BRUSSELS – The European Union’s top court ruled Thursday that Hungary has failed to respect EU law by denying people entering the country without authorization the right to apply for asylum and unlawfully detaining them in “transit zones” on its border with Serbia.
The European Court of Justice ruled that “Hungary has failed to fulfil its obligation to ensure effective access to the procedure for granting international protection” to people entering from Serbia by leaving them “with the virtual impossibility of making their application” for asylum.
The EU’s executive arm, the European Commission, took Hungary to court over a law it introduced in 2015, when well over 1 million migrants entered Europe, most of them refugees from Syria or Iraq arriving in Greece with the intention of seeking asylum in Germany or Scandinavia.
Tens of thousands of migrants moved through the Balkans. Hungary’s anti-migrant government erected razor wire fences to keep them out and expanded the use of “crisis situation caused by mass migration” legal exceptions to set up two transit zones where people were held.
The commission argued that people entering Hungary were forcibly deported to these areas, systematically detained there and were denied their right to apply for international protection.
In its ruling, the Luxembourg-based ECJ said that the right of people to apply for asylum “is an essential step” in granting protection to those seeking refuge due to threats against their lives or safety, and that EU member countries “cannot delay it unjustifiably.”
“Member States must ensure that the persons concerned are able to make an application, including at the borders, as soon as they declare their wish of doing so,” the court said.
The court said also that Hungary’s decision to hold some people in the transit zones while their asylum applications were considered “constitutes detention.”
Hungary has taken a very strict view on immigration and under Prime Minister Viktor Orban has argued that nation states should have control over their own borders. He has often argued that it is necessary to keep out migrants from the Middle East and Africa to preserve the Christian character of Hungarian culture.
Hungarian Justice Minister Judit Varga dismissed the ECJ ruling as “devoid of purpose” because the transit zones in question have been dismantled. But she wrote on her Facebook page that “strict border control is maintained.”
“We will continue to protect the borders of Hungary and Europe and will do everything we can to prevent the formation of international migrant corridors,” Varga wrote. “Hungary will only be a Hungarian country as long as its borders remain.”
European Commission spokesman Adalbert Jahnz said the EU's executive body “takes note” of the verdict and plans to write a letter to the Hungarian government to find out what steps it plans to take to ensure that it is complying with all aspects of the ruling, including how it will ensure that people can apply for asylum.
Under planned new reforms to EU asylum law the commission is proposing to screen migrants at the bloc’s external borders to establish whether they are eligible to stay or should be deported. They wouldn't be deemed to have entered EU territory. Countries doing the screening could detain people throughout the procedure, which could take several weeks.
Asked whether the commission is endorsing the very things it complained to the court about, Jahnz said the reform proposals are based on “sound guarantees in EU law,” allow people to apply for asylum, and are not comparable to the Hungarian case because they would “fully respect fundamental rights.”
Bela Szandelszky in Budapest contributed to this report.