Anikó, thank you very much for having agreed to give an interview for the EU-Russia Civil Society forum. The Hungarian Helsinki Committee is going to celebrate ith 30th anniversary soon. What was the idea of founding the organisation in 1989?
The Hungarian Helsinki Committee was one of the first human rights organisations in Hungary. Its mission is to protect human dignity and rule of law through legal and public advocacy methods, and this is why it was established as a watchdog non-governmental organisation. We now might see that, after 30 years of the Committee’s foundation, our work is probably more needed now than, let’s say, ten years ago. Therefore, we are still serving our original mission.
Legal assistance to refugees and to migrants is one of the cornerstones of your mission, and this is very relevant nowadays. How have you been coping with those things now? What are the achievements?
Actually, the Hungarian Helsinki Committee started providing legal assistance in 1994, so five years after its foundation. At the Helsinki Committee, we have two large programmes – the Justice and Rule of Law Programme and the Refugee Programme, which provides legal assistance and legal representation to asylum seekers and refugees. Migration has indeed become a central issue in Hungary, a very political topic. Therefore, it seems more important right now in Hungary than it actually is, because – as a result of governmental policies, politics and legislative changes – we have very few asylum seekers in Hungary. There is hardly anyone let into the country, so access to the territory of Hungary and access to the Hungarian asylum procedure is extremely limited. Still the government keeps this topic on the agenda, as if Hungary were at war, as if we were attacked by hundreds and hundreds of asylum seekers.
There were quite a few expectations ahead of the Parliamentary elections in Hungary. But the change has not come. What is the impression of the people in the country about what is happening? What is to expect now from the new legislative period of the same party?
I think, what we could have seen since April, since the same party Fidesz has won the elections with two-thirds majority, is that they are actually following the same path that they used to follow before. They are destroying rule of law, democratic values in the country, and the asylum system is just a small part of this entire big destruction that is happening with the justice system, with checks and balances. This is a full-scale attack, if you will. Refugee rights, the right to protection is just one part of it. What we see right now is that the situation has not changed at all, rather the opposite has been happening. With the acceptance of what they call the ‘Stop Soros’ package, which is basically criminalising assistance to asylum seekers, criminalising the helpers, an extra tax is going to be levied upon donors and organisations. This is the same path as the one we have seen before the elections.
What gives you the power to continue your work under these severe circumstances, then?
We strongly believe in what we do, and we think that this is the right thing to do. If you are positive and sure that what you are doing is the right thing, then I think it is easy to continue, even in the face of such attacks and such injustice.
If talking about the European Union – Russia relations, what do you think are the topics, which are high on the agenda? What would you like to achieve within the EU-Russia Civil Society forum?
The collaboration between EU member states and Russia and civil society, between Russian NGOs and NGOs from EU member states is more important because of this polarisation and because of the attack on the democratic values, which has been unfortunately happening not only in Hungary. We very much believe in the strength of this cooperation, and for us this is very much a kind of back to the basics’ thing: The Moscow Helsinki Group was one of the first initiatives, and this is where our organisation comes from. We were very happy to join the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum and see, how through this collaboration and cooperation we can stand up for the values that we believe in.
Have you felt the Forum support already? Did the membership in the Forum bring you anything?
Yes, we feel this support. With some members from Poland and Russia, we have started collaborating, sharing experiences on how to exist and survive in a shrinking civic space. Unfortunately, our colleagues from Russian NGOs have had quite a significant experiences with this challenge. Unfortunately, because the situation is hard to cope with, but fortunately, because we can learn from each other’s experience.
What would you like to wish the Forum member organisations?
What I wish for each organisation is that they found something they can benefit from and they can give to other organisations; and that they found their membership useful and that they can develop from this membership.
The interview was shot on 20 July 2018 by the Secretariat of the EU-Russia Civil Society forum in Berlin (Germany)