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Hungary Sends Refugees To Shipping Container Camp Along Serbian Border


The Hungarian government is forcing asylum seekers into a camp on the border with Serbia. In the camp, people have to live in converted shipping containers while their asylum applications are processed. Hungary's government says it's doing this to control the flow of migrants to Europe and to keep out terrorists.

NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson was at the camp earlier today, and she's with us now from Budapest. Hello.


MCEVERS: Tell us what you saw there.

NELSON: Well, it looks like a detention camp. You're talking about razor wire, chain-linked fences, Hungarian police officers guarding heavy gates. And the asylum seekers only have one gate that they have free access to, and that leads out into Serbia, the idea being that people will get so fed up, they might just decide to leave. The containers are really crammed. You have five beds in each one. There's no clear separation for families or the most controversial group of people who are going to be housed here, and that's minors over the age of 14. They also have to stay here under this new Hungarian arrangement.

The other thing that was interesting is that a lot of these facilities that were shown as being services for these people who are going to stay there to make things more comfortable appeared staged I mean for me and other journalists. You know, you're talking about brand new flowerpots, a children's playground that clearly had not been used before. There was even a ping pong table with paddles and balls that were still in plastic wrapping. And it just doesn't seem plausible that the sleeping quarters, the bathrooms would look as pristine as the ones that we saw today considering that scores of asylum seekers are already in this camp, and they were moved there since the law went into effect March 28.

MCEVERS: What's supposed to happen to the asylum seekers once they're in the camp?

NELSON: Well, they're supposed to stay there until their cases are decided. And most of those are denied. It happened 98 percent of the time earlier this year.

MCEVERS: So what is the Hungarian government saying about this?

NELSON: Well, Interior Minister Sandor Pinter says that it's about security and terror concerns, protecting the borders since Hungary's at the edge of the EU. He claims that nothing his government is doing there violates Hungarian or EU law.


SANDOR PINTER: (Through interpreter) Detention means being in a close place from which they can't exit. We don't hold them back. They can go to any country in the world, except the EU. I only forbid entrance into my apartment.

NELSON: By apartment, he means Hungary.

MCEVERS: What do the asylum seekers who are living at the camp say?

NELSON: Well, that's a good question because they weren't there when we were there, not a single one. Apparently they were trucked to a second camp that's like this some distance away. But there was an Iraqi asylum seeker on the Serbian side of the border who came over and talked to me through a chain-linked fence. His name is Muhia Havia (ph), and he handed me a letter in which he wrote, is this European human rights?

MCEVERS: What is the international community saying about this, and what are aid organizations saying about this?

NELSON: Well, the U.N. is very upset about this, and to a lesser extent, the EU is expressing concern about the forced detentions, especially the unaccompanied minors in the camp. That is something that actually violates international law contrary to what the interior minister says. And then you have refugee advocates like Marta Pardavi of the Hungarian Helsinki Committee. She's absolutely livid about the refusal to help the vulnerable, especially children.

MARTA PARDAVI: What we see, though, is that Hungary is actually on a course to not have any asylum seekers and refugees in the country.

NELSON: She says they'll likely pursue legal action. But the EU, on the other hand, is sort of taking a standoffish approach. And they've said that they're looking into this. But they're kind of walking a tightrope here because they're concerned about alienating Hungary at a time where they're already having members leaving, like Great Britain. And they're also concerned about a campaign that's going on in Hungary, an anti-EU campaign, and they feel that saying too much about this would fuel that on the part of the Hungarian government.

MCEVERS: That's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson joining us from Budapest. Thank you very much.

NELSON: You're welcome, Kelly. 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.