BUDAPEST A U.N. agency expressed "deep concern" on Friday over what it said was a growing tendency by Hungary to denigrate refugees fleeing war, adding its voice to criticism of the government's anti-immigration stance.
Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who wants legislation to speed up the deportation of illegal migrants, raised eyebrows last month when he announced plans for a nationwide questionnaire in May to see if Hungarians thought immigrants spread terrorism.
Montserrat Feixas Vihe, the regional representative in central Europe for the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR, said Orban's government was targeting the very people who needed help.
"We are deeply concerned by the way the government increasingly vilifies people who have fled from war zones like Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq and who desperately need safety and protection in Hungary," she said.
Government spokesman Zoltan Kovacs was not immediately available for comment.
Hungary, a landlocked country of 10 million people in central Europe, has experienced a surge of illegal entries from the south, mostly from impoverished Kosovo -- the source of 10,000 asylum applications in January alone.
Most apply for asylum to stave off immediate deportation and secure their release. While their applications are being processed, they often give immigration authorities the slip and push on westwards to wealthier EU states such as Germany.
The UNHCR said the questions in Orban's survey attempted to confuse refugees and asylum-seekers with so-called "economic migrants" and wrongly blamed refugees for a number of purported threats to Hungary and Europe.
One question in the survey asks: 'There are some who think that mismanagement of the immigration question by Brussels may have something to do with increased terrorism. Do you agree with this view?'
Orban said in February he wanted Hungary to adopt a law to detain and then swiftly expel illegal migrants.
"Hungary simply cannot return refugees to countries where they would face threats to their lives," the UNHCR's Vihe said.
The UNHCR said some 13,000 asylum-seekers have arrived in Hungary this year from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq. There is no indication that any have so far been sent home.
Hungary's call for a crackdown on migrants comes at a time of growing concern across Europe over tens of thousands of people fleeing Africa and the Middle East, many crossing the Mediterranean in a flotilla of battered boats.
However, Orban's uncompromising language has worried some EU partners. Last month he ran into flak when he suggested that the death penalty should be "kept on the agenda" as other punishments proved inadequate deterrents to criminals.
(Reporting by Gergely Szakacs; Editing by Crispian Balmer)