Hungary criminalises aiding migrants with 'Stop Soros' bill

Set of controversial laws imposes jail terms on anybody seen to be aiding undocumented immigrants.

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    To stop refugees from entering the country, Hungary has built a fence on the Hungary-Serbia border [Laszlo Balogh/Reuters]
    To stop refugees from entering the country, Hungary has built a fence on the Hungary-Serbia border [Laszlo Balogh/Reuters]

    The Hungarian parliament on Wednesday overwhelmingly passed a bill that would allow for the imprisonment of anybody aiding undocumented migrants, ignoring pleas from the European Union, the Union Nations and numerous international organisations not to do so.

    The package of legislation called the 'Stop Soros' bill, which targets rights groups and NGOs, criminalises the act of assisting migrants, allowing for the incarceration of individuals, or the banning of organisations. In addition to the bill, the parliament also passed a constitutional amendment stating that an "alien population" cannot be settled in Hungary.

    Following the passing of the laws on what also happens to be World Refugee Day, rights groups and international organisations decried the measures as draconian and a violation of fundamental human rights.

    "Criminalising essential and legitimate human rights work is a brazen attack on people seeking safe haven from persecution and those who carry out admirable work to help them. It is a new low point in an intensifying crackdown on civil society and it is something we will resist every step of the way," Amnesty International's Europe director Gauri van Gulik said in a statement.

    Having swept the April general elections, Prime Minister Viktor Orban's Fidesz party holds a supermajority in parliament, assuring a smooth passage of the law. Wednesday's vote of the 'Stop Soros' law saw 160 lawmakers vote in favour, with just 18 voting against.

    "Can there be compromise in the migrant debate? No – and there is no need for it," Orban said during a conference in Budapest over the weekend.

    "We tolerate the fact that some [EU] member states…admit migrants. This has and will have consequences – including for us. Meanwhile, they should tolerate the fact that we do not wish to do so."

    The Council of Europe and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), two of Europe's leading rights bodies, have criticised the new law for being arbitrary and vague.

    The Venice Commission of the Council of Europe had previously appealed to the Hungarian government to wait until Friday when it was expected to issue its opinion of the bill.

    "The bill is unconstitutional and ignores EU values and principles," said Petra Bard, an expert on EU constitutional law and EU criminal justice and visiting professor of the Central European University (CEU), which was founded by democracy advocate and philanthropist George Soros, whom the bill is named after.

    "The bill is very poorly drafting and there is no definition of who is an illegal immigrant. My suspicion is that part of the reason it is that so it can remain ambiguous," she said.

    Tax rise for NGOs

    On Tuesday, the finance ministry also introduced a proposed 25 percent tax to be paid by NGOs that assist immigrants, a provision that was previously on the 'Stop Soros' bill but then later stripped.

    "We need to introduce additional measures to protect Hungary from illegal migration,” according to a statement issued by the ministry on Tuesday.

    "The defense against illegal migration imposes a heavy burden on Hungary’s budget, so it indirectly affects the Hungarian people," according to the statement.

    "Therefore, the government proposes that as a manner of burden sharing, the organisations aiding migration should bear additional taxes."

    Orban's war on civil society actors and Soros in particular was well publicised during his campaign run ahead of the elections earlier this year. His Open Society Foundations was already forced out of Hungary last month amid increasing political pressure and a challenging legal environment, while the fate of CEU still hangs in the balance.

    "Some of the departments will certainly have to move out but we still don't know which ones," said Bard, adding that it is possible the entire university may have to relocate to Vienna.

    For the NGOs now affected by Hungary's new laws, some have already said they would stay and fight them for as long as possible.

    "We will continue to advocate for the European Commission as well as individual EU governments to step up their criticism on this, to work together somehow, and to prevent the impact of this law," said Todor Gardos, an Eastern Europe and Balkans researcher at Human Rights Watch.

    "All the EU experts say the measure that he government has been pushing through over the last three years fundamentally violates the rights of the migrants and there should be a big action to against the government for breeching those rights."

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News


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