THE UN refugee agency has taken the rare step of urging EU members to suspend returns of asylum seekers to a partner country amid concern about practices in Hungary.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) criticised the country’s new policy of systematically placing migrants in containers and expelling those who lack proper papers. Since a new law took effect on March 28, Hungary has detained 110 people, including children, in “shipping containers surrounded by high razor fences at the border” while their cases are reviewed.

Filippo Grandi, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, said the situation for asylum seekers in Hungary was already a concern before the measures, and “has only gotten worse since the new law introducing mandatory detention for asylum seekers came into effect”.

The move is bound to put a new spotlight on the government of Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban, which has faced criticism from UN agencies and advocacy groups over its tough policies on migrants – even if its populist message has resonated in the country and elsewhere in the West.

A complex EU rule known as the Dublin Regulation holds that any asylum seekers should have their cases processed in the first country of the bloc that they enter, and should be returned there if necessary.

Grandi urged EU countries to suspend transfer of asylum seekers to Hungary “until the Hungarian authorities bring their practices and policies in line with European and international law”.

UNHCR spokeswoman Cecile Pouilly said the call for such suspensions within the EU was rare, and such an appeal was last made in 2012, also with regards to Hungary. Hungary’s “emergency measures” under the revised law also violate the country’s obligations under international law, by leading to expulsions of anyone who enters irregularly, the UN agency said.

The new rules call for all asylum seekers over the age of 14 to be placed in one of two container camps on Hungary’s border with Serbia until their asylum claims are decided. The Budapest government says they are free to leave the camps and return to Serbia at any time.