Hungary made it clear that it doesn't want refugees. Did Hungary let them in, or did they cross the border outside of border crossings?

Hungary is a Schengen country with an external EU border, so I imagine it should have a lot of resources to protect the border. I know that when Poland joined the Schengen Agreement, a lot of money was spend to improve the protection of the external border of the EU. I find it hard to believe that it was basically wasted money, and any person without any specialist equipment can cross the border without much problem. Why didn't Hungary make the immigrants stay in Serbia?

  • In what sense do you think they have “let them in”? And what else do you want them to do? Shoot on sight? It's easy to assume that they ‘must’ have the resources to stop ‘illegal’ immigration but no country in Europe actually has any solution.
    – Relaxed
    Commented Sep 6, 2015 at 11:23
  • Also, once a person has effectively crossed the border, if no other country (whether Serbia or perhaps Turkey or Lebanon, where many people who have stayed for some time in a camp) wants to take them back, the only solution, theoretically, is to deport the person back to her country of origin. But Syria isn't safe so that's not possible.
    – Relaxed
    Commented Sep 6, 2015 at 11:26
  • I know that when my home country (Poland) joined the Schengen Agreement, a lot of money was spend to improve the protection of the external border of the EU. Perhaps I just find it hard to believe that it was basically wasted money, and any person without any specialist equipment can cross the border just like that.
    – michau
    Commented Sep 6, 2015 at 11:36
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    You seem to only think in ‘absolute’ terms, either it's completely secure or ‘anybody can get in’ but these things aren't so easy. The money probably has made crossing the border more difficult and that would be enough in normal times but when you have tens of thousands of people trying at the same time, some will get through and many ‘usual’ measures (detention and deportation) become impractical. So it's easy to make assumptions when you live in Germany, France or Poland but the stress on the system is immense.
    – Relaxed
    Commented Sep 6, 2015 at 11:42
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    Thinking about it a little more, I think it could be a really interesting question, if you would formulate it in a way that's a bit less less judgmental/assumption-loaded. Something like “How are illegal entries happening in the Schengen area today?” or “How come so many asylum seekers have managed to enter Hungary?”
    – Relaxed
    Commented Sep 6, 2015 at 14:47

2 Answers 2


There are several factors to consider but first, it's not really true that Hungary “let them in” in the first place. It's difficult to get precise info on this but as far as I know many of the people you hear about in the news actually crossed the border illegally (refugees cannot be punished for this, incidentally). However, others possibly presented themselves to the border to lodge an application then and there (which everybody is entitled to do under EU law).

The first problem for Hungary is that it's extremely difficult to secure a land border, humanely and cost-effectively. The US has poured a lot of money into securing its border with Mexico, which often runs through very hostile terrain and yet hasn't made it completely impassable. Spain has built a huge fence on the tiny border around its exclaves in Morocco and that hasn't actually stopped people from crossing so that it had to resort to aggressive (and illegal) police tactics to push them back (to fix ideas, the Ceuta Border fence is 6-metre high but only 8.4 km long, secured by hundreds of police, with cameras and watch-posts; Hungary has 175 km of border with Serbia and already built a 3.5 m fence behind rows of barbwire).

Hungary did receive money and support from the European Union but the EU is not ready to provide the kind of funding or condone the kind of aggressive tactics that would be necessary to stop people who are desperate enough to take a 1 in 125 chance of drowning to reach Europe. Nobody wants an iron-curtain-like border in the middle of Europe!

And there is also a limit to what the police can reasonably do. If you face small group of people on foot, you can apprehend them and bring them to a processing facility but those are completely overloaded (see below). And it does not work when you have many more refugees than police officers (refugees are not stupid incidentally, they respond to police tactics, that's why you are increasingly seeing massive runs of people all crossing at once instead of small groups trying to sneak in). There were instances in Spain where the police basically tried to “push” people back with truncheons, outside of any established procedure, but that has been heavily criticised and might not be enough on such a long border. And obviously, shooting on sight to deter people from crossing, as some European countries did in the past, is not acceptable in this time and place.

One bit of information on the magnitude of the problem comes from Frontex, the EU agency tasked with coordinating the management of external borders (incidentally, Frontext does not directly man border posts or protect anything, it only employs about 300 people and provides training and information sharing). It counted more than 40000 illegal crossings through what it calls the “West Balkan route” in 2014 and more than 100000 for 2015 so far. So according to these figures, many asylum seekers did enter irregularly.

Anyway, if someone is caught crossing illegally or present themselves to the border without visa, they are allowed to lodge an asylum application. What's supposed to happen then is that the person can be detained (in a specific facility, but not in a prison, even if e.g. Germany repeatedly broke this rule in the past) so that the credibility of their application can be evaluated. If it's not manifestly unfounded, they will be allowed to remain in the country (sometimes in a special facility, sometimes in another set-up) until a final decision is made. This is also how it happens in airports everywhere in Europe.

The second problem for Hungary is that this process takes time and resources. According to Eurostat, after a spike in the late 90s, Hungary usually processed about 2000-4000 applications a year during the 2003-2010 period. This should also approximately be their current capacity (trained personnel, accommodation, guards, etc.) for handling asylum applications. Last year, it was more than 40 000 (ten times as many) and now the press reports numbers on the order of several thousands a day.

And processing an asylum application is not trivial. In theory, you are supposed to have translators available so that the person can communicate effectively and you need people who know the country where they come from to check their story (e.g. if they claim to come from a given city, you ask the name of a mountain next to the city, etc.) and of course the relevant rules and regulations. Even simply guards/police or personnel able to register the details of asylum seekers (without actually examining their application) have to be recruited and trained, which cannot happen overnight.

That means that the whole system is currently completely overloaded, there are no facilities to host these refugees, no places where they can be detained, nobody who could do even a preliminary evaluation of their application. Even basic things like providing shelter and water are difficult (although that's what the HCR is doing along with many NGO and the local government for millions of people in Turkey or Jordan). Because the conditions are so bad, people try to break out of the camps as soon as they can and that's how they end up on the streets.

Incidentally, directive 2001/55 on minimum standards for giving temporary protection in the event of a mass influx of displaced persons and on measures promoting a balance of efforts between Member States in receiving such persons and bearing the consequences thereof provides a procedure to deal with such a crisis.

One interesting aspect is that there is, under international law, no reason for the refugees themselves to accept our notion of where they should go. So what the directive envisions, in theory, is a system of transfers between member states subject the consent of the persons concerned.


Refugees which come from countries where their life is in danger have the right to enter the European Union and seek asylum according to the Dublin Regulation. This means war refugees from Syria are not illegal immigrants. Hungary has signed this regulation, so they have to let the refugees cross the border, no matter if they want them or not. This is different from immigration for economical reasons. People who originate from countries where their life and liberty are not in danger do not have the right to seek asylum in the European Union. They are considered illegal immigrants and are deported back to their home-countries when found. Keeping these people out is the main motivation behind Frontex and the Polish border fortification the OP mentioned in a comment.

One practice which is currently violating the Dublin regulation is that many refugees do not request asylum in the country where they enter the EU but instead have the tendency to travel on into those EU countries where they hope to receive better support from the government. Those countries would have the right to send the asylum seekers back to the country where they first entered the EU, but some currently do not exercise this. How to deal with this is an ongoing political debate, but it appears like the Dublin system will soon get a reform. It turned out that in case of a large-scale refugee crisis like now, putting the burden of managing hundreds of thousands of refugees solely on the outer EU states is quite unfair, especially considering that they are the economically weaker ones.

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    There are a few inaccuracies in this answer. People crossing the border between Serbia and Hungary are not coming from a country where their life is in danger, they are coming from Serbia. It’s not so clear that Hungary has to let them cross the border at a regular border crossing point and that's not what's happening. What's supposed to happen (and that's what's happening at airports for example) is that they get a chance to apply for asylum, are detained briefly to assess whether their application is not obviously unfounded and if it's not, they go through the regular asylum process.
    – Relaxed
    Commented Sep 6, 2015 at 21:43
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    But in reality, most of them do not present themselves to a border crossing point and just cross illegally because, as you said, they don't want to lodge an application in Hungary (and “better supported from the government” is an understatement “a remote chance at being treated humanely” is more like it).
    – Relaxed
    Commented Sep 6, 2015 at 21:45
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    Also, the Dublin regulation does not say anything about where a person should apply for asylum, nor could it possibly do so under current international law. What it does is allow Schengen states to transfer an asylum seeker from one state to another after they have applied (i.e. it's the states that have obligations here, not the asylum seekers). But that system is already mostly theoretical, Hungary currently accepts very few Dublin requests, Greece has been off-limits for several years per court decision (and Italy too, at least for families).
    – Relaxed
    Commented Sep 6, 2015 at 21:49
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    Italy (and possibly Hungary too) also often lets people go further north (mostly to France) without registering them as asylum seekers so as not be forced to accept a Dublin request later on (in theory, their details should be recorded in a database called EURODAC but often they are not). So at this point, the Dublin system is already dead.
    – Relaxed
    Commented Sep 6, 2015 at 21:51
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    Finally most of EU law on asylum comes from three directives, called the Qualification, Procedure and Conditions directives, and not from the Dublin regulation.
    – Relaxed
    Commented Sep 6, 2015 at 22:02

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