The contradictions of the Eu and the national governments in facing migration flows over the last few years emerge along two different but intersecting paths. On one hand, there is a pronounced difference between the welcoming of Ukrainians and the reception of refugees of other nationalities. On the other hand, the disparities between the systems implemented by Eu countries to manage arrivals and asylum requests are equally evident and dramatic.

A comparison between Italian and Hungarian data in this regard is critical. Because in Italy there are thousands of people every year who ask for political and humanitarian asylum, just as in the majority of Western European countries. In Hungary, on the other hand, only a few dozens of migrants per year can access this right and it is also difficult to understand precisely how many requests are really presented.

Seven years of repressive policies in Hungary

The images from summer 2015, when the central station and some of the main squares of Budapest were crossed by thousands of refugees, are distant in our memory. Most of those refugees came from Syria and were trying to take international trains towards Vienna and Berlin. It was during that time that Orbán implemented increasingly repressive actions against migrants, thoroughly reforming the legislation on the right to asylum. As a result, today there is basically no way to legally enter the country. As a consequence of these choices, Hungary received sanctions by the Eu and warnings by the European Court of Human rights.

In the summer of 2015, the Hungarian Parliament approved the first of many legislative changes aimed at making the lives of asylum seekers more difficult. And right after that, it launched the building of a metal barrier over 500 km long at the Southern border with Serbia and, partly, Croatia.

523 km is the lenght of the barbed wire barrier on the Serbian-Hungarian border.

In 2017, the “border procedure” was activated. It includes the detention of asylum seekers in the transit zone areas along the barrier. This mechanism has been strongly criticised by humanitarian organisations, the United Nations, and the EU institutions. These transit zones were closed down in May 2020, after the European Court of Human Rights highlighted the illegal nature of the pushbacks and the violation of international rights.

2020 was crucial for the repressive turn of the Hungarian government against migrants.

Despite the closure of these areas at the border, the year 2020 was characterised by even more repressive measures against migrants. On one hand, the government recognized Hungary’s neighbouring states as “safe third countries”. In this way, it could consider refugees arriving to Hungarian borders as out of danger because, even if they were fleeing from war, they had already crossed other safe countries. On the other hand, Orbán, made stronger by the emergency regime that he had to activate to face the Covid-19 pandemic, increased the number of rejections, while still legislating the asylum system in contradiction with the international rules.

Those who seek asylum in Hungary today can only apply at the Hungarian embassy in Serbia.

Today, anyone who wants to enter the European Union through Hungary must go to the country’s embassy in Belgrade, Serbia, to present a “letter of intents” which certifies a preliminary willingness of asking for asylum. Then it is possible to schedule an appointment, always in the Hungarian embassy in Belgrade, to present the proper request. However, months can pass between the preliminary step and the actual appointment, a period of time when the refugees must stay in Serbia, if they do not want to be rejected by the Hungarian police.

It is easy to understand how exhausting this procedure is for migrants, as it prevents them from exercising their right of asylum. That is what the European Union too affirms, but it does nothing more than activate infringement proceedings, without reforming the Dublin Treaty, which is the first and most crucial problem. The result is a surprisingly low number of accepted requests.

42 asylum requests were accepted in Hungary in 2021.

Even considering the total amount of submitted requests, and comparing the figure with other Eastern European countries, the Hungarian data is striking. In neighbouring Romania, for example, in 2020 asylum requests amounted to 6 thousand, as opposed to the 117 presented in Hungary.

FONTE: openpolis processing of Aida and Ecre data
(ultimo aggiornamento: mercoledì 3 Agosto 2022)


What dramatically emerges from these figures is confirmed by the number of pushbacks of so-called “irregular immigrants” at the border. It corresponds to the number of illegal crossings (as a whole, including repeated attempts made by the same person) of the metallic barrier between Hungary and Serbia. In the last few years, the police recorded a significant amount of such attempts. There have been 42 thousand pushbacks in 2020, almost 120 thousand in 2021, and as many as 132 thousand during the first 7 months of 2022.

FONTE: openpolis processing Hungarian police data
(ultimo aggiornamento: domenica 31 Luglio 2022)

The weaknesses of the Italian system

In Italy, the situation is apparently better than in Hungary. However, the system shows clear weaknesses, to the detriment of migrants and their social inclusion in the community.

Despite the restrictive policies that are in force and have been strongly criticised for violating human rights (as the 2017 agreements with the Libyan government that are still active today), migrants keep on arriving in numbers which are significantly higher in Italy than in Hungary. This difference is also determined by the geographical features of the two countries' borders.

From 2017 to 2020, the reception system in Italy changed 3 times.

Since in Italy migrants mainly come from the sea, it is more difficult to reject them, because it would mean sentencing them to certain death. But nonetheless, attempts have been made in the past years to prevent ships transporting refugees from docking. This was possible because of the so-called “security decrees”, pushed by the then-minister of interior Matteo Salvini, leader of the far-right, anti-immigration party the League. These decrees ruled the closure of Italian ports for NGOs’ boats with immigrants on board. The most striking case was the one involving the boat of the NGO Sea watch, when the commander Carola Rackete docked a boat with 53 refugees on board, even though she was denied permission to do so.

Italy, just as other Southern European countries, repeatedly requested a review of the Dublin Treaty, according to which the responsibility of evaluating the asylum requests falls on the EU country where the requester first arrived. However, it has to be underlined that Italian anti-immigration parties were among the ones who rejected some of the proposals for reviewing the treaty in the European Parliament in the past.

For Italy too the turning point was during the so-called “European refugee crisis”. In 2015 indeed more than 153 thousand people arrived on the Italian territory. The next year, the number increased to 181 thousand, and in 2017 to almost 120 thousand.

In Italy, repressive anti-immigration politics were initiated by the Minniti-Orlando decree.

These are the highest figures ever recorded and they decreased in the following years. This was also due to the approval of the Minniti-Orlando decree, pushed by a centre-left government, that introduced stricter rules on flow management, such as the opening of about twenty deportation centres.

Also in 2017, the Italy-Libya memorandum was signed and is still in force nowadays. The deal provides for a big financement to the Libyan coast guard, aimed at limiting the departures from the North African country, which also entails the detention of refugees in Libyan prisons, where human rights are systematically violated.

These repressive laws managed to reduce the number of arrivals, which later also decreased because of the Covid-19 restrictions. In 2021 indeed about 67 thousand people landed. As for 2022, 41 thousand did, in the first 7 months. This figure, albeit higher compared to the same period three years earlier, is rather low, if we compare it to the years of the so-called “refugee crisis”.

41.170 people landed on Italian coasts, from 1 January to 31 July 2022.

As for those who survived Libya and managed to reach the Italian coasts, on the other hand, their fate is a path in the different steps of the reception system. It is important to underline that the majority of those who are accepted (almost 7 out of 10, in 2021) are hosted in “special reception centres”. Such a name already denotes an emergencial approach to a phenomenon, migration, which has actually been regularly occurring for a decade now.

In Hungary, we saw that the problem is the absolute lack and banning of any forms of assistance to asylum seekers, to the extent that, in 2020, the government passed laws punishing those who monitored the borders to provide solidarity services, or were active in networks that support migrants or even simply handed out informative flyers.

In Italy, on the other hand, the main problems concern the path of social inclusion of the asylum seekers and also of those who are granted asylum and become refugees. The emergency ideology that characterises the asylum system, in fact, limits the process of a regular, organic, and systematic planning that could really improve the lives of those who decide to live in Italy. At times this benefits those who economically speculate on emergencial systems, as different judicial enquiries proved over the years.

In this regard, since 2018 the government led by the alliance between the 5 Star Movement and the League has reformed the migrant reception system through the “security decrees”. One of their crucial innovations was the abolition of humanitarian protection, a national safeguard for those who requested asylum, which had been introduced in the country in 1998.

Moreover, the decrees had a great impact on secondary reception centres, where migrants were able to access more and better integration services, such as job placement, Italian language classes, and social inclusion activities. While previously both those who were seeking asylum and those who had already obtained it could access these services, after the security decrees only the second ones could.

At the end of 2020, when the government changed -  Giuseppe Conte was still the prime minister, but this time of an alliance between 5SM and the Democratic Party - the reception system was once again reformed. Today it is more similar to what it was before 2018, before the approval of the security decrees. But if next 25 September the right-wing coalition will win the elections, Salvini himself promised that the decrees will be reintroduced. As for Giorgia Meloni, leader of Brothers of Italy and first in the ballots, she never concealed her appreciation for Orbán’s model.

If we analyse the data, we notice how the two years during which the decrees were in force had a significant impact on the outcome of asylum requests, because of the elimination of humanitarian protection. In 2017 and 2018, the rejected requests out of the examined ones amounted to 58% and 67% respectively and, in the following two-year period, these percentages rose to 81% in 2019 and 76% in 2020, and then came back to 58% in 2021, when security decrees were no longer in place.

In the first months of 2022, on the other hand, the situation looked totally different because of the Ukraine war. More than 38 thousand requests were examined, a much higher number compared to the same period of the previous years. It is enough to consider that in the first quarter of 2021 the instances under verification were less than 10 thousand.

FONTE: openpolis processing Eurostat data
(ultimo aggiornamento: mercoledì 20 Luglio 2022)


Even the results are against the trend this year, considering that, from January to March, almost 32 thousand instances were accepted, as opposed to about 6 thousand which were rejected. Among the previous years, only in the first quarter of 2015 did the accepted requests outnumber the rejected ones. In influencing this year’s trend, a crucial role was for sure played by the many requests for temporary protection submitted by Ukrainian refugees in March, that rose to 148 thousand in August.

This project was supported by the Collaborative and Investigative Journalism Initiative (Ciji). Thanks to the "cross-border stories" grant, 10 reportage across Europe were funded. The freelance journalists Irene Pepe and Aron Coceancig have contributed to the realization of this reportage..

Photo: reception center for Ukrainian refugees in Bok, Budapest - Andrea Mancini / Openpolis