europa algemeen

The Amsterdam Treaty, june 1997

Knocking at the gate, june 1997

europa landen


Rumania, preselection for the European Fortress

France, Human rights for 'sans-papiers'

Belgie, "He who keeps silent now must fear everything" Ratko Zamir




On the gates of the European Union Hungary takes up a special position. Many refugees (for example 54.000 in 1991) seem to 'choose' this country as their home port or transit country. This however also has a lot to do with her geographic location in the centre of Central Europe. Also after the First World War Hungary lost two thirds of her territory, causing more than half of the Hungarian population to live in the surroun- ding countries. Their ties with Hungary are still very strong because of their language, cultural and family connections.

Since 1987 Hungary has known a refugiee situation as we know it. From 1987 many Hungarians living in Romania fled the Ceaucescu regime. Since World War I they had been living in the country on the Black Sea, but during the final times of the Ceaucescu regime they were facing more and more discrimi- nation. Between 1987 and 1992 around 50.000 'ethnic' Hungari- ans came to Hungary. Their ties with the country made for a relatively easy assimilation.

The mechanichal aspect of the gates to the European Union can clearly been measured by the arrival of many people from East Germany and the former Yugoslavia. Around 30.000 East Germans tried to reach West Germany through Hungary. Which generously opened the border to Austria. Considering the ever present longing to be part of Western Europe the opening of the bor- ders was not a particularly strange act. However, when the Austrians no longer wanted to give the East Germans transit, the Hungarian border also closed to this group. The same can be seen regarding the refugees from the former Yugoslavia. In 1992 around 50.000 people came from the war zone. For the first time since very long ago Hungary was confronted with a large group of people who were culturally diverse and of whom it was not clear what they intended to do in the future. Hungary was hospitable and supplied many beds in camps. The population also helped; they took people into their homes and got recompensation for that. The refugees got temporary resi- dence permits. When Austria closed its borders to the flow - together with the reluctance of other Western as well as Eastern European countries to shelter refugees from the former Yugoslavia- the hospitable attitude changed. Hungary demanded evidence from the Bosnians they -such as a visa for a third country- they would not apply for asylum and would not stay.

Refugee policy

Towards the end of 1992 the Hungarian government had implemen- ted a more streamlined, selective admissions policy and for the first time instated rules regarding foreigners, immi- grants, residence permits, minorities, refugees and asylum seekers. The procedure for requesting asylum is as follows: Within 72 hours after arrival refugees must announce their desire for refugee status and their intention to apply for asylum. Refugees are then interviewed, receive a medical check and taken to a camp. After the procedure has started refugees receive an identity card, entitling them to work without a permit, to free Hungarian language classes and free medical help and assistance with their housing costs. If refused they are, within five days, entitled to appeal to the same authori- ty. A decision will be made within 30-60 days. Asylum seekers who are turned down have the same status as all other foreig- ners and come under the foreign laws. To be allowed to stay they must be able to provide for their own living expenses and housing costs, and not 'form a threat to public order and safety or to the security of the state'.

Regarding its asylum policies Hungary is exceptional. Although it ratified the Geneva Convention on Refugees, it hardly takes in any refugees from Asia, Africa or the Middle East. This is possible because it is one of the few countries in the world to include geographical restrictions in its laws concerning refugees. These restrictions were implemented regarding the mentioned areas when the treaty was signed.

Refugee camps

Hungary is, understandably, not very experienced in the recep- tion of migrants and refugees. Prior to June 15 1995 most illegal immigrants and political refugees stayed in a camp near Kerepestarcsa -a former transit depot for Jews during World War II-, but this camp was closed at the suggestion of human rights organizations. Now they stay in ten half open camps, spread out over the country. Even though there are only a few hundred (in 1995 there were still around 6 thousand due to the war in the former Yugoslavia), the situation in the ten camps is often dismal.

A visit to Kiskunhalas and Orosh za

Together with Martin Luther King Organisation worker Taye and lawyer Krisztina, Annemiek Horst (University of Amsterdam graduate) visited two camps in southern Hungary. Here are excerpts from their report.

Before we go to Kiskunhalas camp, we first have a meeting with a high-up official from the border police. He states there are no problems in the camp. We drive there. The 14 'refugees' stay on the first floor of a military office building. It looks serious: a high wall with barbed wire on it and a solid iron entry gate. Before we get to the long, narrow corridor on the first floor, we have already passed three barred gates. In the hall two armed soldiers stand guard. They look pleased with our visit: a bit of variety at last. To the left is the communal area with a kitchen, tables and chairs and a black and white TV tuned in to CNN. To the right are the sleeping quarters. The beds are screwed to the floor to prevent refu- gees barricading the doors, as once happened in Gyr camp. Smoking is not allowed anywhere, a strange rule in this coun- try where everyone smokes always and everywhere. Compared to other camps this doesn't seems so bad; there is no shortage of clothing, food and sanitary provisions. Among the inhabitants is a young man who claims to be from Liberia. He feels lonely being the only Black person. In the village they stare at him as if he is a Martian. Taye will request for him to be trans- ferred. The only other English speaking person is a criminal from Albania who wants to go to France but keeps getting caught by the border police again and again. One woman lives in this camp, who is probably from Bosnia. She is mentally ill and is locked in a room she cannot leave. The Albanian claims the soldiers abuse her. She looks at me with hollow eyes, I can hardly believe this woman to be dangerous, which those in charge of the camp claim her to be and ask myself what she is doing here. Surely she should be in a psychiatric department. The rest of the inhabitants seem resigned to their fate; to stay until one day a solution is found. Some people spend years in refugee camps.

In Orosh za the atmosphere is entirely different. More than 30 refugees are staying in a building in a military area. At the gate we are stopped by a soldier. When we say we have come to visit the camp he jokes about 'the little negroes', but sud- denly becomes overly friendly when he spots Taye, an Ethiopi- an, in the back seat of the car. Our identity papers are thoroughly checked. A soldier accompanies us to the refugee shelter. On the outside it looks quite nice, there is even a little garden and a covered patio with a battered old table football game, but the interior with its white bars reminds me of the institution in 'One flew over the cuckoo's nest'. The man who is responsible for the refugees in this camp meets us, in civilian clothes, at the entrance and gives us a tour of the camp. The kitchen is outside of the residential area; they must therefore ask permission to cook. Or perhaps they are not allowed to do so? The camp receives 233 forint (around Fl. 2.30 Dutch guilders) per prisoner per day. This is far too little, so the camp depends on humanitarian aid from organiza- tions like the Red Cross and the goodwill of the people of the town. The refugees receive no pocket money.
During the tour we are closely followed by four young sol- diers, baton in hand, and three others who's purpose is un- clear to me. This show of force through the exaggerated mili- tary presence of surly looking men makes me feel rather ill at ease. The atmosphere in the building is mostly decided by the soldiers on duty, some of whom visibly enjoy their power over the refugees. Waving his baton a soldier yells at some people to get a move on as they are going through the gate to make telephone calls elsewhere in the building.
In the communal area there are a long table and some chairs. On the wall there are flyers with information about the Hunga- rian policies on foreigners and immigration. In a cabinet underneath them there are copies of human rights treaties and Helsinki treaties signed by Hungary, on chains. In the corri- dor where the bedrooms are, all chock-a-block with bunk beds, a horrible smell lingers. One of our guides shuts the door just in time so I can't look behind it. Must be a leftover from communist days, when everything had to remain hidden. The bedrooms themselves look filthy. The foam rubber mattresses are very dirty and almost falling apart. Four black inhabi- tants complain about discrimination.

The authorities consider the camps to be open, even though the inhabitants are behind bars on military bases, away from the view of the Hungarian people. The inhabitants can indeed get permission for a short leave, but the duration of this depends on the boss's mood. The situation differs from camp to camp because no general rules have been made. The administrator in Orosh za finds this a big problem because it creates trouble in his camp. Besides the rules are made by both the police (who find people without papers in the street and sends them on to a camp) and the border police (who are more experienced with foreigners). Thus it can happen that while in the same camp someone is refused a few days leave, someone else does get it. A former Yugoslav in Orosh za was allowed to go to Budapest, but a black man, who needed to go there to collect money, was refused. In Gyr you get punished for being back late from work (one year's detention for instance), but in Orosh za you don't.

I heard Gyr is the terror among the camps. There 100 to 150 refugees stay in barracks really only big enough for 80 peop- le. There are only two toilets. Women, children and men live and sleep (some on the floor) together. There are no separate spaces for families. At the end of '95 a delegation of NGO's, members of UNITED, found a room of 5 by 10 metres with 32 people 'living' in it. There is a chronic shortage of things like food, water, soap, sanitary pads, razors and clothing. No arrangements have been made for people who for personal or religious reasons do not eat meat. At night the doors to the rooms are locked. Airing is allowed between 2 and 8 in the afternoon. There are no activities.

Rising racism

Outside the camps nationalism is growing in Hungary. Few non- whites appear in Hungarian streets but there are a growing number of people without papers with whom the Hungarian go- vernment does not know what to do. This is not good for a former Eastern Bloc country in transition -with xenophobic tendencies-, and even less so for the people concerned.

During communist times the people could not leave the country and foreigners could not enter. Very rarely exceptions were made, like for around a thousand Chileans after the fall of President Allende and for four thousand Greeks when Greece was ruled by dictators. The number of foreigners in Hungary was very low: a few thousand refugees and a few thousand students and foreign workers.
Now this has changed. Early in the morning people without papers gather in Moskva tr square in Budapest, where during communism dates were made for illegal parties. The rest of the day there are mostly Roma and homeless people. In a side street some junk is being sold. And in the late afternoon, when the square is busy with hurried commuters getting off the metro on to the bus which will take them up to the rich hills of Buda, Roma women sell gladiola's and second hand dresses. You hardly see any African or Asian faces around town. And if you do spot one, it's probably a diplomat or a student.

During the early '90s Hungary experienced a strong rise in racism. The street was open to racist skinheads, who were openly supported by some politicians. In 1991 and 1992 the Martin Luther King Organization registered 120 attacks on non- whites. Between 1991 and 1994 only 48 cases were tried in court, hardly resulting in any punishments. Gibril Deen and Taye Kebede, both black and victims of multiple attacks by racist skinheads, were never bothered before the Wall came down; they used to be able to walk the streets in peace and without fear. When the far right emerged through the new freedom of speech and got organized, the friendly attitude to non-whites changed completely. The hate directed towards the Roma, which has existed for centuries, now is also aimed at them.