At the Hungarian embassy in Belgrade, in the relatively well-to-do district of Vracar, there is nothing on the notice board to suggest that this is the new gateway to the EU for anyone wishing to seek asylum in Hungary.
Yet under a law passed in June, it is here – or at the Hungarian embassy in the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv – that would-be asylum seekers must first submit a ‘declaration of intent’ and wait up to 60 days for a response. In Belgrade, the embassy’s working hours have been shortened by the COVID-19 pandemic, and any business must be pre-arranged via email.
It is an arrangement that upends the long-standing principle that access to the territory of a country is a prerequisite for the right to seek asylum, a fact the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, quickly condemned.
The declaration itself runs to 10 pages, which applicants are required to complete in either Hungarian or English and submit in person. Applicants are asked about their health, addictions, whether they have a criminal record, where they have travelled and what property or cash they possess. There are questions about family links in Europe, their plans if they receive asylum and what they know about Hungary.
Submitting the declaration is just as complex, BIRN has found, and very few succeed in doing so.
In July and August this year, the Hungarian embassy in Belgrade received only 14 declarations, according to replies to Freedom of Information requests submitted by the Helsinki Committee to the Hungarian foreign ministry and seen by BIRN.
That number compares with some 5,000 registered residents of asylum and transit centres in Serbia and over 1,000 more sleeping outside of official accommodation across the country, an impoverished former Yugoslav republic and candidate to one day join the EU.
“We have been in touch with people wishing to submit a declaration in Belgrade who were advised of being put on a waiting list by the embassy,” said Lederer of the Helsinki Committee. “This is before they can even get an appointment.”
“By law, the embassy cannot decline to receive the declaration,” he told BIRN. Nevertheless, “it seems that the Hungarian authorities are resorting to all sorts of tricks to avoid registering new asylum seekers.”
BIRN has spoken to refugees in Serbia who say they repeatedly approached the embassy and had been waiting for more than two months for an appointment to submit their declarations. Fearful of hurting their already slim chances of asylum, they spoke on condition of anonymity.
In its response, the Hungarian foreign ministry gave no information about any additional waiting time asylum seekers are subjected to without any apparent legal basis.
Documents issued for similar purposes in the region typically run to one or two A4 pages and contain limited personal information necessary for identification and communication. In Serbia, such a document is issued in police stations and legalises a person’s stay in the country. It cannot be denied.
In the Hungarian case, authorities reserve the right to reject the declaration of intent within 60 days and to convey its decision via the embassy. There are no avenues to appeal, only the right to submit another declaration. BIRN was unable to ascertain on what grounds a declaration can be accepted or rejected. Under the law, the procedure does not constitute an asylum application, but the way it is being implemented shows it is far more than just a formality.
“The new law in is breach of the UN Refugee Convention, the European Convention on Human Rights, EU asylum directives, as well as Hungary’s constitution,” said Lederer.
In a partial response to BIRN questions, Hungary’s National Directorate-General for Aliens Policing said the procedure was in line with the country’s international legal obligations but gave no details on how the declarations are assessed or how the personal data submitted by an applicant is used, raising questions about data protection.
“Data processing for the purpose of international protection applications should be regulated just as much as any other administrative process, and based on explicit consent if sensitive data are at stake,” said Ioannis Kouvakas, a legal officer at Privacy International, a UK-based charity that works to promote the right to privacy.
“In this context, however, it is highly unlikely that any consent would be freely given, unambiguous and voluntary, given the imbalance of power between persons in a vulnerable situation seeking international protection and state authorities.”
Kouvakas noted that the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation, GDPR, contains strict regulations on how sensitive data is used, stored, transferred or in any other way processed.
The GDPR also requires states to inform individuals of any use other than the purpose for which the data was collected and of the person’s right to request correction or erasure of the data or lodge a complaint. But none of this information is provided in writing to those wishing to submit a declaration of intent to claim asylum.
Hungarian asylum authorities did not respond to BIRN when asked why the country required such data for a declaration merely of intent to apply for asylum.