EU court rules against Hungary over migrant centres

The EU’s top court on Thursday ruled against Hungary over its “transit zone” camps for migrants, dealing a fresh blow to the right-wing Budapest government and its hardline anti-immigration policies.

The European Court of Justice ruled that migrants could not be detained in the camps without their cases being examined individually, and that they could not be held for more than four weeks.

The ruling, in a case brought by Iranian and Afghan families detained for more than a year after their asylum applications were refused, is the latest clash between EU authorities and Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s government.

The Luxembourg-based court ruled that holding people at the Roszke transit zone — a container camp built into a fence along the Serbian border — amounted in legal terms to detention.

In its judgment, handed down Thursday, the court said migrants could not be detained without “a reasoned decision ordering that detention and without the need for and proportionality of such a measure having been examined”.

It also said that the detention of asylum seekers “may not under any circumstances exceed four weeks”, counting from the date they lodged their application for asylum.

The Hungarian Helsinki Committee (HHC), a human rights organisation that represented the families, welcomed the ruling, saying it meant the transit zones amounted to “unlawful detention”.

“All those kept in the transits beyond four weeks must be released. If they are still in the asylum procedure, they should either be placed in an open reception facility or, after an individualised assessment, in formal asylum detention,” Andras Lederer of the HHC told AFP.

Hungary’s two “transit zone” camps, where people are held in shipping containers behind barbed wire, have also been roundly criticised by rights groups as inhumane. 

Last year the European Commission warned that conditions in the camps violated EU human rights legislation.

Under amendments passed in 2018, Hungary has been automatically rejecting asylum applications from those who have passed through a “safe transit country”, in this case Serbia.

Budapest’s position remains “unchanged” according to government spokesperson Zoltan Kovacs. 

“Our regulations and legal practices are in line with EU and international law since the migrants could have left the transit zone in the direction of Serbia at any time,” Kovacs said in a blog post.

“These people are no longer asylum seekers, as their claims were rejected long ago; therefore, they cannot enter Hungary legally,” he said.

European Commission vice-president for values and transparency Vera Jourova said Thursday she hoped Hungary would return to the circle of “undoubtedly democratic countries”.

Her comments came after the US-based Freedom House rights watchdog said Hungary could no longer be called a democracy, declaring that Orban had “dropped any pretence of respecting democratic institutions”.