Hungary aims to criminalize aiding illegal migration in 'Stop Soros' bill

BUDAPEST (Reuters) - Individuals or groups who help migrants not entitled to protection to submit requests for asylum or who help illegal migrants gain status to stay in Hungary will be liable to jail under legislation submitted to parliament on Tuesday.

The Hungarian Parliament building is seen in Budapest, Hungary, May 29, 2018. REUTERS/Bernadett Szabo

Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s government has also proposed amending the constitution to state that an “alien population” cannot be settled in Hungary, rejecting European Union quotas to distribute migrants around the bloc.

In power since 2010, the right-wing nationalist Orban has tightened state control over the media and campaigned on a platform of fierce hostility to immigration - policies that have put him in conflict with the European Union, which funds development policies to the tune of billions of euros a year.

The new bill also says that foreigners who sought to enter Hungary via a third country in which they were not directly exposed to persecution would not be entitled to asylum.

The draft legislation, which was immediately condemned by the U.N. refugee agency, is part of Orban’s campaign against EU migration policies and against George Soros, a Hungarian-born U.S. financier known for funding liberal causes.

The legislation comes only weeks after Orban was re-elected by a landslide, and shows a hardening of his stance just as crucial talks begin about the EU’s next budget which proposes spending cuts in ex-communist countries of central Europe.

The text of the legislation, known as the “Stop Soros” bill and posted on parliament’s website, said: “Those who provide financial means ... or conduct this organizational activity (for illegal immigration) on a regular basis will be punishable with up to one year in prison.”

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“We need an action plan to defend Hungary and this is the STOP Soros package of bills,” the interior ministry said in a comment accompanying the legislation.

It said there were international and also Hungarian organizations helping the entry of illegal migrants to Hungary, adding: “Sanctioning these is justified.” It did not name any groups.

The government has said the bill intends to deter illegal immigration Orban says is eroding European stability, and risks undermining Hungary’s Christian culture.

While more than one million mainly Muslim migrants have entered the EU since 2015, few have sought to settle in Hungary. Official data show that in 2017 a total of 1,291 migrants obtained some form of international protection in Hungary, mostly Afghans, Syrians and Iraqis recognized as refugees.

The U.N. refugee agency UNHCR urged Hungary to scrap the draft law restricting non-governmental organizations, saying it would deprive refugees and asylum-seekers of vital services and encourage “rising xenophobic attitudes”.

“UNHCR is seriously concerned that these proposals, if passed, would deprive people who are forced to flee their homes of critical aid and services, and further inflame tense public discourse and rising xenophobic attitudes,” the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees said in a statement in Geneva.

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The new “Stop Soros” bill no longer contains a 25 percent tax that its previous version in February wanted to impose on foreign donations to non-governmental organizations that back migration.

But the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, which provides legal aid to asylum-seekers, said the bill was still “unacceptable in a democratic state” and against European democratic values.

“The government threatens those who stand up for human rights with the criminal code,” the committee said in a statement, stressing that its activities were all lawful.

Soros was publicly vilified during Orban’s campaign for April elections. Orban’s anti-immigration stance is particularly popular with voters in conservative rural Hungary.

Orban has accused Soros and the NGOs funding him of plotting to undermine Hungary’s Christian character by flooding it with immigrants, an allegation Soros has repeatedly denied.

The proposed constitutional amendment submitted on Tuesday would also provide a legal basis for the establishment of new administrative courts and a high court to deal with lawsuits concerning the public sector, flagged by the justice minister earlier this month.

Reporting by Krisztina Than, with additional reporting by Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; Editing by Richard Balmforth and Mark Heinrich