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Hungary: Illegal Immigrants Seek Asylum

Kiskunhalas, Hungary, 21 October 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Veterinarian Mohemad Farid found living in Saddam Hussein's Iraq so oppressive that he recently decided to risk everything on a long-shot gamble to flee.

Farid sold his house, his furniture, his cars, even his wife's jewelry, to raise $5,000, which he handed over to a gang of human smugglers who promised to transport him, hidden in a truck, to his dream land -- Germany.

After several days of cramped, hazardous travel, the smugglers left him, saying he was on the outskirts of Munich. He walked for 10 hours before he reached a big city, and only then did he find out that he was actually in Budapest, the capital of Hungary.

Today Farid sits forlornly in a detention camp for illegal immigrants run by the Kiskunhalas division of Hungary's border guards in the south of Hungary. At any one time, it is home to 30-50 illegal immigrants like Farid.

Farid recalled, "At first I don't know exactly that I am in Hungary... they told me that I am in Germany, so when I reach Hungary I don't know the rules of Hungary. Somebody told me you can't get family here to Hungary because the refugee laws... are not advanced like Germany or Netherlands or England, so I try to escape from Hungary to Austria and they catch me and so that is why I am here."

Farid, whose hopes are now pinned on getting refugee status in Hungary, is part of a growing trend of illegal immigrants passing through or staying in the country.

In the nine years since communism fell, Hungary has gone from being a country that Soviet Bloc citizens escaped from, to being a perceived haven that people are increasingly entering illegally. Border guards and immigration officials say the heavy flow of illegal immigrants is one price the country is paying for its freedom.

Although Hungary is still not as prominent a magnet as Italy, the problem is growing rapidly. In all of last year, Hungarian border guards recorded more than 20,000 violations of the country's borders. This year, that figure was already reached by August.

The border guards that a decade ago primarily patrolled Hungary's western border to keep Soviet Bloc citizens in, have now shifted their concentration to the country's southern and eastern borders to keep Yugoslavs, Africans and Asians out.

At least once a week, Hungarian media report spectacular cases of human smuggling, and no one knows how many more cases go undetected.

Earlier this month, border guards caught 37 Kosovo Albanian men, women and children and their four Yugoslav human smugglers just after they had crossed the border from Yugoslavia. Last month, a Hungarian was arrested for allegedly trying to smuggle 19 Kosovo Albanians out of Hungary into Austria.

With the fall of internal borders in the European Union and with expansion of the visa-free, borderless Schengen Zone, Hungary has come under increasing pressure to police its borders more strictly to stop illegal immigrants before they make it all the way to Western Europe. Germany has warned Hungary to improve its border policing, saying that "today's transit country is tomorrow's target country."

Stefan Berglund, top representative of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Hungary, sees evidence that this is already becoming the case. He said, "I have noticed among those asylum seekers who are now coming, a number of them, very small... but still significantly growing... who are looking at Hungary as a country where they want to stay, up until such time as Hungary becomes a member state of the European Union. And therefore after that (they) would have free movement within... the broader EU area. So you can say there is already a trend of people who come to Hungary to stay here."

The border guard detachment in Kiskunhalas has first-hand experience with the problem. In its 100-kilometer stretch of border with Yugoslavia, increasing numbers of illegal immigrants are crossing into Hungary -- primarily Yugoslavs, but also Africans and Asians.

Major Zoltan Lunger, leader of the alien affairs division of the Hungarian border guards division at Kiskunhalas, said that, in previous years, only a few dozen illegal immigrants were hoping to stay in Hungary. Now, he says, the figure is several hundred a year.

Overall, Hungary received only 177 applications for refugee status last year, but in just the first eight months of this year the figure soared to nearly 3,000 -- primarily a reflection of the crisis in Kosovo. About 10 percent of all applicants are granted refugee status and allowed to stay or move on to another European country.

Lunger said Hungary's political and economic stability is attractive, but he does not think this is the main reason refugees want to get to Hungary.

"I think that one of the very important reasons is that in... Western European countries... immigration laws are being tightened, so this is one of the reasons that they are asking for refugee status in Hungary. And another... is that Hungary geographically is the first country where they can hope to get reasonable treatment in the processing of the application."

Lunger said that while some immigrants already living in Europe try to smuggle in their relatives to join them, organized crime is increasingly involved in the profitable business of human smuggling, with prices ranging anywhere from 500 D-marks to $5,000 per person.

Ali Ahmed Shenwary, a 23-year-old Afghan man, is one of the unfortunate customers of human smugglers. He paid $1,500 to a gang in Afghanistan that promised to get him to Hungary.

"They told me at home that here were the best living conditions, that you could survive and live here peacefully and nobody will bother you. Hungary is a normal country. You could get documents, work, help my family as well. Of course no one's going to kill me.

Although he turned himself in to the police as soon as he reached Budapest, Shenwary said his first request for refugee status was turned down and he is now in Kiskunhalas, awaiting an appeal.

Terrified to go back to his war-torn homeland, Shenwary said he dreams only of being one of the lucky 400 or so illegal immigrants who will be allowed to stay in Hungary this year. "I consider that as a human being I am in a terrible situation. I need to work, study, get documents like all normal people. I don't wish any harm on this country. I just arrived. I am young, full of strength. I could do something not only for myself, but for Hungary also."