Struggling Hungary housing migrants in overcrowded, degrading conditions

Tales of arbitrary detention, strip searches and severely overcrowded conditions in refugee centres are emerging from Hungary, as the government struggles with the astronomical numbers of migrants entering the country.

In a direct challenge to the EU, Hungary yesterday suspended an EU asylum programme known as the Dublin Regulation which states that asylum claims must be handled in the EU country where migrants first arrive or first request protection. The European Commission yesterday demanded an immediate explanation, as Hungary argued that it has become overburdened by illegal migrants.

Today however, in a rather confusing U-turn, the minister of foreign affairs and trade Péter Szijjártó, denied any suspension of EU legislation. "The first fact that I would like to establish is that Hungary fully observes all its obligations related to the European Union," he said. " The second fact that I would like to establish is that we are not talking about the suspension of the application of any EU legislation in Hungary. No such decision has been adopted."

However, Szijjártó went on to admit: "This incredible rate of immigration, this incredible illegal migration pressure is causing Hungary serious technical and serious capacity problems."

So far this year, some 61,000 migrants have entered Hungary, compared to 42,700 in 2014, and conditions in the reception centres where migrants are held are worsening, as the country struggles to cope with demand. The majority of the migrants come from Kosovo, Afghanistan and Syria.

According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), some centres are housing double the numbers they were intended to hold, leading to them becoming extremely over-crowded.

Marta Pardavi, co-chair of the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, a not-for-profit organisation which works in partnership with UNHCR and provides free legal assistance to asylum seekers arriving in Hungary, says that conditions are very overcrowded. Debrecen, one of the largest open facilities for migrants in the country, was built to house 850 migrants but some 1,500 are now being accommodated, according to the UNHCR.

Since 2013, when Hungary introduced a two-tier detention system, asylum seekers who are deemed at risk of absconding can be held in detention while their application for asylum is considered, which Hungary claims is in line with EU regulations. Human rights groups and NGOs have highlighted that the decision-making process behind which migrants end up in detention is highly arbitrary, yet most are Kosovars.

"It is fair to say that the current conditions in the Hungary reception system are inadequate and very overcrowded," Pardavi says. "Material conditions have deteriorated, and the level of care and protection envisaged by national and EU law has decreased."

According to Pardavi, a report by the independent Hungarian Ombudsman office a couple of weeks ago said there have been instances where entire families had been forced to strip naked in front of officials as part of medical assessments in closed detention centres. "It is extremely degrading," she says. "For a father to be forced to strip in front of his daughter, this is quite unthinkable among traditional Kosovar families."

Pardavi also says there are no appropriate facilities for children, who have no access to playgrounds and hardly any toys.

Maria Barna, a programme coordinator for the Cordelia Foundation which provides direct assistance to victims of torture residing in Hungarian reception centres, has also heard reports of people forced to strip naked, and describes conditions in closed asylum detention centres as "pretty much prison-like conditions".

"People can go out of their rooms, but they can't leave," she explains. "Anyone can be kept here regardless of their mental state." Mobile phones and even razors are also taken away from those in detention. She explains that severely traumatised people, including torture victims from Syria, are kept in closed asylum detention systems with little information as to when their detention will end, with no access to psychological or psychiatric assistance. However, she says there are some open facilities, where Cordelia's rehabilitation services are available.

There are fears that the Hungarian government, under prime minister Viktor Orban, is also whipping up anti-immigrant and asylum rhetoric. The government sparked controversy last week

after they announced plans to build a four-metre (13-foot) high fence on its border with Serbia to keep out migrants out. In April, a questionnaire was sent out to eight million of the country's citizens asking if they agreed that immigrants endanger their livelihoods and spread terrorism.

Lydia Gall, a researcher for the Europe and Central Asia Division of Human Rights Watch, argues that while the government claims it does not have the resources to deal with such numbers of migrants, it is also spending millions of dollars on anti-immigrant campaigns. "The government claims it is running out of resources, yet so much money - millions of dollars - is being poured into this anti-immigrant campaign. It is really absurd. I wouldn't be surprised if the situation becomes quite ugly soon."