The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Hungary bans homeless people from living in public spaces, in law described as ‘cruel’ by the U.N.

Activists of Asylum Foundation approach a homeless person freezing at a tram station as they patrol the streets of Budapest to assists homeless people in the winter of 2017. (Marton Monus/EPA-EFE)
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BERLIN — In 2015, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban claimed that he was one of the last European leaders defending the continent’s Christian identity against a Muslim influx.

Three years on, Orban’s declared goal of defending Christianity is now part of the country’s constitution. But aid groups say that this very same updated constitution poses a growing threat to the ideals it is supposed to protect.

While Christian communities across Europe work to provide support to homeless people, Orban’s government passed a constitutional amendment this summer that bans people from “living on the streets.” The vague legislation has been criticized as “cruel and incompatible with international human rights law” by United Nations experts.

Hungary argues that it offers sufficient space in emergency shelters to accommodate all individuals without a home and would provide additional support starting this week. Officials said that the law that took effect Monday would save lives.

“The only way to get back on your feet after becoming homeless starts from getting temporary accommodation, because from there they can get social support, clothes, jobs, community work and training,” Hungary’s parliamentary state secretary of human resources, Bence Retvari, told Euronews.

A law that went into effect Oct. 15 in Hungary lets police remove those living on the streets and destroy their effects if they disobey three times in 90 days. (Video: Reuters)

But human rights groups dispute that there are enough safe shelter spots in the country, arguing instead that the measures are part of a broader illiberal crackdown without humanitarian motivations. The Hungarian government has passed a number of laws in recent years that have directly or indirectly targeted homeless people, turning many of them into de facto criminals. In 2013, Hungary prohibited begging in many public spaces, threatening fines and prison sentences. At almost the same time, parliament also banned individuals from collecting and selling discarded furniture, which had become an alternative to begging.

Some of those laws were later reversed by the country’s highest court, but this summer’s constitutional amendments are much more difficult to challenge.

Speaking to Reuters, homeless shelter operator Gabor Ivanyi warned that the “law serves the aim of scaring the homeless to prompt them to flee [the streets] . . . They are scared and don’t know what to do now. We don’t know what will happen tomorrow.” Some homeless people refuse to move into shelters, citing unsafe conditions and the presence of drug dealers or the threat of illnesses. Psychologists also say that some individuals prefer sleeping outside out of fear of accumulations of people, which can be associated with a number of mental illnesses.

By Monday, many homeless people had disappeared from the central streets of the country’s capital, Budapest, Hungarian media outlets reported.

If individuals refuse to follow orders to relocate to shelters multiple times, Hungarian authorities can now impose fines, prison sentences or mandatory participation in public works programs.

The European Union has largely followed the U.N. and NGO criticism of the law. The country’s crackdown on homeless people in part prompted a broader complaint that triggered sanctions proceedings by the European Parliament last month. The measure required a two-thirds supermajority of the European Parliament and could theoretically result in Hungary being stripped of its voice in E.U. decision-making, even though Poland — another E.U. member state under scrutiny from the bloc — has already vowed to veto any such efforts.

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