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Hungary closing border transit zones for asylum-seekers

BUDAPEST, Hungary (AP) — Hungary’s government said Thursday that it is shutting down the transit zones on its southern border with Serbia where asylum-seekers have been held while their asylum requests are decided.

Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s chief of staff said that, as a result, some 280 asylum-seekers will be moved Thursday to reception centers in the country. Gergely Gulyas also said that, in the future, those seeking to apply for asylum in Hungary will have to present their claims at Hungarian diplomatic missions in other countries.

The government decision comes after the European Union’s top court last week ruled that holding asylum-seekers in Hungary’s transit zones amounted to “detention” and said it was allowed for a maximum period of four weeks.

The zones had been compared by the government to the transit areas of airports, where passengers remain if they are changing planes but not entering the country. The reception centers, by contrast, are open, or semi-open.

“The government does not agree with the court’s decision, which it considers to be risky and damaging in terms of Europe’s security,” Gulyas said. “At the same time, as a member of the European Union, naturally we are obliged to comply with every court decision and we will comply.”

“We think that the transit zone was a solution that guaranteed the possibility of filing asylum requests while at the same time it protected Hungary's borders and, therefore, Europe's external borders, as well." Gulyas said during a government news conference. “The protection of the external borders is an issue in which Hungary cannot, does not want to and will not yield."

Gulyas pointed out that while the EU’s Court of Justice considered holding asylum-seekers in the transit zones as detention, a November 2019 judgement by the European Court of Human Rights had reached a different conclusion, saying that the policy did not constitute a deprivation of the “right to liberty and security.”

Hungary built fences protected by razor wire on its southern borders with Serbia and Croatia and later a pair of transit zones on its border with Serbia in the wake of the 2015 migrant crisis, when some 400,000 people passed through Hungary on their way to Western Europe.

The measures were part of Orban's increasingly strict anti-immigration policies and the extreme minimization of Hungary's asylum system. The transit zones built from shipping containers were a frequent target for widespread criticism from domestic and international rights groups.

They objected, for example, to the small number of asylum-seekers allowed to file claims, the prison-like conditions faced by those kept in the transit zones — including families with small children — and Hungary’s frequent decision not to provide food to adults whose initial asylum claims were rejected but who remained in the transit zones while their appeals were heard.

The decision to close the transit zones was welcomed by the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, an advocate for asylum-seekers which was involved in the landmark case decided last week by the EU's Court of Justice and which has been the target of government smear campaigns.

“We have achieved the end of the unlawful torment of hundreds, including many families with children and single women," the group said in a Facebook post. “Our urgent and important task now is to give legal information to the people freed from their prison and to help them understand what awaits them in the new camps and what rules of behavior they have to abide by in the new locations,” the committee said. “We will also help them to get the chance for the authorities to finally consider their asylum requests."

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