A visit to Hungarian-Serbian Border to see the Subotica reception centre for refugees

The Subotica Reception Centre is located 3.5 km in the south-east of Subotica city centre right off road No. 11. The Centre can accommodate 50-60 people, and is run by the Republic of Serbia Commissariat for Refugees and Migration. During our visit in early December we met families mainly from Afghanistan, some from Iraq and Iran. The Centre is relatively small, only takes up asylum seekers wishing to enter the EU through the Hungarian transit zones at Röszke and Tompa border crossings, approximately 35 and 17 km from Subotica respectively. Given the new inadmissibility criteria for asylum applications in Hungary in force since July 2018, effectively rejecting all applicants arriving through Serbia, we were wondering why some still hope to be recognised as refugees by the Hungarian authorities? We found it puzzling that the Hungarian route would still be active rather than the new migration routes through Bosnia. Hence, the purpose of our visit was to clarify why the centre is still visited by the asylum seekers and the circumstances that still encourage them to choose Hungary to submit their asylum request, despite the draconian asylum rules in the country.


Since we have started our research on Hungary and its border practices part of the Horizon 2020 funded project RESPOND: Multilevel Governance of Mass Migration Management in Europe and Beyond, the overbearing question for us has been how the asylum seekers using the Serbian route enter the transit zone in Hungary. Also, related questions were whether there was any communication between the Serbian-Hungarian authorities regarding the entry of people, waiting on the Serbian side of the border, to the Hungarian transit zones; who determines the order of entry; and if there is a list of people awaiting entry.


During our brief visit to the Subotica reception centre, we have had a puzzling experience of the place on many fronts. This is a camp, which by the time of our visit, hosted 58 people with Afghan, Iraqi and Iranian backgrounds and reportedly all belonging to families with children.


In the camp we have had a Hungarian speaking guide, who was our first line of contact. We have asked him whether the refugees gain access to the reception centre based on their vulnerabilities or their nationality. There was no convincing answer to our question. Later, he took us around the camp. It is a small building with a few bedrooms and an open outdoors space for children and social workers to play table tennis. The doors of the camp are wide open, and after asking where the men were, we were told that they tended to go to the Hungarian transit zone gates to negotiate access with the Hungarian police on their own. However, the camp authorities repeatedly told us that they had no contact with the Hungarian police in the transit zone or had any information on how the refugees in the reception centre gained access to the transit zone.


However, our follow up with external stakeholders, who are insiders to the Serbian reception centre, indicated grounds to believe that the Serbian reception centre authorities and the Hungarian police at the transit zone are working on the same list of refugees to decide who can enter the transit zone. This brings up issues as to whether refugees in transit in Serbia gain access to Subotica camp with the belief that they can then enter the Hungarian transit zone. And if they do, what kinds of favours are involved in this process?


According to the staff of the Commissaria at the camp, most of the asylum seekers awaiting entry look at Hungary as a transit country. The news did not come as a surprise, as the Hungarian integration scheme has been effectively dismantled. Moreover, as of January 2018, the Asylum Migration and Integration Fund (AMIF) is no longer available for such purposes due to a government ban.


Also, our migration governance network meeting with Hungarian stakeholders took place in Budapest just a week before our visit to the Reception Centre in December (https://www.academia.edu/37947123/Speech_at_the_Roundtable_with_RESPOND_project_Migration_Stakeholders). The meeting concluded that the NGOs and organisations providing integration support, in the lack of sources, are now facing an existential crisis and are forced to switch profiles in order to survive in Hungary. Some were operating on a month-to-month basis by the time of the meeting. This is not to say there were no need for their expertise and extensive network among refugee communities. As an example, Menedék, one of the biggest Hungarian NGOs supporting refugees in entering the job market has been constantly called by employers looking for labour due to massive labour shortages in the country.


At the time of writing, however, thousands are marching on the streets of Budapest against the new employment law passed by the Parliament last week. The new bill, labelled as “slave law” by the opposition, allows employers to demand 400 hours of overtime a year with the overtime banking period extended up to 3 years. Opposition members of the Parliament were beaten up on 17 December 2018 during a protest. The lawmakers were thrown out of the state TV (MTVA) headquarters by the security personnel, whilst the MTVA has failed to broadcast the year-long unprecedented protest right at its doorstep. Balázs Hidvéghi, spokesperson of Fidesz, along with Origo, another pro-government medium, faithful to its reputation, chose to minimise the scale of the crowd and to falsify the true purpose of the demonstration, merely referred to the protest, paradoxically, as the provocation of the migrant-supporter activists of the Soros-network. The demonstration has been persistent and escalating since the first week of December, though the Government showed no enthusiasm to address or even recognise the demands of the protesters. No quarter given, Hungary is a country of emigrants, immigrants are not welcome, but there is work to be done.


Then, it is challenging to understand why Hungary has limited admission of migrants given the extensive human rights abuses that the asylum-seekers face in their countries of origin as well as when in transit. Obviously, the country is facing a major labour shortage as well considering the new employment law. Or else, to be devil’s advocate, one could advocate that the Hungarian state is placing a process in order to extend its authority to a neighbouring state to control who can gain access to the Hungarian transit zones either with the hope that they will continue to Western Europe. There is still a lot to investigate to understand the real function of the Hungarian refugee regime.