The European Union's top court has ruled that Hungary circumvented EU law by holding Afghan and Iranian asylum seekers in prisonlike conditions at a border transit zone.
Hungary has come under EU criticism for its hard-line approach to migration and has been repeatedly challenged before the European Court of Justice (ECJ), which gave its latest ruling on May 14.
In reaction to the ruling, Hungarian Justice Minister Judit Varga said late on May 14 that "Hungarian legislation and practice is in line with EU and international law."
Varga pointed to the ruling as further proof that Hungary is being forced "to allow and accept into the country migrants without any controls," reiterating a point repeatedly expressed by Prime Minister Viktor Orban and his right-wing government.
The current case was brought before the Luxembourg-based court by four asylum seekers from Iran and Afghanistan who were being kept in the Roszke transit zone in southeastern Hungary after arriving via Serbia.
The four filed their applications for asylum from Roszke and are still living there, although such detention is illegal in the EU if the asylum requests have not been examined first.
Budapest rejected their requests, arguing that Serbia is a safe transit country and they should have filed their claims there.
Belgrade refused to readmit them, arguing that the four had not entered Hungary illegally and therefore did not meet the conditions of a readmission deal between Budapest and non-EU member Serbia.
Roszke is surrounded by a high fence and barbed wire and the freedom to move is strictly curbed, a situation the judges ruled amounts to detention.
"The conditions prevailing in the Roszke transit zone amount to a deprivation of liberty, inter alia because the persons concerned cannot lawfully leave that zone of their own free will in any direction whatsoever," the ECJ ruled.
Following the ECJ ruling, human rights groups urged Hungary to release asylum seekers and migrants illegally held in the country's two transit zones.
The Hungarian Helsinki Committee, which provides legal advice to transit-camp occupants, called the decision "a significant victory for everyone who is locked up in metal containers behind barbed wires in Hungary."
David Vig, director of Amnesty International Hungary, called it "a damning indictment of Hungary's treatment of asylum seekers."
There have been multiple complaints of inadequate treatment from rights groups and people inside Roszke, who accuse the authorities of denying them food among other things.
Orban's government argues that people are not being illegally detained in the transit zone because they are free to go back to Serbia.
The European Union was rattled by a 2015-16 migration surge, including many arrivals from war-torn Syria, that left member states deeply divided on migration policies and asylum rules.
The ECJ is the highest court of the European Union in matters of EU legislation and is tasked with interpreting EU law and ensuring its equal application across all 27 EU member states.
In November 2019, the European Court of Human Rights found that Hungary breached its human rights obligations by returning asylum seekers to Serbia without considering the risk that they might be exposed to inhuman and degrading treatment upon arrival.