Hungary to imprison NGO workers helping asylum seekers and other migrants

The Hungarian Government has voted on new legislation and a seventh amendment to the country’s Fundamental Law that would further deteriorate refugee people's rights and justify the imprisonment of NGO workers and attorneys who attempt to help them. 

The Hungarian Government has voted on new legislation and a seventh amendment to the country’s Fundamental Law that would further deteriorate refugee people's rights and justify the imprisonment of NGO workers and attorneys who attempt to help them. The new legislation is just another step on the road to becoming an authoritarian regime and silencing the most critical voices as well as strengthening the governing parties' successful "freedom fight" against their allegedly biggest enemies, the immigrants.

The Government started their communication attack against NGOs in 2013 and have been conducting a massive hate campaign against refugees since 2015. Soon they connected the two topics and somewhere around 2017 they designated George Soros, a Hungarian-born billionaire philanthropist, as their main enemy. According to their logic, immigrants are basically terrorists, and therefore those who attempt to help them are a threat to the nation as well. Since Soros' foundation has been funding many NGOs who are most critical of the government (including criticising their refugee policy), he seemed to be the perfect embodiment of the enemy.      

Through the years the Government has built up a perfect conspiracy theory regarding NGOs. Beside the above-mentioned national security line they have questioned the legitimacy of these organizations, stating that since they are not elected,[1] they don't have the right to criticize the Government's policies. They also questioned the NGOs’ transparency, saying that the Hungarian people deserve to know "who is in the background" of these groups.[2] After a while their billboards turned into concrete actions. Building on these accusations regarding an alleged lack of transparency, in  June 2017 the Parliament voted on the so-called Lex NGO 2017 (aka the bill on foreign-funded organizations) which included provisions very similar to the "foreign agent law" in Russia. According to this law, those NGOs that receive more than EUR 23 000 euros per year from abroad (even from elsewhere in the EU (!), need to register as "organizations receiving foreign funding" and display this label on their publications and websites. An NGO can be dissolved for disobeying this law.

In February 2018 the Government went even further and, building on the hate against migrants and refugees, announced a proposal called "Stop Soros" which would have demolished organizations critical of the Government. Pretty soon they submitted a more detailed second version of  "Stop Soros" to Parliament that was even harsher. The NGOs "supporting migration" (which was given a very unclear definition so it could be applied to anyone critical of the Government) would have been required to ask for permission to operate from the Minister of Interior and, even if they would have gotten the licence (after a tax and national security investigation) they would have to have paid 25% in punitive tax for receiving foreign income. Should an NGO fail to apply for such permission, the prosecutor could have conducted an investigation against the NGO, suspend its tax number, impose a fine, and dissolve the organization. Moreover, the proposal contained an 8 km restrictive ban, meaning that NGO workers would not be allowed to enter an 8 km wide zone along the Schengen border.

Since this legislative package would have violated human and constitutional rights it aroused great indignation in Hungary as well as abroad; many organizations and institutions condemned the proposal and urged the Government to withdraw the bill. For months it seemed that the protests were of no use, since the Government used the topic during their election campaign very frequently, stating that they had every intention of "protecting" the Hungarian people from the migrants and their helpers. On the election night, Government spokesperson Zoltán Kovács said those organizations who are trying to have a say in politics should be closed,[3] and many other people close to the Government stated that the "Stop Soros" bill would be the first legislation for the new Parliament to vote on. After Fidesz gained a 2/3 majority again in the elections these attacks have become more personal, since one cannot fight a faceless, invisible mass forever - after a while the Government needs scapegoats and has to show people whom they are fighting against. So just a few days after the elections, one of the pro-Government newspapers published a blacklist containing 200 names of persons who are, according to them, the "mercenaries of Soros" and therefore a threat to the nation. The list included investigative journalists, professors at Central European University (which was established by Soros) and NGP workers. As a human rights expert working for one of the most critical NGOs, I am on this list as well.

Since in authoritarian regimes these kinds of lists are often followed by other, more drastical actions (like imprisonment), it is safe to say that their goal was clearly to intimidate those who are still fighting for democratic values and constitutional rights. However the list was not the only thing pointing in this direction - their communication method also corroborated this intention. For a while now, but especially since they submitted the first version of "Stop Soros", people connected to the Government have not mentioned "NGO workers" as such, but have been speaking about "national security threats", "collaborators", "Soros mercenaries" and mentioning various other forms of threat suggesting these people are serving the will of foreign powers and, therefore are threatening national security and are thus criminals.

Not long after the new Government was formed, Fidesz submitted a third, "improved"  version of "Stop Soros" - different than the previous one, but in a way even stricter, as it actually contains provisions for the imprisonment of those NGO workers and attorneys who attempt to help asylum seekers and other migrants. There are several speculations about why the text changed so drastically (there are no mentions of permits or punitive taxes anymore), which could be due to the huge national and international indignation over the proposals, but it also could be just a strategic step, since it’s easier to dissolve these organizations one by one than to close all the critical NGOs at the same time (which would generate a bigger convergence among them and would naturally be a bigger scandal).

The new legislation, aka, the new "Stop Soros" (Bill No. T/333 amending certain laws relating to measures to combat illegal immigration) would  apply to those NGOs and persons who are working with asylum seekers or potential refugees who would like to apply for asylum. The bill would make several human rights activities illegal, such as providing free legal aid to asylum seekers or even just preparing and distributing information materials. It is not clear what is considered to be "information material", and therefore basically everyone who, for instance, writes something about asylum-seekers’ rights can fall under this law, even journalists.

They have also modified the Penal Code and established a new term, namely, "facilitating illegal migration", which says that "Anyone who conducts organizational activities a) in order to allow the initiating of an asylum procedure in Hungary by a person who, in their country of origin or in the country of their habitual residence, or in another country via which they arrived was not subjected to persecution for reasons of race, nationality, membership of a particular social group, religion or political opinion, or where their fear of indirect persecution is not well-founded (…) if a more serious criminal offense has not been committed by them, is punishable by confinement for this misdemeanour.”[4]

The trick is that only the authorities are allowed to decide whether someone's fear of persecution is well-founded or not (whether he or she can receive refugee status or not); therefore, those who have not received any refugee status yet (i.e., all the asylum seekers or people waiting to submit their application for such status) are excluded from receiving the help of NGO workers and attorneys. If someone undertakes such "organizational activities" regularly, or provides financial means for them, or commits this crime within 8 km of the Schengen border zone, that person "is punishable by a term of imprisonment of up to one year." It is not clear what "organizational activity" will mean in practice, but they are listing a few examples including border monitoring, preparing or distributing information materials, and building or operating a network.

Beside this new legislation the government has submitted the new Tax Law that would bring back the 25% punitive tax which should be paid after activities supporting migration. The draft bill enlists these actions which includes media campaigns, seminars and the participation of such events, building and operating a network, and “propaganda activities that indicate positive aspects of migration”. The latest can be basically everything; therefore any NGO or even newspaper can fall under this restriction. Primarily the donor organization will be obliged to pay the 25% tax, but the supported NGO will have to contribute in case the donor organization fails to do so. The 25% tax is extended to the operational support of the organization as well. The draft bill would surely have a chilling effect on the donors, therefore the result could even be the bankruptcy of many organizations critical of the Government.        

These provisions are especially outrageous because the regulations concerning refugees are already very cruel. In Hungary since January 2018 only two people per day are allowed to submit asylum applications in the southern transit zones, after they were most likely violently pushed back to Serbia and have waited there, sometime, even for months. The transit zones are practically functioning as jails since the asylum-seekers are detained there until they are either expelled back to Serbia or gain refugee status (which is quite rare).[5] This means that they have had very limited help from independent attorneys or NGO workers, and now they will get absolutely no legal or humanitarian aid, nor will they have a chance to have their situation monitored. Those who would attempt such "crimes" could be easily sentenced to one year in jail.

Beside the "improved" Stop Soros bill, the Government has voted on the seventh amendment to the Fundamental Law in which they will further deteriorate basic constitutional rights and make the refugees’ situation even more desperate. Article XIV was supplemented with the following clause:  "Any non-Hungarian citizen arriving to the territory of Hungary through a country where he or she was not exposed to persecution or direct risk of persecution shall not be entitled to asylum."[6] Since, according to the Government, Hungary is surrounded by "safe third countries" where asylum-seekers would naturally never be subjected to any persecution, this new modification will probably mean that the authorities are not planning to give one more person refugee status.

The amendment contains other horrifying provisions. Based on the recent modifications, Fidesz is planning to establish a new jurisdictional system and give a bigger role to the administrative courts. This will probably mean that all the politically sensitive cases will be moved to these courts, where the judges will not be independent of the Government. The bill contains provisions that could restrict the right of assembly referring to others' private and family life, which means that the authorities could ban protests saying that it would disturb others.  The bill also bans homelessness, which will further deteriorate the situation of homeless people and criminalize them even more.[7]    

Both pieces of legislation highly restrict basic human and constitutional rights, leaving those fleeing from war helpless and punishing those who are still brave enough to help them. The full demolition of the critical NGO sphere is just around the corner, since the Lex NGO 2017 will facilitate dissolving organizations not willing to register as "organizations receiving foreign funding", the Lex NGO 2018 will facilitate the imprisonment of NGO workers and the proposed „migration supertax” could financially abolish the organizations.

It seems that an authoritarian regime within the European Union is becoming stronger and stronger and nobody knows how and when it will end.    


[1]     Magyar Idők (Hungarian Times) Péter Szijjártó: Nobody never elected the NGOs to do something, 14 June 2018

[3]     Index: Government spokesperson: Those organizations who are trying to have a say in politics should be closed

[6]     Seventh amendment of the Basic Law of Hungary Article 5

[7]     Daily News Hungary: Parliament Committee approves constitutional amendment proposals on banning homelessness