BUDAPEST — The government of Hungary has moved nearly 300 asylum seekers and begun closing detention sites along its southern border after the European Union’s highest court ruled that it was holding migrants unlawfully.
The migrants were shifted late Wednesday night and early Thursday morning from containers at the fenced and guarded border sites, which Hungary has referred to as “transit zones,” to less stringent reception centers. At the new centers, they will be permitted to leave for at least two hours a day. The moves are a rare apparent concession in Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s long battle with European institutions over migration and other rights issues.
The Hungarian government said in a statement that it was complying with the ruling from the Court of Justice of the European Union, delivered last week, even though it considered it to be “risky and harmful to Europe’s security.”
Opposition to migration has been a powerful rallying cry for Mr. Orban as his right-wing Fidesz party, which has commanded a parliamentary supermajority since 2010, has gone about transforming the country into what he has called an “illiberal democracy,” rewriting the Constitution and electoral laws, filling the Constitutional Court with supporters, and taking control of public and much private media.
In March, to help fight the coronavirus, the Hungarian Parliament voted to let the prime minister rule by decree. Mr. Orban said last week that he might relinquish those emergency powers by late May, adding that he expected an apology from those who had made unsubstantiated claims about them.
Mr. Orban emerged as an anti-migration crusader during the refugee crisis of 2015, when hundreds of thousands of desperate migrants from Syria and other countries sought to enter the European Union, many via Hungary’s southern border with Serbia.
The prime minister has denounced Europe’s response to the migration crisis as part of a plot involving the billionaire philanthropist George Soros and the Brussels elite, implying that their goal is to replace Europe’s white, Christian population with Muslims.
Mr. Orban’s government built an electrified razor-wire fence along the southern border, allowing migrants to ask for asylum only at the fenced and guarded transit zones, where they were housed in metal containers. Claims were rejected automatically if asylum seekers left the zone while the application was pending.
According to E.U. figures for 2019, Hungary rejected 91.5 percent of first-instance asylum applications, the highest rate in the bloc.
In response to the European court ruling, the Hungarian government has indicated that it will create statutory conditions that permit asylum requests at Hungary’s foreign representations.
Andras Lederer, a senior advocacy officer with the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, the human rights organization that represented the applicants in the case, said the judgment was the product of five years of hard work, but he expressed concern that the Hungarian authorities would try to find different ways of shutting out people in need of protection.
Those who were locked up in the transit zones were extremely happy and relieved to experience freedom, Mr. Lederer said, “especially the families, those with children who were kept behind barbed wires, behind fences, in containers. Now they get to see trees. They will be able to stand on grass.”
The United Nations’ refugee agency welcomed Hungary’s decision to move the migrants into regular reception facilities, but called on Mr. Orban’s government to ensure that people seeking refuge in Hungary had access to asylum in line with the country’s international obligations.
In a statement, the agency’s representative for Central Europe, Montserrat Feixas Vihé, described the court ruling as “an opportunity for Hungary to bring its asylum policies and practices in line with international and E.U. law.”
Mr. Orban’s government remains at loggerheads with the European Union on multiple fronts.
In 2018, citing a list of attacks on democracy and the rule of law, the European Parliament voted to initiate the Article 7 procedure against Hungary, a process by which the country could ultimately be stripped of its vote in the European Council, the union’s most powerful decision-making body.
The emergency powers set out by the Hungarian Parliament during the coronavirus crisis have also drawn sharp criticism from democracy watchdogs and European policymakers.
The police have detained at least two critics of the government under new rules criminalizing fearmongering. Both were later released without charge.
But for those moved out of the transit zones, the Orban government’s decision to comply with the court’s ruling came as an unexpected blessing.
Abouzar Soltani, a 38-year-old artist from Iran, had been locked up in a transit zone with his 11-year-old son for a year and a half. He left his homeland because he did not share the government’s views.
Mr. Soltani and his son are now in a reception center near the border with Slovakia. Asylum seekers there are permitted to leave the facility for two hours a day. Some migrants previously detained in the transit zones have been moved to another center, near the border with Austria, where residents may come and go as they please.
“I am so happy because everyone is here, everyone is free,” Mr. Soltani said, adding that his son calls the reception “home” because it is a building, not a container. During his telephone interview, children could be heard laughing in the background.
“He’s so happy because he plays with his friends,” Mr. Soltani said of his son. And today, for the first time since entering the transit zone, he would eat ice cream.
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