Hungary tried and failed to deport three Afghan families to Afghanistan on Tuesday, in a move that rights groups say is a breach of international law.
It was intended to prove the right-wing Fidesz government’s resolve to fight what it calls “illegal migrants”.
However, the European Court of Human Rights intervened in one family’s case.
The mother of the second family fainted and was taken to hospital, while the third chose to be deported to nearby Serbia rather than Afghanistan.
The hardline stance by Fidesz comes ahead of elections to the European Parliament later this month.
As one of the families was deported to Serbia on Tuesday, the mother shouted at police: “This is the worst country of my life. One day you will be refugees like us, and you will remember that.”
Another woman, a single mother travelling with her four children, told the BBC in a video message sent from inside the detention facility: “We came to this country legally, but they held us in a camp and now they are telling us either to go back to Serbia, or to Afghanistan. Serbia didn’t accept us, how can we go back there?”
Her 17-year-old son had a heart operation two months ago. This was the family for whom the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in Strasbourg granted the temporary injunction preventing deportation.
In the case of the second family, the 35-year-old pregnant mother of three fainted when the police arrived to take her away. She was taken to hospital by ambulance, while her husband and three children were allowed to stay in the Transit Zone, the detention camp on the Hungary-Serbia border.
In the early hours of Wednesday, they crossed the border into Serbia, rather than be taken to an Afghanistan-bound plane waiting at Budapest airport.
The third family had already chosen to be deported to Serbia instead of Afghanistan.
That couple and their four children were driven in the dead of night in a Hungarian prison bus along the service road between the two Hungarian border fences, and pushed back through a gateway in the fence into Serbia.
This was witnessed by officials of the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) and reporters.
Several European countries, including Germany and Sweden, have deported failed Afghan asylum seekers back to Afghanistan in the past, despite protests by human rights groups, and the deteriorating security situation there.
What was different in the Hungarian case is that the 16 individuals had waited two years in camps in Serbia for the chance to enter Hungary legally. Hungary only allows two applications a day.
“Hungary never examined their asylum claims on merit,” said Andras Lederer, of the Helsinki Committee human rights group, which took the three cases to the ECHR.
Asylum was refused by the Hungarian Asylum and Immigration Office in each of the 16 cases on the grounds of inadmissibility. Under a draconian 2018 law, passed by the Hungarian Parliament, any asylum seeker who passed through a safe country – Serbia in this case – is automatically rejected.
According to the UN refugee agency and human rights groups, this is a breach of international and Hungarian law.
The asylum seekers also told the BBC that they were deprived of food and medication after their asylum requests were rejected. It was not possible to verify this, but last week the UN Human Rights Office accused Hungary of denying food to 21 asylum seekers after their claims were rejected.
Neither the Hungarian interior ministry nor the Asylum and Immigration office responded to BBC requests for information. A press conference called by the government next to the Transit Zone at Röszke, on the Hungary-Serbia border was cancelled when it became clear that the deportations to Kabul would not succeed.
In response to BBC questions, Frontex, the European Border Control agency, replied: “We are afraid we cannot comment on any return operations which have not taken place yet.”
The planned deportation of the 16 individuals from Budapest to Kabul was the first attempted by Hungary in collaboration with Frontex.