BRUSSELS — The European Union’s top migration official on Thursday urged Hungary to change its approach to asylum policy and respect the rights of migrants after the bloc’s border agency, Frontex, took the unprecedented step of suspending operations in the country.
Frontex said Wednesday that it is ceasing work in Hungary until the nationalist government brings its laws into line with a ruling by the EU’s top court in December, which said the country is denying people entering without authorization the right to apply for asylum and unlawfully detaining them in “transit zones.”
“The right to apply for asylum is a fundamental human right,” EU Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson told reporters after a videoconference between the 27-nation bloc’s interior ministers. “This is what we need to defend and protect.”
“I expect Hungary to change their policy and to let people to apply for asylum on their territory,” she said. “We can’t have an agency like Frontex helping Hungary on stopping people to come to Hungary if they are not complying with their fundamental rights and EU law.”
Frontex says that it has specialized officers, border surveillance vehicles and other equipment deployed in Hungary, helping to monitor migrant movements along a main route into Europe through the Western Balkans and to keep an eye on cross-border criminal activity.
The European Commission took Hungary to court over a law it introduced in 2015, when well over 1 million migrants entered Europe, most of them refugees from Syria or Iraq arriving in Greece with the intention of seeking asylum in Germany or Scandinavia.
Tens of thousands of migrants moved through the Balkans. Hungary’s anti-migrant government erected razor wire fences to keep them out and expanded the use of “crisis situation caused by mass migration” legal exceptions to set up two transit zones near the Serbian border where people were held.
In a tweet on Thursday, Zoltan Kovacs, a spokesman for the Hungarian government, said it’s “not as if we got a lot of help from Frontex, but it seems Brussels wants to take away even the little bit we did get.”
“Hungary is not going to give in to pressure from pro-migration forces,” he said. “We’ll continue to defend the Hungarian people and the country’s — and EU’s — borders.”
The standoff could last some time. Frontex spokesman Chris Borowski said that the agency “looks forward to resuming its activities in Hungary after the (court) decision is implemented in the national legislation.” The Commission must assess whether Hungary is complying before Frontex moves.
The row comes at an embarrassing time, as the Commission struggles to win unanimous support among the 27 EU nations for its new Pact on Migration and Asylum. The deal is meant to revamp the bloc’s dysfunctional asylum laws and end a dispute over migrants that has sparked one Europe's biggest political crises.
It also comes as Frontex itself fends off allegations that it has been involved in pushbacks — which are illegal under international refugee law -- of people heading for the Greek islands from Turkey. An investigation is ongoing, and pressure has mounted from EU lawmakers for the agency’s director to resign.
Johansson said Wednesday that she still supports the director, but that he and the agency have a lot of work to do.
Frontex denies the allegations, and as of last week a probe launched by a special working group had found no evidence of wrongdoing.
Spike reported from Budapest.
Lorne Cook And Justin Spike, The Associated Press