Punishing tax stops refugees studying at Hungarian universities

When 27-year-old student and refugee Ananya Azad heard that he had been selected for a scholarship to attend Central European University (CEU) in Hungary, he quit his job in Germany and gave notice on his flat.

He had been chosen as a part of an initiative to provide education to migrants and asylum seekers in Europe.

A blogger and published author who fled from Bangladesh, Azad had hoped to use develop his expertise on the right to freedom of speech when the academic year begins on Monday.

But last week, CEU was forced to suspend the programme after a new law went into effect imposing a hefty “immigration surtax”, equal to 25 percent of the entire budget of institutions that in any capacity directly or indirectly promotes immigration.

For Azad and dozens of other students who had benefited from the programme, it is a devastating blow in a region with few options for refugees and migrants wishing to pursue higher education.

“This is very difficult for me. I don’t know this language and now I am having to do this totally alone,” he said. “I think this world is for humans and we should respect all of them.”

Wafa, 52, a doctor from Yemen currently residing in Budapest, joined the programme for a year in 2016.

She said that she had planned to rejoin the school, but is now unsure where to go to continue her work.

“Many of us will complain about this. Many refugees depend on this university to study or get work,” she said.

The government says that a pro-migrant stance is not in the best interests of Hungarians. 

“The issue of migration is an issue of European democracy; there is a gap between the utopian, pro-immigration concept of left-wing elites and the interests of the people,” government spokesman Zoltan Kovacs said in a statement on Tuesday. 

Hungarian-born American billionaire George Soros, who funds the programme, has been a persistent target of the nationalist government led by populist Prime Minister Viktor Orban. 

“The programmes have provided educational training only for persons legally admitted to Hungary. We are proud of this work and of our research on refugee and migration issues in Europe and will seek all possible ways to continue this work in the future,” CEU says on ts website.

‘We may see more projects fold’

In June, parliament overwhelmingly passed a package of legislation known as the “Stop Soros” bill that would allow for the imprisonment of anybody aiding migrants, despite pleas from international bodies including the European Union and United Nations not to do so.

The latest bill which has drawn similar criticism from rights organisations, is the most recent attack on migrants and civil society actors attempting to help asylum seekers fleeing from war-torn countries.

It comes as pressure mounts on the European Union to impose sanctions on the straying member state.

“Unless EU institutions make it clear to the Hungarian government that taxing and criminalising work with asylum seekers, migrants, and refugees is unacceptable and an affront to EU laws and values, we may see more valuable programmes and projects fold,” Lydia Gall, an Eastern Europe researcher at Human Rights Watch, wrote on Wednesday.

The bill has also been criticised for being intentionally vague, forcing CEU to close its migrant programme while it seeks tax advice, the university wrote in a statement on August 28. 

“This is a law that has to be seen in two contexts; one as a part of a series of punitive measures against asylum seekers and refugees in Hungary, and secondly as a part of the famous illiberal turn, so [my] feeling is one of frustration,” said Prem Kumar Rajaram, a volunteer and administrator of the programme.

Petra Bard, an expert on EU constitutional law and EU criminal justice and visiting professor of the Central European University (CEU), said that while the government has continued to repress the rights of migrants, Prime Minister Orban is clamping down on education in general to stamp out any curriculum that could be seen as a breeding ground for liberal thought.

Last month, the government moved to ban gender studies at universities on the basis that it served to no benefit among employers looking to hire students.

“One way to control people is to not grant them access to education,” Bard said.

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