May 12, 2016 / 5:42 PM / a year ago

Hungary's anti-migrant policies may violate international law: UNHCR

Migrants walk along Hungary's border fence on the Serbian side of the border near Morahalom, Hungary, February 22, 2016.Laszlo Balogh

BUDAPEST (Reuters) - Hungary's actions to keep out migrants, including fast-track trials to punish those who breach its border fence, may conflict with international refugee and human rights conventions, the United Nations said on Thursday.

Prime Minister Viktor Orban has taken an increasingly anti-foreigner stance since migrants began pouring into Europe last year, building a heavily guarded border fence and rejecting an EU quota system to share out migrants among member states.

Despite strong criticism from EU headquarters in Brussels and some major EU members including Germany, the right-wing Orban's approach has gone down well in Hungary, a country with few immigrants and little experience of multiculturalism.

A new report by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees said that legislation recently passed in Budapest has limited and deterred access to Hungary for those seeking refuge from war and persecution.

"UNHCR considers these significant aspects of Hungarian law and practice raise serious concerns regarding compatibility with international and European law, and may be at variance with the country's international and European obligations," it said.

By "obligations", the UNHCR was referring to protection for people fleeing the threat of war or persecution in their home countries, and prompt processing of asylum applications.

The U.N. refugee agency criticized Hungary's fence and a procedure whereby migrants arriving at the frontier must submit their asylum requests in so-called "transit zones".

"The asylum procedure and reception conditions are not in accordance with European Union and international standards, in particular concerning procedural safeguards, judicial review and freedom of movement," the report said.

A Hungarian government spokesman was not immediately reachable for comment on the UNHCR's remarks.

Hungary also introduced legislation in September 2015 that allows courts to order the expulsion of migrants for illegally breaching the border fence.

The UNHCR said prison sentences had been "imposed following fast-tracked trials of questionable fairness, and (the sentences) are not suspended in the event that the concerned individual submits an asylum application".

The report said the UNHCR was also concerned about a number of migrants kept in detention without clear time limits pending expulsion to neighboring, non-EU Serbia, which had accepted only two people per week on average since January.

Orban's government rejects a plan, agreed by a majority of EU governments last year, to redistribute 160,000 migrants around the 28-nation bloc to ease the burden on Greece and Italy, where most migrants first set foot on EU soil.

Hungary erected a steel fence along its border with Serbia and Croatia to bar migrants, many of whom have fled war in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.

After domino-like closures of borders across the Balkans between Greece and Hungary, the heavy northwards flow of migrants - most of them bound ultimately for wealthy western EU countries like Germany and Sweden rather than smaller central EU states like Hungary - seen in 2015 has since subsided.

But Hungarian officials say migrant numbers have risen again somewhat with warmer summer weather arriving, with some trying to cut through the fence despite a heavy police presence.

Reporting by Krisztina Than; Editing by Mark Heinrich

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