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Jan 27, 2017 - Zoltán Kovács

Free movement of migrants to be restricted in Hungary as right to security comes first

“Nowhere do human rights prescribe national suicide,” said Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán recently at the swearing-in ceremony of the civilian border patrol. It’s short but simple, and it sums up Hungary’s approach towards illegal migration: we will put the citizens’ right to security before the rights of illegal migrants until there status is legalized.

We were compelled to try it, and it didn’t work. In October 2012, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that Hungary had to open up the gates of refugee camps and give asylum seekers the right to walk freely. The camp should provide shelter but should not be a place of detention. It was a nice idea in theory, but in practice it defied common sense.

That 2012 Strasbourg ruling was based on two incidents. One case involved two siblings from Iraq who filed asylum requests after entering Hungary illegally. The other case concerned a Palestinian asylum seeker, who presented fake documents to the authorities. Back then, it would have been difficult to imagine the circumstances under which most migrants have entered Hungary in the recent crisis. Most of them enter the country illegally, but they have no reason to do so because once they’ve reached the border of Hungary, which is an external border of the Schengen Area, they are coming from safe countries, EU member states, or member state candidate countries.

In other words, Hungary is not a front-line country. Once the said asylum seeker has reached Hungary, he or she has already traveled through other countries where the request for refugee status should have been made.

The ECHR’s 2012 decision essentially said that Hungary cannot close the refugee camp gates. One of the results of that ruling is that because of the freedom of movement within the Schengen zone, migrants who have entered Hungary and requested asylum – more often than not coming from safe countries, entering illegally, and presenting fake papers – were then free to leave Hungary and travel on to other European countries before their case was closed.

That, according to international law, is completely illegal because freedom of movement within the Schengen zone only applies to the people who have a clear legal status. Technically speaking, Hungarian authorities should prevent these migrants from leaving the country until their legal status is clarified, but that’s practically impossible if we are not allowed to close the gates of the refugee camps.

Each year, as many as 1 to 1.5 million migrants enter the system with a request for status. Ruling fairly on each case, especially when many have presented false identification or none at all, takes time. Hungary has provided the necessary shelter in refugee camps, but asylum claims cannot be decided overnight.

Consider also the security dimension. Since the 2012 rulings, Europe has had its worst nightmare come true. We know for a fact that the Islamic State has exploited this weakness in the immigration system to move radical militants across borders. We also have seen many incidents of smaller crimes by people whose asylum claims and background checks had not cleared.

With that in mind, Hungary has decided to pursue a different approach. The Ministry of Interior is working on a legal solution to close the gates of the refugee camps for those migrants whose case is still under consideration. It’s not an easy decision. We’ll take criticism for supposedly not defending the rights of asylum seekers, but the freedom of movement in Europe and the security of our citizens is a higher priority.

Closing the refugee centers is not the ideal solution. A better solution would be, as Hungary has proposed, for Europe to establish safe refugee camps outside the borders of the EU. Only those people who have been granted asylum would then be allowed to enter. Unfortunately, Europe has not yet endorsed this solution. So we’ll have to act on our own until then.

“We know that the migrants are also victims: victims of the people smugglers; victims of European politicians who promise admission and invitation; and victims of their own illusions,” Prime Minister Orbán emphasized in the same speech. “We understand them, but we cannot yield to their demands, and we cannot let them into Europe.” The freedom and security of our citizens and legal residents must come first.