1998 and 1999, the number of Yugoslav asylum seekers entering Hungary increased once more. Yugoslav asylum seekers in Hungary include Kosovo Albanians as well as Serb and Hungarian draft evaders.
Unlike its EU neighbors, Hungary allows Yugoslav nationals to enter without visas and stay for up to 30 days. Following the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia, several thousand Yugoslav citizens, mostly ethnic Serbs and Hungarians, entered Hungary. While some eventually applied for asylum, others remained without official status, residing in private homes and hostels.
In 1999, 4,783 Yugoslav citizens (including Kosovo Albanians), applied for asylum in Hungary. Of the 2,789 Yugoslav asylum applicants who received a decision in 1999, ORMA granted refugee status to 37 persons and authorization to stay to 1,408 persons. UNHCR expressed concern that the Hungarian authorities extended authorization to stay only to those Yugoslavs holding documentary evidence of their identity, thus employing a restrictive interpretation of the UN Refugee Convention.
Hungary did not authorize temporary protection for Kosovo Albanians. In 1999, 2,454 Kosovo Albanians arrived in Hungary, joining the 2,987 who entered in 1998. Of these, Hungary granted only 19 refugee status, and another 723 authorization to stay. Hungary rejected the applications of 1,633 Kosovars and closed the cases of 2,765 applicants because they failed to appear for interviews.
The authorities accommodated Kosovo Albanians traveling with valid travel or identification documents in open refugee reception centers. NGOs housed some traveling without documents, while other Kosovo refugees arranged private accommodations.
Between August and October, the International Organization for Migration and the Hungarian government sponsored the repatriation of 406 Kosovo Albanians. Many more reportedly left Hungary spontaneously, following the arrival of NATO troops in Kosovo in June 1999.
Hungary drew international criticism for its failure to protect minorities or address police brutality in 1999. Human rights groups reported violent attacks on foreigners and ethnic minorities, particularly the Roma. Widespread discrimination and prejudice led many Hungarian Roma to seek asylum abroad. During the first six months of 1999, Canada received 946 applications for asylum from Hungarian Roma. In 1999, the recognition rate of Hungarian Roma in Canada dropped significantly from the 1998 rate of 39 percent.