GENEVA – The U.N. refugee agency on Monday took the rare step of urging European Union members to suspend returns of asylum-seekers to their partner, Hungary, faulting its new policy of systematically placing migrants in containers and expelling any migrants not holding the proper papers.
UNHCR says that since a tough new law took effect on March 28, Hungary's government has detained 110 people — including children — in "shipping containers surrounded by high razor fences at the border" while their asylum cases are reviewed.
Filippo Grandi, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, said the situation for asylum-seekers in Hungary was already a concern before the measures, and "has only gotten worse since the new law introducing mandatory detention for asylum-seekers came into effect."
The move is bound to put a new spotlight on Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban's government, which has faced scorn from U.N. agencies and advocacy groups over its tough policies on migrants — even if its populist message has resonated in the country and elsewhere in the West.
A complex European Union rule known as the Dublin Regulation holds that any asylum-seekers should have their cases processed in the first country of the bloc that they enter, and should be returned there if necessary.
Grandi urged EU countries to suspend transfer of asylum-seekers to Hungary, "until the Hungarian authorities bring their practices and policies in line with European and international law," according to a statement from his office.
UNHCR Spokeswoman Cecile Pouilly said the call for such suspensions within the EU is rare, and such an appeal was last made in 2012, also with regard to Hungary. Others in the past involved Bulgaria and Greece, in different instances.
Hungary's "emergency measures" under the revised law also violate the country's obligations under international law, by leading to expulsions of anyone who enters irregularly, the Geneva-based U.N. agency said.
The new rules call for all asylum-seekers over age 14 to be placed in one of two container camps on Hungary's border with Serbia until their asylum claims are decided. The Budapest government says they are free to leave the camps and return to Serbia at any time.
Orban's government was previously criticized for erecting border fences in 2015 to try to block entries of people among the migrants and refugees who flooded into Europe, until an EU-Turkey accord helped stanch the huge inflows.