UN agency worries as Hungary rushes to tighten asylum rules

Changes to Hungary's asylum system being rushed through parliament and the government's plan to build a fence on the border with Serbia could have "fatal consequences" for refugees fleeing war, the U.N. refugee agency said Friday.

In an open letter to Hungarian lawmakers, the UNHCR regional representative in Central Europe, said that while every country had the right to defend its borders and protect its citizens, the planned amendments "would make it impossible for people fleeing persecution to access international protection in Hungary."

"The proposed measures will bring legal and physical barriers, which could have fatal consequences," Montserrat Feixas Vihe said, adding that the new laws failed "moral and basic humanitarian standards" and were not in line with Hungary's duties under international treaties.

Over the past year, some 100,000 migrants and refugees have reached Hungary. Most come across the border with Serbia, where Prime Minister Viktor Orban's government said it will build a 4-meter (13-foot) high fence to stem their flow. After making asylum claims in Hungary, the vast majority quickly leave for countries further west in the European Union, like Austria and Germany.

Parliament voted Friday to fast-track amendments proposed by the Interior Ministry which, for example, would allow authorities to detain asylum seekers for prolonged periods and speed up the assessment of asylum claims — without, the UNHCR said, proper due process.

Amnesty International and the Council of Europe also spoke out against Hungary's policies, but Orban, who believes Europe is facing long-term "mass migration," especially from Africa, dismissed their concerns.

"We can either prepare for the tasks awaiting us (in the future) or we can be afraid," Orban said Friday on state radio. "The way I see it, these international organizations are more afraid of the future."

While around 80 percent of those seeking asylum in Hungary over the past months are from war-torn countries like Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq, Orban said the proportion of economic migrants was growing — attracted by Europe's welfare system —and they had to be stopped.

"Bad policies can increase and induce this mass migration manyfold," Orban said.

Orban staunchly opposes immigration and said last year that Europe's 10 million Roma should be trained to do the low-skill jobs often done by immigrants.