Very soon in Hungary, helping a refugee to apply for asylum could be considered a crime. The same risk could also exist for those, such as NGOs or private citizens, who work to help migrants with an expired residence permit.
Officially, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán justifies this new crackdown with the need to combat irregular immigration. But actually, he aims to discourage human rights organizations working with refugees and partially funded by the Open Society Foundation of George Soros, the American Jewish financier of Hungarian origin. It is no coincidence that the package of laws, which provide for up to a year in prison for anyone concerned about the human rights of asylum seekers, has been dubbed as the “Stop Soros law.” The parliament could adopt it as early as next week.
The NGOs of the country are alarmed. They called the bill an attempt to intimidate them, and at least a dozen groups committed to providing legal assistance to asylum seekers despite the law. Moreover, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) last week called for the withdrawal of the law and denounced the new rules, saying it would deprive people who fled their homes of aid and shelter.
“Seeking asylum is a fundamental human right, not a crime,” said Pascale Moreau, director of the UNHCR office in Europe.
It is not the first time that Orbán has attempted to limit the actions of NGOs. A first version of the laws that came to Parliament on Wednesday provided for a 25 percent tax on foreign funding received, along with the obligation to apply for a special permit from the Ministry of the Interior. Criticism from the European Union, and in particular from the European People’s Party, has led Budapest to take a step backwards, but this step is only partial.
The new text introduces the crime of “facilitating illegal immigration,” a crime which is likely to be committed by those who help a refugee whose status is not yet certain to submit an asylum application, but also by those who work to facilitate the renewal of expired residence permit for migrants.
In addition, activities such as spreading information to help refugees and publishing their contents on a website could in the future be a criminal offense. The government is also targeting the network of activists, such as lawyers and doctors, involved in providing legal and health assistance to asylum seekers.
What makes everything even more dangerous, the NGOs say, is the vagueness with which the law speaks of migrants. Indeed, in recent official communications, the government of Budapest has avoided using the word “refugee,” generally defining all migrants as “illegal aliens” without any distinction between those who leave their country for economic reasons and those who flee from wars and violence. Finally, once the Stop Soros law is approved, the next objective will be to amend the constitution to introduce a ban on accepting asylum seekers relocated from the EU. This amendment was facilitated by the elections held on April 8, which allowed Prime Minister Fidesz to win two thirds of the seats in parliament.
“With the threat of prison, the government wants to intimidate those people who, with completely lawful methods, are fighting for the respect of human rights in Hungary,” said the Helsinki Committee, one of the NGOs that would be affected by Orbán’s law. “This new attempt to limit Hungarian civil society and the rule of law threatens to recreate in Hungary a climate of fear as it was not experienced since the fall of communism.”