E.U. Border Agency Pulls Out of Hungary Over Rights Abuses

BRUSSELS — Frontex, the European Union agency responsible for monitoring the bloc’s external borders, announced on Wednesday that it was suspending operations in Hungary, which has ignored a court order to bring its asylum practices in line with European Union law.

In a December 2020 ruling, the Court of Justice of the European Union determined that the Hungarian practice of denying asylum seekers protection and removing them to Serbia violated E.U. law.

But Hungary has refused to end its policy, known as “pushback,” and the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, a human rights group based in Budapest, estimates that nearly 4,500 people have been expelled from the country since last December, in direct defiance of the court’s ruling.

Amid this standoff, Frontex decided to pull out of Hungary, the first time the agency has left an E.U. member state.

“Frontex has suspended all its operational activities on the ground in Hungary,” the agency said in a statement to The New York Times. “Our common efforts to protect the E.U. external borders can only be successful if we ensure that our cooperation and activities are fully in line with E.U. laws.”

The government of Hungary has employed the so-called pushback policy for years, putting the country at loggerheads with the European Union.

Since the pushback practice was adopted by the Hungarian government in 2016, more than 50,000 asylum seekers have been ejected, with most sent back to Serbia, according to the Hungarian Helsinki Committee. Many asylum seekers first arrive to Europe in Greece, then make their way to Serbia to try gain entry to Western Europe via Hungary. The Hungarian government has declared Serbia to be a safe country for asylum seekers.

“This is not happening in the shadows, it’s happening out in the open,” said Andras Lederer, a senior advocacy officer with the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, adding that Hungarian law enforcement has publicly shared statistical data of its pushback efforts since the high court’s ruling.

The 27-nation European Union has itself struggled to develop a coherent joint policy on migration, one of the most contentious issues in European politics since the 2015 refugee crisis, when the arrival of more than one million Syrian refugees fleeing war at home set off political crises in many E.U. countries and was used as a political tool by the far right.

The migration issue became a lightning rod in intensifying culture wars in Europe, which right-wing populist leaders have relished fighting.

No one more so than Viktor Orban, Hungary’s prime minister, who emerged as an anti-migration firebrand at the back of the 2015 crisis.

Mr. Orban’s government erected an electrified razor-wire fence along Hungary’s southern border with Serbia, and pursued a range of policies that made Hungary an inhospitable destination for those seeking asylum. These included detaining asylum seekers in metal containers and automatically rejecting them if they left the guarded zones they inhabited while their asylum applications were pending, a practice struck down by the E.U.’s high court in May 2020.

The prime minister has also pushed a narrative that Europe’s response to the migration crisis is part of a conspiracy by the billionaire George Soros and Brussels, and has implied that the goal is to replace Europe’s white, Christian population with Muslims.

The prime minister’s office did not respond to requests for comment on Wednesday’s decision by Frontex.

In late December, a top domestic security adviser to Mr. Orban defended the country’s approach.

“Despite the many political attacks that Hungary has faced because of its actions in protecting the border, the government has, in the interest of the nation and with the support of the Hungarian population, consistently represented the migration policy it has pursued since 2015,” said the adviser, Gyorgy Bakondi.

Frontex informed the European Commission on Wednesday afternoon that it was suspending its operations in Hungary, according to a spokesman for the commission, the bloc’s executive branch. According to the E.U. regulations, the decision to suspend operations rests entirely with Frontex, and can be made if there is a strong reason to believe that illegal actions are taking place in the member country.

The Warsaw-based agency is in the process of deploying the bloc’s first joint border guard force, and it buys and leases high-tech equipment, including drones, that allow E.U. countries to monitor their borders. But its most visible current work is tapping a pool of border guard teams from around the bloc and deploying them under its command to other E.U. nations’ borders, when they require help.

Wednesday’s decision means that Frontex officers will no longer assist their Hungarian counterparts.

The agency, which has in recent years emerged as one of the most well-funded in the bloc, itself faces a growing internal crisis as mounting evidence shows that it has been complicit in large-scale human-rights violations in Greece, where the agency maintains a strong presence.

Its leadership has come under severe criticism from the bloc’s institutions, and it is being investigated by the E.U. anti-fraud agency, following allegations of harassment, misallocation of funds and misconduct that have led to a growing staff exodus.

An internal investigation regarding the agency’s participation in Greece’s pushbacks of asylum seekers to Turkey is continuing.

Frontex’s decision to suspend operations in Hungary is only the latest in a string of confrontations between the European Union and Mr. Orban, who has demonstrated a certain prowess in parrying the bloc’s efforts to sanction his government over rule-of-law abuses.

A 2018 vote by the European Parliament calling on other E.U. institutions to open a process to assess serious risks to the rule of law in Hungary has not moved forward, and an attempt to bolster rule-of-law standards in member states as part of the bloc’s next budget and coronavirus stimulus package was dramatically watered down after objections by Hungary and Poland.

With the bloc’s political institutions less willing to grapple with Mr. Orban over the rule of law, the role of the E.U.’s highest court in taking on Hungary has become more pronounced.

In June 2020, the court struck down another Hungarian law that imposed “discriminatory and unjustified restrictions” on Hungarian civil society organizations receiving funding from abroad. Instead of changing the legislation to conform with E.U. law, the Hungarian government began to apply it.

Such disregard of the high court’s rulings creates a dangerous precedent, said Mr. Lederer, the rights activist.

“It fits a pattern that started last year, which is, of course, extremely worrying,” he said. “At the end of the day, the legal order of the E.U. rests on the respect of the final judgments of the court.”

Monika Pronczuk reported from Brussels, and Benjamin Novak from Budapest.

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