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Hungary Closes Borders To Most Asylum Seekers, Human Rights Advocates Say


Hungary appears to have closed its borders to nearly all asylum-seekers. It's allowing in only two each day. That's according to human rights advocates who say the move violates international law. It's also causing panic among the thousands of asylum-seekers waiting to cross from Serbia. NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson reports from the Hungarian-Serbian border.

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: Things have dramatically changed on the border between Serbia and Hungary over the past three years. Back then asylum-seekers only had to walk through woods or cross a field to leave Serbia and enter Hungary. Other than a few sleepy border stations, it was hard to tell where one country ended and the other began. But these days you can't miss the border, where Hungarians have erected a double fence with razor wire and video surveillance. Armed patrols appear at the first sign of any breach.

SHEERALI REZAIE: (Foreign language spoken).

NELSON: The only way to get into Hungary now if you are an asylum-seeker, like Sheerali Rezaie, is to put your name on a list and wait to be called. The Afghan farmer says he now fears that moment may never come.

REZAIE: (Foreign language spoken).

NELSON: He tells me he, his wife and two sons, and some 90 other people living at a Serbian dog shelter turned refugee camp, which NPR visited, are afraid. "We worry they'll close the gates forever and say, goodbye, take off." Rezaie and the other asylum-seekers I interview say they were informed two weeks ago that Hungarian immigration authorities had started allowing only a single person per day to enter each of the two transit zones. The razor wire-enclosed areas, which the U.N. and human rights groups liken to detention centers, are the only place asylum-seekers are allowed to be in Hungary until their claims are processed. Timea Kovacs, an independent Hungarian lawyer who works with asylum-seekers in the transit zones, confirmed the near closure of the border.

TIMEA KOVACS: We received many texts and many messages that the asylum-seekers in Serbia really worry about what's happening with them. Some of them were waiting there more than one year.

NELSON: She says the transit zones are emptier than usual, but the head of the Hungarian prime minister's office, Janos Lazar, denied there was any new limit.


JANOS LAZAR: (Foreign language spoken).

NELSON: He told reporters last Friday there are fewer asylum-seekers entering the transit zones because fewer are showing up at the border. That claim seems unlikely, given the U.N. reports there are nearly 4,000 migrants and refugees in Serbia trying to get into Hungary at the moment. Critics of Hungarian refugee policy say what's likely happening is that the government of Prime Minister Viktor Orban, which has a staunch anti-migrant platform, is trying to boost its approval ratings before April's parliamentary elections. Marta Pardavi is the co-chair of the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, a prominent refugee group based in Budapest.

MARTA PARDAVI: We have seen a gradual but very clear decline in the number of people who've been allowed to seek asylum in the Hungarian transit zones at the border. So now where we hear that there's only one person allowed in, it basically means that only unaccompanied minors or single men can get in, no families whatsoever.

NELSON: That worries another Afghan asylum-seeker I see walking with his 2-and-a-half year-old daughter outside of the Serbian town of Subotica. He asked that we not identify him or his family after a Serbian police officer harassed him for speaking to NPR.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken).

NELSON: The man says he is so upset about the new limits, he wants to scream. He says he doesn't know now if he, his daughter or 12-year-old son will ever get to Frankfurt. That's where his wife applied for asylum and has been waiting for them for two years. Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, at the Hungarian-Serbian border. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Special correspondent Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson is based in Berlin. Her reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and read at NPR.org. From 2012 until 2018 Nelson was NPR's bureau chief in Berlin. She won the ICFJ 2017 Excellence in International Reporting Award for her work in Central and Eastern Europe, North Africa, the Middle East and Afghanistan.