Hungarian homeless hit by ban on rough sleeping

Hungarian homeless hit by ban on rough sleeping

BUDAPEST - Hungary's estimated 30,000 homeless face an uncertain winter after new laws against sleeping rough were approved this week allowing municipalities to create vagrant-free urban areas.

They mean that places such as pedestrian zones, parks, playgrounds, or underpasses can be declared off-limits for rough sleeping for public order, health or safety reasons.

Those who refuse to budge after receiving warnings risk being sent on public works schemes, given fines or even jail terms for repeat offences.

UN World Heritage zones, which includes swathes of central Budapest, will now automatically be no-go-areas for the homeless, while people in "unauthorised" self-made shacks could face fines and possibly prison.

New York-based Human Rights Watch said the legislation was an example of the "undermining" of EU values and rights protection since Prime Minister Viktor Orban came to power in 2010.

It said the measures continued a "war" on the homeless, already victimised by previous bylaws in some municipalities banning sifting through bins or sleeping in underpasses.

Hungary was already warned against "criminalising" the homeless earlier this year by the Venice Commission, the Council of Europe's legal affairs watchdog.

"It would be better if the government tried to find solutions in social policy rather than punishing people who in most cases haven't chosen to be in that situation," Tessza Udvarhelyi, an activist with The City Belongs to Everyone rights group in Budapest, told AFP.

She called on the president not to sign off on the new law.

The government says the legislation will keep public spaces clean and in order, as well as encourage the homeless to escape freezing winter temperatures by sheltering in hostels.

"As well as homeless people, we have to look after those in society who expect safe, clean public spaces," Orban's right-wing Fidesz party said on the day of the vote on Monday.

"People who would like to sit down on a playground bench with their grandchildren but are afraid of doing so for public health reasons have rights too," added Tamas Lukacs, a deputy with the Christian Democrats, Fidesz's junior coalition partner.

The constitutional court threw out an earlier version of the homeless law last year, judging it "unconstitutional" and infringing "human dignity", but this year parliament voted to embed the law in the constitution, hence bypassing the court's ruling.

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