Civil Society Spotlight: Anikó Bakonyi from the Hungarian Helsinki Committee

Civil Society Spotlight: Anikó Bakonyi from the Hungarian Helsinki Committee

In this Civil Society Spotlight interview, we hear from Anikó Bakonyi the Director of the Refugee Programme at the Hungarian Helsinki Committee. 

Aniko’s interests have always centred around social justice, protecting, and empowering disadvantaged groups in society. She has worked with victims of human trafficking, Roma and Jewish Holocaust survivors and their families, and refugees arriving in Hungary from all over the world. She has worked for the Refugee Programme of the Hungarian Helsinki Committee since 2010, focusing on protecting the rights of refugees through human rights monitoring, counselling, advocacy, and reporting.  

Since 2018, she has served as a board member of the Berlin-based Civil Society Forum, with a membership of 180 organizations from the EU and Russia. Anikó graduated from the Central European University with a degree in human rights and later received a Master’s in Public Administration from the Harvard Kennedy School. 

EPIM has supported the Hungarian Helsinki Committee since 2021. 

1. What changed in terms of the Ukraine Response in Hungary in 2023, compared to the year before? 

In 2023, there were notable changes in the response to the Ukraine crisis in Hungary compared to the previous year.  

In 2022, the response primarily focused on emergency humanitarian assistance, with extensive involvement from volunteers and non-state actors. However, the asylum system had been dismantled over the past years and lacked the capacity to adequately receive refugees fleeing Ukraine. During the early part of the year, efforts were made to establish a structure for assistance and coordination, led by UNHCR. The emphasis was on facilitating access to temporary protection, short-term housing, and humanitarian relief. 

By 2023, while the number of arrivals remained steady, it was lower than in 2022. Moreover, those providing assistance were more organized and aware of their roles. However, there was a failure to transition from emergency humanitarian aid to a more sustainable, medium- and long-term integration vision. Information remained scarce, with the immigration authority, typically responsible for disseminating information, still absent at border crossings and shelters. 

Furthermore, there was a lack of widespread sharing of information regarding the extension of Temporary Protection (TP) cards, leading to significant challenges for beneficiaries in accessing basic services. Additionally, national-level coordination of services and service providers, which had been lacking from the outset, remained insufficient. 

 

2. What new challenges and learnings has the Hungarian Helsinki Committee had to face and explore regarding Ukrainian refugees this past year? 

 The coordination of services and service providers at a national level, which had been lacking from the outset, remained inadequate in 2023. With resources dwindling, the urgency for improved coordination became even more pronounced. 

The demand for high-quality support within the country also grew. Assistance levels and quality for refugees varied significantly among different shelters. In many instances, translators were still missing, leaving non-state actors such as municipalities or hostel managers to fend for themselves. As the focus shifted towards aiding the integration and long-term settlement of tens of thousands of people, professional assistance became essential. Alongside the shortage of integration support, our monitoring team encountered victims of labour exploitation and Romani refugees confronting additional barriers to accessing services. 

Strong partnerships formed with other civil society actors, volunteers, and select humanitarian organizations became increasingly crucial in 2023. Collaborating, we often relied on each other’s expertise to assist families and address their diverse needs. 

 

3. How has the EPIM-supported “Right to Know 2” project contributed to these efforts? How is the 2023 project different from the first Right to Know project in 2021? 

In the first project, in addition to an advocacy report and information notes, we developed a legal template, which includes a set of questions that were referred to the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) Preliminary Reference Procedure. The goal of this was to get a national judge from one of the target countries to submit a preliminary reference to the CJEU – this referral was made by a Hungarian judge in 2021.  

The CJEU ruled on 22 September 2022 that the Hungarian legislation which does not enable a concerned person to learn about the essential reasons why they are considered a threat to national security is not compliant with EU law. This was a milestone achievement in safeguarding the right to defence as a result of the Right to Know project.  

Additionally, first Right to Know project focused on the practices of three countries (Cyprus, Hungary and Poland) that had very strict policies on access to classified data in national security immigration cases.  But in 2023, Right to Know 2,  has a wider, pan-European focus to map the issues related to the access of classified data in national security immigration cases and to gather good practices EU-wide. This will be a significant contribution to the literature and information available on the right to defence and fair trial across EU Member States, given that the most recent such publicly available study was last published in 2017.  

 

4. What positive learnings, and potential momentum can we take away from these past two years, and the new situation the Central European region, and Hungary have had to face? 

There are valuable lessons to be gleaned from the response. CEE countries, including Hungary, acted swiftly and extended protection to refugees, providing them with welcome, shelter, and support. Opening the labour market to applicants of Temporary Protection, a goal we had pursued for many years for international protection applicants, proved successful and presents an opportunity when we get the chance to rebuild our asylum system. 

When state actors opt out of leading coordination efforts, collaboration among non-state actors becomes invaluable. We’ve observed the strength and benefits of cooperation among various assistance providers, as well as the insights gained from engaging with NGOs from neighbouring countries. Sharing experiences is crucial for NGOs operating in challenging environments, providing a foundation for future endeavours. 

Supporting the well-being of aid workers, preventing burnout, and addressing the mental health needs of both our clients and colleagues have also proven vital. 

 

5. What do you see as the main challenges for the legal status of refugees from Ukraine, and their possibility of inclusion into CEE societies and the EU in the next few years? 

Discussions at the EU level have commenced regarding potential avenues for legal residency for refugees from Ukraine post-2025. In Hungary, there’s already a notable push towards transitioning from temporary protection to residency permits for employment purposes. While many Ukrainian refugees initially expressed intentions to return home, this sentiment may shift as the conflict prolongs and families integrate into host countries. Planning must therefore encompass options for those desiring to remain beyond the expiration of temporary protection in 2025. 

Considering the current state of Hungary’s asylum system and the government’s stance on refugees, prospects for a significant number of Ukrainian refugees receiving international protection appear slim. Instead, inclusion is more likely to be pursued through employment-based residence permits. However, given recent revisions to the Law on third-country nationals, the specific options available to beneficiaries of temporary protection remain uncertain.