Refugee-Fear Politics Targets NGOs Illegal migrants living in a hostel room in Sofia. Photo is a part of the project by the Center for Legal Aid “Voice in Bulgaria”. Photo: José Antonio Sanchez Manzano

Refugee-Fear Politics Targets NGOs

While the numbers of refugees entering Europe decrease, political hysteria against them is on the rise. Civil society advocates and humanitarian organisations helping migrants are an easy target for governments that exploit fear mongering and hatred against refugees for political purposes. Hungary’s prime minister Viktor Orbán is taking the lead, but others seem willing to follow suit as well.

Migration keeps popping up as a hot topic on the political agenda across Central and Eastern Europe (CEE), even though the flow of refugees to Europe has significantly decreased in 2017 and the first half of 2018. Politicians in the Visegrád Four (the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia) have taken the toughest anti-migrant stance. This is despite the fact that the number of asylum seekers in these countries is less then half of that in Germany alone. It also should be taken into account that most of the asylum seekers in Poland originate from post-Soviet countries, rather than the Middle East or Africa.

In spite of the decreasing inflow of migrants, politicians in the V4 maintain anti-migrant rhetoric and harvest political support by raising fears in society. But a rule based on fear is a dangerous tactic, because in order to maintain it authorities need to keep the problem alive rather than solve it, experts warn.

The borders of cynicism

This past World Refugee Day, 20 June 20, 2018, was used by Hungarian Parliament to adopt legislation criminalising legal and informational help to asylum seekers or refugees, or practically anyone who happened to get to Hungary without proper documents. A two-thirds majority of the current ruling party Fidesz passed a new article 353/A into the Criminal Code. This new legislation states that any person providing legal help or distributing leaflets and other materials on rights and residence possibilities should be arrested and cited. Assisting those seeking asylum or refugee status in this way has been deemed a criminal offence named “facilitating illegal migration.” In case these actions are conducted on a regular basis or in a framework of an organisation or network, then the punishment can be up to one year imprisonment.

The Venice Commission, the advisory body of the Council of Europe, issued its opinion with a detailed explanation of why this code violates basic human rights principles, limits NGOs’ work and does not follow the international standards and legal practice of other European countries. In the analysis they pointed out that this addition to the Criminal Code does not really target illegal migration, as regular provisions for this were already in the Code under article 353, but specifically limits NGOs working with migration issues. And this is exactly what the NGOs helping migrants usually do—provide legal help and information as well as humanitarian support and education.

The Commission has also pointed out that, together with the Act on criminal measures applicable to legal persons (Act CIV of 2001), the organisations that might be convicted under the new article of the Criminal Code could be closed down, have their activities severely limited or pay a significant fine.

Moreover, the set of legislation was officially named “Stop Soros”, as Orbán believes US philanthropist George Soros is facilitating migration to Europe. This legislation clearly targets very specific non-governmental organisations in Hungary—such as the Hungarian Helsinki Committee—that provide legal and informational help to refugees and asylum seekers and receive overseas funding from the Open Society Foundations. In the previous draft of this set of laws, there were other two provisions targeting organisations working on migration issues: a 25% tax on expenditures spent on activities connected to migration issues and funds of the organisations, which organise such activities, and mandatory permission to work required from the Ministry of Interior. After a round of criticism from the EU, these provisions were deleted from the draft and were not adopted. However, the 25% tax is now included in yet another set of draft laws together with additional tax-related proposals and will be discussed later.

The changes in the court system, which were also in this set of laws, mean to create “a new administrative court system, separate from the existing court structure, which jeopardises the independence of the judiciary”, according to the analysis by the Hungarian Helsinki Committee.

The law came into force on 1 July, 2018, but how it will be implemented is still a question. Representatives of Jobbik and the Socialist party share the view that it would not work and was adopted only as a populist measure. Hungarian NGOs also do not know which implementation actions to expect from the government, but they do not seem to be closing down their activities. In a press release following the adoption of the anti-migrant law, the Hungarian Helsinki Committee (HHC), stated that they “will continue to provide legitimate and free-of-charge legal assistance to asylum-seekers and will seize all available legal and advocacy opportunities to challenge this law that breaches fundamental rights and EU law”.

The Hungarian Helsinki Committee’s office. In 2017 they received the Calouste Gulbenkian Prize in Human Rights for its “unique and exemplary” character in providing regular and free legal assistance to asylum-seekers, refugees and stateless persons in Hungary. Photo: Ákos Stiller.

The statistics shows that the number of migrants wanting to ask for asylum in Hungary has significantly dropped in 2017 (3,390 asking for asylum for the first time) and the first months of 2018 (405 in the first five months) compared with 2016 (29,430) and 2015 (177,135). Around 20,000 people in 2017 were blocked from entry at the border fence or escorted to the external border.

According to the HHC statistics, 1,216 asylum-seekers were granted protection in 2017, while 2,880 applications were rejected. During the first four months of 2018, there were 267 granted protections to asylum seekers, while 326 applications were rejected. Most of the asylum-seekers are coming from Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. Around half of the applicants are children.

The low number of applications can be explained by the fact that, since March of 2017, only one person per working day per transit zone (there are two in Hungary) is allowed to enter and ask for asylum. The HHC estimates that there might be around 100 people now waiting in the two transit zones.

The most ridiculous piece of legislation we’ve seen in a while

The law was supported by the current ruling party of Fidesz, the party of  Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, and the far-right party with a strong anti-migration agenda, Jobbik. These are the two major parties in Hungary, together holding 80% of the parliamentary seats. The third parliamentary party, the Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP, 20 seats out of 199), did not support the law and consider it useless for fighting illegal migration. “The interest of this government is to keep this problem alive instead of solving it”, commented the chairman of MSZP, Bertalan Tóth.

The Democratic Coalition (DK, nine seats) also opposed the law. The chair of the DK parliamentary group, Ferenc Gyurcsany, called this law “not just political but historical sin” and “an attack on people seeking safe haven from persecution and those who carry out admirable work to help them”.

Even Jobbik’s parliamentary group leader, Márton Gyöngyösi, in his comment to acknowledged that “this is the most ridiculous piece of legislation we’ve seen in a while”. He explained that they had a difficult dilemma within the party prior to the vote on this bill, and he is not sure they had properly resolved it for themselves. Supporting the idea of preventing migrants from entering Hungary, Jobbik’s leader thinks that it would not work in practice: “However, real measures were omitted from the new bill, while several new elements were added, concerning judicial reforms or a constitutional amendment. Therefore we see it as a clearly politically motivated piece of legislation, that’s only goal is to satisfy Fidesz’ voters who expect aggressive rhetoric from the government. In our opinion, measures envisaged in this law are ridiculous and not likely to have a real effect. Voting for this legislation had no real importance.”

Fidesz did not answer the inquiry for a comment at the time of publishing this article.

A dangerous political game

In neighbouring Slovakia, anti-migrant rhetoric also seems to be a political populist act in order to win public support. The majority of people (around 79% according to a Eurobarometer survey at the end of 2015) perceive immigration from non-EU countries to Slovakia negatively. This perception was highly visible in mass media and used by political forces to gain support during the parliamentary elections held in March of 2016. For the ruling left-populist party Direction – Social Democracy (Smer-SD), it was not enough to keep their majority in parliament. But it did create a heated public discussion and raised negative attitudes from the public, police and state officials towards organisations assisting migrants. 

After all, in reality the governmental position became much more realistic than in Hungary, and after the elections and decreased migration flow in 2017, Slovakia had separated from the rest of Visegrád group. Globsec Policy Institute’s analysis on migration trends and political dynamics in Slovakia shows that since August of 2015, the government set regular consultations with organisations helping migrants and had allocated 500,000 euros for immediate humanitarian assistance through Slovak NGOs, an amount later distributed to support humanitarian assistance and integration projects. In the 2016 budget, the government created a 20M euro “reserve” for migration related issues as well.

Alena Krempaska, a programme director at the Human Rights Institute in Slovakia, confirmed in a comment to that the Slovak government supports NGOs working with migration issues. For example,  the Human Rights League received a grant from the Ministry of Interior in 2016 for working with migrants, although the same organisation was previously targeted in the media. Alena considers that “for now it seems that all the steps [anti-migrants rhetoric from political forces] are a political game, a discourse, rather than real steps, though one can only guess where will that lead in the future and with different political parties in power.” She added: “A lot of what government said, was only said to score political points before elections, and almost nothing was then done in reality. We did not build any fence; we did a joint military training with Hungary in this regard, but only sent some 20 soldiers so that they are on the press photo. Same with anti-Soros rhetoric; the ex-prime minister has alluded to Soros only to divest attention during big anti-government rallies and so on.”

Krempaska also noted that they now are seeing some worrisome signs from the new government, which started talking about controlling the financial flows of NGOs using language “demonising” them. But this is not connected with migration issues, as this topic is not currently on the top of the agenda in Slovakia. According to statistics, Slovakia has one of the lowest number of asylum seekers among all EU countries. In 2015 they had 330 applications, 145 in 2016 and 160 in 2017. As for granted asylums, there were eight in 2015 and 150 in 2016.

NGOs doing the job and taking the blame

CEE governments tend to perceive migrant-assisting organisations as free-of-charge providers of services that the state should be providing to asylum seekers and other migrants to comply with international and EU standards, such as legal aid, medical care or education. It is perceived as free of charge because most of these organisations receive funding from the EU or other international donors. According to the analysis of the Institute of Public Affairs in Warsaw, “asylum seekers [in Poland] have access to legal assistance, although in practice this is only rendered by non-governmental organisations sponsored by European Funds”. The fact that this cooperation between authorities and NGOs for the integration activities is not systematic and depends on the local officials was noted in the same analysis.

Similar situations can be observed in Bulgaria. According to Radostina Pavlova, a legal expert and board member of the centre for legal aid Voice in Bulgaria, Bulgarian authorities in most cases help migrant-assisting organisations when they provide services that should be in principle the responsibility of the state. And NGOs cooperate with authorities in order to have access to places where migrants are located. At the same time, Radostina noted that “the Ministry of Interior has significantly improved in the past two years and many organisations now work in the closed centres for migrants which are under its supervision”.

“Access to State Agency for Refugees with the Council of Ministers (SAR) Centres is only possible after a preliminary agreement and according to a timetable, which makes it difficult for organisations like ours, who have limited capacity to conduct regular consultations there. But there are specific cases where we need access and we can not make it happen (the SAR is also responsible for closed facilities for persons seeking protection, where organisations are not allowed to enter)”, she added in her comment to

Similar conclusions were stated in the Council of Europe report of the fact-finding mission on migration and refugees to Bulgaria in November 2017, published in April this year: “The challenge that the Bulgarian authorities face in ensuring interpretation and providing information to asylum-seekers on their rights is significant. However, it should be underlined that it is primarily the role of the state to secure interpretation as part of its duty to ensure fair and effective asylum procedures and not rely excessively on the assistance of NGOs.” Legal aid, psychological assistance to migrants, information and Bulgarian language courses are also almost exclusively provided by NGOs and not by the state due to insufficient financial resources. SAR itself noted in its annual report the cooperation with local and international NGOs.

Although the Bulgarian authorities need NGOs to help them with these forms of assistance and should be willing to keep the situation as is, Pavlova considers that there might be a risk of negative pressure and persecutions of  organisations helping migrants from the state following the Hungarian example. This is because, she explains, “such repressive tendencies as we see, unfortunately, are spreading rapidly”.

The amount of irregular migrants and asylum seekers in Bulgaria is comparable with the Hungarian situation and has also significantly dropped in 2017 and the first half of 2018 compared with 2016 and 2015. According to Eurostat, in 2017 the total number of the first-time asylum applicants was 3,695 compared to 19,420 in 2016 and 20,365 in 2015. And the total number of positive decisions issued in 2017 was 1,695, while the number of rejections was 3,045. For 2016 these figures were 1,350 positive decisions and 1,700 rejections, and in 2015 there were 5,595 positive decisions and 580 rejections. Although the number of irregular migrants has decreased and remains relatively low for a country of seven million, the issue of illegal border crossing is still on the agenda. This is due to the fact that the newly built fence with a surveillance system along the entire border with Turkey does not always work properly, and refugees can still cross the border illegally, which is acknowledged by Bulgarian authorities.

No refugees in my backyard

Financing activities helping people in conflict zones in order to prevent migration is another trend in Eastern European countries. For example, the Polish government would rather support projects in Syria than in Poland. External management of migration and eradicating the root causes of migration is also advocated by Slovakia.

Samer Masri, the President of the Board of the Free Syria Foundation in Poland, has acknowledged in his comment to that Polish NGOs face difficulties in cooperating with the state authorities when they work with Syrian migrants in Poland. But his foundation receives support for projects in Syria.

First studying day at school in Raqqa, Syria, opened by the Free Syria Foundation with the donations collected in Poland .

He explained: “We are realising projects that are in line with the Polish government’s policy, which is “helping at place” (in Syria). We also brand our project as an act of gift from great Polish Nation to Syrians… and we use Polish national symbols… So everybody [governmental officials] likes us and we can do what we want and of course we get support if we need it.” He added that the organisation has to adapt in this way to the current Polish policy in order to be able to continue with the projects both in Syria and in Poland. The Free Syria Foundation conducts most of its activities on the ground in Syria (organising schools for local children, providing medical consultations and psychiatric treatment etc.) and offers consultations on asylum and refugee procedures for EU countries. According to their 2016 annual report, around half of their funding comes from the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Meanwhile, Syrians are not the primary asylum seekers in Poland. In 2017 most asylum applications came from Russia, Ukraine and Tajikistan. The total number of first-time asylum applicants in 2017 was 5,045, versus some 12,000 in 2016 and 2015.

The recent negotiations of the EU leaders during the European Council summit on 28-29 June showed that the policy of enhancing external actions, which will potentially prevent migration to Europe, is shared by all EU member states. Among the results of the leaders’ discussions on migration issues are enhancing cooperation with countries of origin and transit, such as Libya or Morocco, to stop illegal border crossings, continue support of facilities for refugees in Turkey and practice cooperation with the Western Balkans.

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This journalistic article was published as a part of the project “Remembering Europe: Civil Society Under Pressure Again”, implemented by the BlueLink Foundation with co-funding from the EU’s Europe for Citizens Programme. No responsibility for the content of this articice could in any way be attributed to the Education, Audiovisual and Culture Executive Agency and the European Commission. All responsibility for the content lies with the BlueLink Foundation.