Hungarian police and soldiers have severely beaten some refugees and migrants before sending them back across the border to Serbia, according to a new report by the Human Rights Watch.
Published on Wednesday, the report by the US-based rights group was dismissed by the Hungarian government.
Since July 5, refugees and migrants caught within 8km of the 175-kilometre border with Serbia are being returned to the Serbian side of the razor-wire fence on the border.
The fence was built by Hungary in September 2015 to stem the flow of displaced people passing through the country.
Police said 621 people were sent back to Serbia since the new rules on Hungary’s border controls took effect.
The report claims that a group of 30 to 40 refugees and migrants – among them women and children – were beaten by soldiers for two hours after being held in Hungary.
‘Fists, kicks and batons’
The report quoted an unidentified man as saying: “I haven’t even seen such beating in the movies.”
“Five or six soldiers took us one by one to beat us. They tied our hands with plastic handcuffs on our backs. They beat us with everything, with fists, kicks and batons. They deliberately gave us bad injuries.”
Others interviewed by the rights group said they were beaten by police and then forced back into Serbia through small openings in the razor-wire fence.
Refugees and migrants interviewed Wednesday by The Associated Press news agency in Horgos, Serbia, near one of the Hungarian transit zones, described similar treatment by Hungarian officers.
“I went to Hungary three times. It is very difficult, they beat me up,” said Wahed Khan, a 24-year-old from Afghanistan.
“Hungarian police are beating people. They injured many people by spraying [tear gas], they use a very dangerous sort of spray.”
The Human Rights Watch (HRW) report was based on interviews with 41 refugees and migrants as well as officials from a wide range of institutions, including the UN refugee agency, the Hungarian police and the immigration office.
The organisation said that Hungary was also failing to comply with international standards regarding asylum-seekers, by practices such as quickly dismissing most asylum claims from single men, while accepting only 15 claims daily at each of the two transit zones on the Serbian border.
This has led to hundreds of refugees being stranded at the border in precarious conditions.
“The goal of the new border protection system introduced along the Hungarian-Serbian and Hungarian-Croatian borders … is to prevent illegal immigrants from being in Hungary, but to allow those who wish to submit requests for asylum,” Gyorgy Bakondi, chief adviser on homeland security to Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, said in a statement earlier in July.
‘Breaking all the rules’
Lydia Gall, HRW’s regional researcher, said that “the abuse of asylum seekers and migrants runs counter to Hungary’s obligations under European Union law, refugee law and human rights law.”
“The European Commission should use its enforcement powers to press Budapest to comply with its obligation under EU law, to provide meaningful access to asylum and fair procedures for those at its borders and on its territory.”
“Hungary is breaking all the rules for asylum-seekers,” Gall said.
The interior ministry, in charge of border protection with assistance from the army, rejected the HRW report.
“Migrants are not harassed on the Hungarian border. Hungary treats those truly in need humanely,” the ministry said in a statement.
“At the same time, it expects migrants to obey to laws of the European Union and Hungary.”
Of the more than 18,000 asylum applications in Hungary, only 76 people were given refugee status between January and May of this year, said Nora Koves, a human rights expert at the Budapest-based Eotvos Karoly Policy Institute, told Al Jazeera.
The interior ministry said this year only eight people out of these 18,000 had filed complaints about police mistreatment. But internal reviews found all the claims to be baseless.
To rule out the possibility of partiality, the reviews were forwarded to prosecutors.
HRW also said Hungary was applying “legal fiction” at the border transit zones, as people there were not considered to have entered the country even though the zones are in Hungary.
This makes it possible for Hungary to ensure that refugees, whose asylum claims are rejected in the transit zones, do not try to stay in Hungary or pass through the country, as nearly 400,000 people did last year, on their way to Western Europe.