UARU
What’s Behind Hungary’s "Stop Soros” Act
2 July, 2018

It is almost two weeks since the Hungarian parliament passed a package of bills criminalizing those who help illegal migrants seeking asylum when they are not entitled to it. The law also makes printing leaflets with information for asylum seekers, and offering them food or legal advice, a criminal offence.

The "Stop Soros” legislation is named after the Hungarian-born American philanthropist George Soros, who sponsors non-governmental organizations helping migrants.

Hromadske spoke via Skype to Márton Gergely, an editor of Hungary's largest current affairs weekly HVG, to find out what this means for Hungary’s position in Europe and how the country’s population has reacted to the new legislation.

The "Stop Soros” act has already received a negative response from human rights organizations, but is widely supported by Hungarian people. Nevertheless, Gergely says the main reason for this attitude towards the new law within society is the prevalence of anti-migration and anti-Islam campaigns. “The people are afraid in regions where there is no chance that migrants will ever want to go to, and they are afraid of people invading their houses,” he said.

Gergely himself criticizes the legislation, saying that there was no real aim for it:

“This law really doesn't protect anyone, because all the means to protect our borders were there before.”

His main concern is that the law could be manipulated to prosecute NGOs and mass media, as even writing about migration in a positive light can be considered illegal: “The one real threat here is that it can be used in the future against people who would, in the eyes of Mr. Orban, threaten his power.”

Moreover, the Hungarian Helsinki Committee rights group has expressed its concern about the recent amendments to the Hungarian Constitution, which have narrowed the definition of “refugee”, stating that no one coming from a “secure” country is entitled to asylum seeker status.

“Instead of giving protection against persecution, the Hungarian government has decided to join the ranks of the persecutors,” Helsinki Committee Co-Chair Marta Pardavi commented to Reuters.

An electronic scoreboard shows the result of a vote on a package of amendments of laws called Stop Soros concerning migration during the session of the Parliament in Budapest, Hungary, 20 June 2018. Photo credit: EPA-EFE/Szilard Koszticsak

Gergely says it only adds more confusion to the migration crisis, as the new legislation does not provide a clear distinction between refugees and people who simply want to visit the country.

The Europe’s Venice Commission has also criticized the legislation saying that it impairs the provision of assistance to refugees, and violates their rights guaranteed by the European Convention on Human Rights and other international law. However, Gergely does not believe that the Hungarian government will face retribution for this law, as European Union is facing too many other challenges to deal with it right now.

“It basically turns Hungary's back to the Geneva convention. If the war and the crimes are not committed in our neighbouring countries, there are no refugees we are going to take,” he told Hromadske.

In response to the increasing pressure on non-governmental organizations, George Soros’ Open Society foundation closed its Budapest office in May and moved it to Berlin.

“The government of Hungary has denigrated and misrepresented our work and repressed civil society for the sake of political gain, using tactics unprecedented in the history of the European Union,” Open Society Foundations’ official site reads, quoting the NGOs president Patrick Gaspard. “The so-called Stop Soros package of laws is only the latest in a series of such attempts. It has become impossible to protect the security of our operations and our staff in Hungary from arbitrary government interference.”

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But, according to Gergely, this step will not influence the organization’s work in Hungary as the office will continue working remotely: “This is a way to say ‘help’, from the foundation to a consequence of the politics in Budapest.” However, he thinks, this will decrease the financial stability of Budapest, as the international support will be withdrawn as well.

Lawmakers have passed the package making the organizing of illegal immigration, the assisting of illegal immigrants to receive asylum or any activities helping illegal immigrants to receive residence permit in Hungary punishable. Photo credit: EPA-EFE/Szilard Koszticsak

Meanwhile, the "Stop Soros" act is not the only matter of concern in Hungary. Prime Minister Viktor Orban has also implemented reforms in media and major business sectors, which tighten state control over these fields. What is more, he introduced a new judicial branch that, critics say, may increase political influence over judges. The new court will have jurisdiction over all cases involving the state and Hungarian citizens. The judges of this court will also be appointed from within the administration.

“This means that someone from the authority, who worked there yesterday, could be judge today, and could judge over his own decision or the decision of his colleagues,” Gergely stated. “I think it's a dangerous path. It shows how text, legislation, can turn against the citizens of Hungary.”

/By Mariia Ulianovska