EU border agency suspends operations in Hungary

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BUDAPEST, Hungary (AP) – The European Union’s border control agency, Frontex, is suspending operations in Hungary after the government in Budapest did not comply with a December ruling by Europe’s highest court, an agency spokesperson said Wednesday.

Frontex spokesperson Chris Borowski told The Associated Press that the unprecedented decision followed Hungary’s failure to honor the European Court of Justice ruling, which said the government had not fulfilled its EU obligations to provide international protection to asylum-seekers.

The court also found that border officers had illegally pushed migrants found in Hungary without authorization into neighboring Serbia, violating EU rules requiring member nations to accept and evaluate asylum applications.

“We evaluated the situation and had little choice but to go ahead and suspend the operation,” Borowski said.

Frontex’s move to pull its resources from Hungary represents the first time the border and coast guard agency has stopped its activities in an EU member country. A spokesperson for the Hungarian government did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

When mass migration to Europe surged seven years ago, partly due to war in Syria, Hungary was on a popular route refugees took while heading west. Frontex deployed officers, vehicles and surveillance equipment to help the country secure its borders and track down forged documents, stolen cars and other illegal items.

The Hungarian government has taken a hard stance against immigration. Prime Minister Viktor Orban has made the issue a centerpiece of his agenda since 2015 and staunchly refused to comply with EU immigration policies aimed at distributing the burden of incoming migrants and refugees across member nations.

A Budapest-based nongovernmental organization, the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, had urged Frontex to pull its border forces from the country, arguing a continued presence made it complicit in Hungary’s unlawful immigration policies.

The NGO said it documented cases of Hungarian border patrols pushing asylum-seekers back into Serbia and found 50,000 instances since Hungary began the practice in July 2016, including more than 4,400 since the European court’s ruling in December.

The decision to suspend Frontex operations in Hungary comes as the agency itself fends off allegations that it has been involved in pushbacks – which are illegal under international refugee law – near the Greek islands. An investigation is ongoing, and pressure has mounted from EU lawmakers for the agency’s director to resign.

Frontex denies the allegations, and as of last week a probe launched by a special working group had found no evidence of wrongdoing.

How long the agency withdraws its on-the-ground support from Hungary depends on the country’s implementation of the European Court of Justice’s ruling, the Warsaw-based agency’s Borowski said.

The European Commission, which in 2018 launched an infringement proceeding against Hungary for its non-compliance with asylum law, will need to find that Hungary has implemented the court’s ruling before Frontex forces may return, he said.

The Luxembourg-based court said that the right of people to apply for asylum “is an essential step” in granting protection to those seeking refuge due to threats against their lives or safety, and that EU member countries “cannot delay it unjustifiably.”

Compliance would include accepting asylum applications and allowing applicants to remain in Hungary while their petitions are evaluated, as well as ceasing the practice of pushing migrants back across the border into Serbia.

In December, Hungarian Justice Minister Judit Varga dismissed the European court’s ruling as “devoid of purpose,” and wrote on her Facebook page that “strict border control is maintained.”

“We will continue to protect the borders of Hungary and Europe and will do everything we can to prevent the formation of international migrant corridors,” Varga wrote. “Hungary will only be a Hungarian country as long as its borders remain.”

Orban has often argued that Brussels tries to force Hungary to accept mass immigration, and he has portrayed himself as a bulwark protecting European civilization and Christian culture with his anti-immigration policies.

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Cook reported from Brussels.

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