Budapest—“It looks like a prison. For me and my husband—okay. But the children? How can we take them there?”
I was talking with Marua Surchi, a lanky veterinarian from Dohuk in Iraqi Kurdistan, outside of an abandoned supermarket on the Serbian-Croatian border. The derelict building with no electricity serves as a final stop for migrants in Serbia before crossing over into Hungary to seek asylum. A windowless room furnished with nothing more than blankets on a cement floor had been the Surchi family’s home for a month.
A few feet away, a tall border fence topped with coils of razor wire jutted out of the dirt. On the other side we could see a warren of shipping containers packed together side by side, each one covered in more razor wire. The complex is one of two new detention centers for asylum seekers in the Hungarian transit zone.
“What did we do?” Marua’s husband, Bashar, asked in a quiet voice, gesturing toward the camp. “We left Kurdistan because there is war. Am I a terrorist? No, I am just a human.”
“We ran from ISIS,” Marua exclaimed, as one of their two young daughters wiggled in her lap. “And now to be sent there—just like prisoners….why?”
Their anguish was palpable. The next morning new regulations from Prime Minister Victor Orbán’s government were to come into effect under which all asylum seekers—including families fleeing war like the Surchis, and unaccompanied minors between the age of 14 and 18—will be automatically detained in the transit zone while their claims are investigated. The process can take many months—and most frequently ends in rejection. Hungary only took in 400 out of the 30,000 who claimed asylum in 2016.
The new law institutes blanket detention for all asylum seekers without differentiating between people who have suffered trauma or need special care and those who might on an exceptional basis warrant being detained. “People who are effectively held in a barbed wire encampment which is guarded by armed guards are not getting a decision on detention that they could then challenge before a court,” says Marta Pardavi, co-director of the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, a prominent human-rights organization in Budapest. “That’s very clearly a violation of the EU asylum law and human rights standards.”
For the Surchis, who paid smugglers to get from Dohuk to Turkey to Bulgaria, and then Serbia, where they’ve already been stuck for five months, the new law presents them with two bad options: stay in Serbia, where conditions are very poor, or enter the prison-like camp and wait in hopes they will be granted asylum.