The European Union’s top court has ruled that Hungary broke EU law by making it a criminal offence for people or organisations to help asylum seekers and refugees apply for asylum, in a new legal blow to Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s right-wing government.
The decision on Tuesday is the latest in a series of rulings from the European Court of Justice (ECJ) against legal measures that Orban has said defend the EU against illegal immigration.
Hungary erected a razor-wire barrier on its border with Serbia and Croatia in 2015 as more than one million people, most fleeing conflict in Syria, entered the EU, often from Turkey via Greece. Tens of thousands moved north, deeper into the EU, in search of sanctuary and better lives.
As more people arrived, Orban began to accuse Hungarian-born US billionaire George Soros, and groups linked to him, of encouraging the refugees and asylum seekers to enter Hungary. In 2018, Hungary’s government introduced legislation known as the “Stop Soros” laws that would make it an offence to help people apply for asylum.
The ECJ said Hungary had failed to fulfil its EU obligations “by criminalising, in its national law, the actions of any person who, in connection with an organising activity, provides assistance in respect of the making or lodging of an application for asylum in its territory.”
The Luxembourg-based court said the legislation restricts “the right of access to applicants for international protection and the right to communicate with those persons”, as well as the right of the asylum seekers themselves to consult a legal adviser or counsellor.
The court said the law cannot be justified by the intent to prevent “the assistance of misuse of the asylum procedure and of illegal immigration based on deception”.
Orban is a steadfast opponent of immigration and has portrayed his country as a bulwark against migration from the Middle East and Africa and a defender of Christianity in Europe.
Hungary’s treatment of asylum seekers and refugees has brought it into frequent conflict with many of its EU partners and the European Commission, which as the bloc’s executive branch supervises the application of European rules and regulations.
The commission said last Friday that it was referring Hungary to the European Court of Justice for failing to amend its asylum procedures in line with a previous court ruling. The EU Commission recommended a lump-sum fine plus daily penalties until Budapest complies.
The referral came after the court found in December that Hungary had failed to respect EU law by denying people entering the country without authorisation the right to apply for asylum and by unlawfully detaining them in “transit zones” on the country’s border with Serbia.
Budapest-based refugee rights group the Hungarian Helsinki Committee (HHC) praised the ECJ’s latest finding.
“From now on, we can again serve our clients without the threat of prison,” co-chair Marta Pardavi told the AFP news agency, adding that the NGO had helped 1,800 asylum seekers since the 2018 law was passed.
She called on the government to repeal the law and “not sabotage the implementation” of the ECJ ruling.
Human rights group Amnesty International also welcomed the verdict, saying it “sends an unequivocal message that the Hungarian government’s campaign of intimidation, targeting those who stand up for the rights of refugees and asylum-seekers cannot, and will not be tolerated.”
“It is now time for the Hungarian government to implement the court’s decision and immediately withdraw this piece of shameful legislation,” Amnesty’s Hungary director, David Vig, said.