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Hungary Says Border Protection First, Quotas Second

| September 9, 2015

159,968. That’s the number, as of September 2, of illegal border crossings that Hungary has seen in 2015. That’s more than three and a half times the number that came in all of 2014. Nearly all of those crossings currently take place on Hungary’s southern border with Serbia, which is a southeast border of the Schengen Area, the so-called West-Balkan route. Some 93 percent of these people request asylum even though under the Geneva Convention, asylum seekers do not have to cross the border illegally. They can do it at the official border crossings. 

The numbers, which make Hungary’s southern border the busiest transit route into the European Union, sound a warning: the European community has a serious problem on its hands in protecting its external borders.

And that is the essential point in Hungary’s position that many just simply miss. “The Hungarian standpoint is not against discussing the [immigration] quota system in a fair way, but this is a later phase,” said Prime Minister Viktor Orbán recently, referring to the proposal being put forward by the European Commission and supported by some Member States. “The quota system does not manage the current situation but the consequences of it.”

The responsibilities for border protection and rules for registration and evaluation of asylum requests are laid out quite clearly in the Schengen Agreement and the Dublin III Regulation. Hungary sees those as the first order of business because, well, it’s the EU law. Those rules say that any country on the Schengen frontier must protect the external border, must register the migrants and must evaluate their asylum claim and while the paperwork is being carried out, the country should take measures to avoid having the asylum-seeker leave the country.

The system has some flaws, to be sure. For example, Greece, which is also part of the Schengen Area, is apparently doing little to register the migrants despite the fact that most of the ones arriving in Hungary are passing first through Greece. Or, there’s also the issue that Hungary, according to a 2012 ruling of the European Court, cannot force migrants to stay in the camps and shelters that have been set up for them while they await the evaluation of their asylum request. Other countries like Italy or Greece can detain in shelters. Some expressed outrage at the pictures of migrants sleeping at the Keleti Railway Station in Budapest, but the fact is, they were there by choice, refusing to go to the camps and shelters that have been set up for them.

Hungary has also been sharply criticized for not letting the migrants travel onward to their preferred destination, like Germany, but the simple fact is that under the Dublin rules this would be illegal. That thousands of migrants crossed the border from Hungary into Austria last weekend happened only because the Austrian government suddenly decided to suspend the Schengen and Dublin rules and open the border to them. But how long can this go on?

Unless this system is fixed and the EU finally gets serious about protecting its own borders, any discussion about migration quotas will only encourage more migration, regardless of whether the migrant genuinely merits asylum or is rather an illegal immigrant coming from a safe country in search of economic benefits.

In addition to restoring order at its gates, the European Union should focus development assistance on the countries where these migrants originate as well as transit countries in the interest of promoting stability. The EU also needs to get serious about making progress with the Return Program.

Once we put these essentials in order, we can have a more serious conversation about how refugees, who have been granted asylum, should be received in the Member States. For those of us on the frontier of Schengen who would also appreciate some European solidarity and who would very much like to preserve freedom of movement in the EU, this would mean a lot in what is a challenging time for all of us.