Human rights defenders have urged the European Union to hold Hungary to account for its hard-line migration policy, as it began detaining most asylum seekers in shipping containers on its southern border.
The new measure came into force on Tuesday, as the EU's migration commissioner held talks with the government of Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban, who has called Muslim migrants a threat to Europe's security and identity and refused to accept a quota of refugees.
Mr Orban built fences on Hungary's borders with Serbia and Croatia to block most refugees and migrants, and parliament recently passed a law allowing police to restrict them to spartan frontier camps for the duration of their asylum process.
The camps comprise 324 modified shipping containers, where Hungary says occupants will receive meals and medical care and be free to leave whenever they wish – as long as they go south back into Serbia.
The only refugees and migrants who will not be confined to the camps are unaccompanied children younger than 14 years of age, who will be put into state-run care homes.
After talks with officials in Budapest, EU commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos said that "in a very friendly spirit of positive co-operation we decided to work together through our experts and ensure that EU rules also are complied with".
“The European principles have been jointly and unanimously agreed by all member states and should therefore be respected and implemented by everyone . . . This implies giving effective access to the asylum procedure while fighting against abuses, but also ensuring a fair review of decisions.”
His comments are unlikely to satisfy leading Hungarian and international rights groups, who say Mr Orban’s measures are a clear breach of his country’s obligations to people fleeing war and persecution.
Human Rights Watch
on Tuesday denounced what it called the latest of “Hungary’s abusive laws and policies designed to make it difficult to seek asylum there, and unpleasant or downright dangerous for those who do.”
Lydia Gall, a researcher for the group in eastern Europe and the western Balkans, said the European Commission's failure to take a stand against Hungary had encouraged other states in the region to harden their migration policies.
"European Commission enforcement action in 2015 against Hungary's abusive border practices has stalled. That can't be allowed to happen again," she said.
“For the sake of asylum seekers in Hungary, those in other EU member states tempted to follow in Hungary’s footsteps, and for the credibility of the EU’s values, Avramopoulos should demand that Hungary change course. He should also be willing to use legal enforcement action if Hungary fails to comply.”
As Mr Avramopoulos was in Budapest, Mr Orban was in Warsaw meeting his counterparts from Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia.
They again jointly rejected any quota system of refugees, and recent suggestions that countries taking such a stance could see their EU funding reduced.
Austria, meanwhile, has said it has already taken in its fair share of asylum seekers and will request an exemption from any refugee quota scheme.