NYIRBATOR, Hungary – They say they came to Hungary to escape brutality, war or the threat of being put to death in their home countries. Instead, they are serving untold months behind bars without ever being convicted of a crime.
Migrants who arrive from violence-ridden countries such as Afghanistan, Pakistan or Somalia are spending up to a year languishing in detention centers.
In 2010, the government of Prime Minister Viktor Orban adopted a policy of locking up undocumented migrants while authorities adjudicate their asylum claims. Critics, including the writers of a U.N. report released Tuesday, say the policy is unusually harsh and out of step with European norms and international law.
"No other country (in Central Europe) is taking such extreme and harsh measures as Hungary does, and in no other country do we hear so many similar reports of abuse in detention," said Gottfried Koefner, UNHCR's representative for Central Europe.
Inmates at a detention center in the eastern city of Nyirbator jammed up against the metal grills covering the windows at the sight of Associated Press reporters on the street below.
"I come here for asylum, not prison!" shouted one skull-capped inmate from the second floor. Another lifted up his shirt to display a wound in his chest. "No medicine! No go to hospital!" he shouted. Other prisoners yelled that they have been beaten by prison guards and receive inadequate food supplies.
Several men held up a handwritten sign spelling out a stark demand: "Freedom!"
The new report by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees criticizes Hungary for treating legitimate asylum seekers as if they were illegal immigrants,
"Persons who are fleeing and asking for asylum are not breaking the law," Koefner said. "International law actually protects them from prosecution."
Koefner confirmed that UNHCR has received "serious" reports of verbal and physical abuse by detention center guards. Police sometimes subject the asylum seekers to humiliation by escorting them to court dates in handcuffs and leashes, he added.
Moreover, Hungary rejects "a large number" of asylum claims without examining their individual merits, he said.
"Asylum seekers are, for instance, routinely returned to Serbia, which Hungary wrongly regards as a safe third country for refugees. No other EU country considers Serbia safe," Koefner said.
In 2011, Hungary rejected the claims of some 450 asylum seekers — more than a quarter of the total — and deported most of them to Serbia, according to UNHCR data.
UNHCR's report is the latest in a string of condemnations of the Orban government's handling of basic rights and freedoms. Since taking power in May 2010, the administration has passed laws that critics say limit press freedoms, criminalize homelessness and water down the independence of the judiciary.
Hungary's Interior Ministry, which is responsible for refugee affairs, declined to comment on the report, except to dispute UNHCR's claim that Serbia cannot be considered a safe third country for asylum seekers.
Serbia, a candidate for EU membership, guarantees that "it is not possible to expel anyone to a territory where they would experience torture, inhuman or humiliating treatment or punishment," spokeswoman Reka Darago said in an emailed statement. "According to our country information, Serbia provides the necessary institutional framework for people to apply for refugee status."
Hungary lies along a major transit route for human traffickers from Central Asia and Africa into Europe. Many of the migrants who arrive here want to reach Western Europe — but under the law, asylum seekers' claims must be processed in the country where they first make contact with authorities, Koefner said.
While previous Hungarian governments have also been criticized for unfairly detaining asylum seekers, the numbers have increased under the current administration, Andras Kovats, director of the Menedek Association, which assists refugees, told AP.
"Before the legislative changes, it was roughly one quarter of the asylum seekers who had to wait in detention," Kovats said. "Now, according to last year's statistics, it is about two thirds of asylum seekers."
Robert Miskolczi, a lawyer for the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, a human-rights watchdog, said in an interview that the inmates at Nyirbator often recant their claims of physical abuse when it comes to filing an actual complaint.
Still, Hungary cannot justify its policy of locking the migrants up by citing the need to crack down on illegal immigrants, he said.
"These people are not criminals, so keeping them in prison-like conditions, which can last up to a year under the law, is simply inhuman," he said.
A former Afghan inmate at the Nyirbator detention facility told AP that the guards reserved special punishment for asylum seekers who got unruly during their detention.
"If somebody misbehaved, that person was taken to the part of the prison that we called 'Guantanamo,'" said a man with refugee status who identified himself only as Yusuf because he is afraid of losing his job at a Budapest restaurant. "Those refugees that did not behave in a correct way, those who were not quiet enough or those who started some kind of fight were taken there for several days and beaten up."