New law in hungary: helping refugees now punishable by law

"Aiding and abetting illegal migration" is now a crime in Hungary. What exactly lies behind the term is not so clear. But it is clear what Orban wants to achieve.

Not only for refugees, but also for people who want to help them, it is getting dark in Hungary Photo: dpa

In Hungary, pressure is mounting on civil organizations that help refugees. With the votes of the right-wing nationalist government majority and the radical right-wing Jobbik party, Budapest’s parliament on Wednesday passed a law that imposes criminal penalties for "aiding and abetting illegal migration." The amendment to the penal code contained in the law provides for arrest penalties for violators, as well as prison sentences of up to one year for repeat offenders.

Refugee aid workers may in future also be banned from entering an eight-kilometer-wide strip along Hungary’s Schengen external border. The package of laws, also known as the "STOP Soros package," fits in with Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s policy of making it more difficult for non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to operate.

The "STOP Soros" designation alludes to liberal U.S. billionaire George Soros, who supports NGOs around the world, including those that help refugees with in-kind donations, information and legal assistance. A law has been in effect since last year that requires all NGOs that receive more than 23,000 euros in funding from abroad each year to describe themselves as "foreign-supported organizations" in publications and Internet sites.

The law passed on Wednesday criminalizes NGO workers and activists who want to provide access to an asylum procedure to such people who are not subject to persecution in their country of origin or any country on their way to Hungary. In particular, anyone who "prepares, disseminates or commissions information materials" and anyone who "establishes or operates a network" in this regard is liable to prosecution.

CDU also protested against punitive tax

The draft law had already been criticized at home and abroad. "How can you know someone is not eligible for protection even before an asylum procedure has been carried out?" said Budapest international law expert Boldizsar Nagy. Punishing someone for wanting to give someone access to an asylum procedure is therefore nonsensical, he said.

The Venice Commission of the Council of Europe had urged Hungary as late as Monday not to adopt the law on Wednesday. The panel of respected legal experts plans to publish its own opinion on the law on Friday.

An earlier version of the draft law included a 25 percent penalty tax on refugee aid organizations on their funding received from abroad. That provision disappeared from the bill after international criticism, including from the German CDU. But as it became known on Tuesday, the NGO penalty tax is now part of an amendment to the tax law that will be passed soon.