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In dialogue with Hungary, Committee on the Rights of the Child asks about underage marriages and the age of criminal responsibility

Committee on the Rights of the Child

23 January 2020

The Committee on the Rights of the Child this morning concluded its consideration of the sixth periodic report of Hungary on how it implements the provisions of the Convention on the Rights of the Child.  Committee Experts expressed concerns about children entering marriage and the age of criminal responsibility, which had been brought down for certain crimes.

Committee Experts noted that the age of criminal responsibility had been lowered to 12 years for so-called heinous crimes.  This implied that a child could understand crimes such as terrorism before perceiving the meaning of petty crimes like stealing, which did not seem logical.  The Experts urged Hungary to revert to 14 years as the age of criminal responsibility for all crimes. 

The Committee did not support the marriage of children under the age of 18, in law or in practice, Committee Experts stressed, and called upon Hungary to review its legislation to prohibit the marriage of all children.  Thirty years after it had adopted the Convention, this should no longer be an issue in Hungary, they remarked.

Attila Beneda, Deputy Secretary of State for Family Affairs and the head of the Hungarian delegation, stressed the strong connection between the wellbeing of children and the support of families.  This was of particular importance in a world marked by economic insecurities.  Hungary's family policy was one of the most supportive and most comprehensive in Europe and the world, he stressed, noting that a family policy that did not take the rights of the child into account could not be successful.

The delegation explained that early marriages often occurred when there was a pregnancy and were contracted to avoid the birth of a child out of wedlock.  Early marriages were common for Roma, who would regard a prohibition of such marriages as a removal of their rights.

The age of criminal responsibility was still 14 years.  In exceptional cases, children aged 12 to 14 could be held criminally liable for certain crimes if they were found able to foresee and understand the consequences of their actions. 

Ann Skelton, Committee Member and Co-Rapporteur for Hungary, in her concluding remarks, urged Hungary to ensure the effective implementation of policies throughout the national territory. 

Mr. Beneda concluded by reassuring the Committee that their questions were taken seriously.  Hungary was striving to build a society based on the family and hard work. 

Luis Ernesto Pedernera Reyna, Committee Chairperson, in his concluding remarks, stressed that the best thing for the children of Hungary would be the best thing for the country as a whole.

The delegation of Hungary consisted of representatives of the Ministry of Human Capacities, the Ministry of Justice, the Ministry of the Interior, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Pest Central District Court, the Civil Court of First Instance, the Supreme Court and the Permanent Mission of Hungary to the United Nations Office at Geneva.

The Committee will next meet in public on Monday, 27 January, at 3 p.m., to consider the sixth periodic report of Rwanda under the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC/C/RWA/5-6).

Report

The Committee has before it the sixth periodic report of Hungary under the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC/C/HUN/6).

Presentation of the Report

ATTILA BENEDA, Deputy Secretary of State for Family Affairs of Hungary, said that in a constantly changing world, the rights of the child could not be questioned.  In Hungary, the Ministry of Human Capacities was in charge of matters pertaining to family affairs, the protection of children's rights, sports, culture, health care and education.  The wellbeing of children was strongly connected to the support of the family in a world facing economic insecurities and an ever-changing economic environment.  In Hungary, the protection of the rights of children was addressed with comprehensive measures.  For the best interest of the child, the Government sought to improve the social situation of families and communities, in particular of Roma families and families living in poverty.  Policies focused on fostering knowledge and creating more job opportunities, and on breaking the cycle of poverty.  Seeking to achieve a higher level of social inclusion, the Government had adopted in 2011 the Hungarian National Social Inclusion Strategy, which was funded by both its own budget and through the support of the European Union.

Since 2015, the Government had expanded eligibility criteria for school meal programmes.  Today, 70 per cent of the children in nurseries and kindergartens received free meals, while in primary and secondary schools an average of 50 per cent of children was eligible to receive free meals or meals at a reduced price.  Since 2016, children in need had been receiving free meals during school holidays.  Also, pupils attending years one to nine received textbooks free of charge.

Creating opportunities and upholding the rights of children guaranteed by the Constitution were among the main social policy goals in Hungary, said Mr. Beneda.  The Government was committed to providing focused, effective and targeted assistance to families and professionals supporting them.  The basic aim was to give children, at a young age, the necessary support and adequate social services they needed for their physical, mental and intellectual development.

The Government paid particular attention to the rights of children with disabilities, Mr. Beneda continued.  It had introduced a long-term approach, which aimed at placing minors raised in specialized child protection services in a family environment rather than institutional care.  Accordingly, as of 2020, the Law on Child Protection – which set out guarantees for the enjoyment of children's fundamental rights – was amended to include subsidized housing in the form of residential care.

Several measures had been introduced for the health and well-being of family members, including the Health Professional Guidelines on Maternity and New-Born Care Based on Family-Friendly Principles of December 2019.  Another important step had been the wage increase of healthcare professionals.  As of 1 July 2019, their basic salary had been increased by 8 per cent as part of a multi-step salary increase programme, from which 4,400 nurses would benefit.  Further salary increases were planned: 14 per cent in January 2020 and another 20 per cent in November 2020.

The Government knew that there were still fields where work could be done.  The key principle was relentless work towards the full realization of the rights of the child.  Hungary considered its family policy as one of the most supportive and most comprehensive in Europe and the world.  It was well aware that no family policy could be successful without taking the rights of the child into account.

The measures and outcomes of the last five years reflected the Government's long-term commitment to keep family policy at the centre of its vision of the future; it would continue to take steps to support families and children.  Therefore, the delegation was looking forward to hearing the Committee's questions and remarks.

Questions by the Committee Experts

RENATE WINTER, Committee Member and Co-Rapporteur for Hungary, thanked the delegation for choosing the simplified reporting procedure, which was designed in consideration of the best interest of children, the State party and the Committee.  The Co-Rapporteur commented on the many laws passed in the so-called "Stop Soros" legislation and wondered whether the Government had assessed its impact on children.

The Committee understood that there was not a single body in charge of children's rights, but rather a variety of bodies and tools.  One such tool was the National Crime Prevention Strategy.  How did the Government go about reducing child poverty in such a context?

Turning to data collection, the Co-Rapporteur took note of the information provided by the State party but pointed out the lack of comprehensive data collection systems.  What were the common indicators used by all concerned ministries?

On cooperation with civil society, the Government had taken measures to restrict cooperation, including with non-governmental organizations that worked on migration and refugee issues.  What space did non-governmental organizations have to conduct activities with children, notably in environments that were not conducive to human rights?

GEHAD MADI, Committee Member and Co-Rapporteur for Hungary, said the Committee's jurisprudence did not support the marriage of children under the age of 18, in law or in practice.  He expressed hope that the State party would review its legislation to prohibit marriage of all children under 18 years old. 

The Co-Rapporteur encouraged the delegation to respond to questions on nationality that had been included in the list of issues.  He inquired about the steps taken to ensure that children born in Hungary to stateless parents or parents who could not confirm their nationality could acquire the Hungarian nationality at birth.  Mr. Madi also asked about the naturalization of adopted children.

What measures was the Government taking to protect children who took part in demonstrations?  Turning to the protection of privacy, he requested information on how the Government protected children from violations, including those that took part in the context of political campaigns. 

MIKIKO OTANI, Committee Member and Co-Rapporteur for Hungary, addressing non-discrimination, asked the delegation to confirm whether the sectoral legislation used to apply this principle was the Act on Equal Treatment and the Promotion of Equal Opportunities.  Did the Government have plans to address discrimination issues in areas such as education and kindergarten care?  How about discrimination against children with disabilities, migrant and asylum-seeking children, unaccompanied children, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex children? 

Could the delegation share with the Committee statistical information on the application of criminal law regarding violent acts, or incitement to violence, targeting children.  This information was requested in the list of issues, but no answer had been provided.

The Co-Rapporteur asked for information on the "child's rights impact assessment" mechanism and its use to uphold the best interest of the child.  Such a mechanism was necessary and indeed very important to implement this principle in all legislation, policies and programmes, she stressed and asked how the principle was applied in matters pertaining to child protection.

Children aged 14 to 18 who had arrived unaccompanied to Hungary during a "crisis caused by mass immigration" seemed to fall out of the scope of the Guardianship Act, noted Ms. Otani with concern.  Asking the delegation to elaborate on the matter, she wondered whether such an exclusion amounted to discrimination in the right to be heard.  She also expressed concerns about the workload of children's rights representatives.

There was a lack of information on the comprehensive policy to prevent and address violence against children.  The Committee welcomed the various measures taken in this area, such as the introduction of standardized procedures and investigations of reported cases.  Had any measures been taken to promote and encourage the reporting of cases of violence against children?  What was the Government's view on the level of awareness of reporting mechanisms?

The Co-Rapporteur also inquired about the use of the Barnahus model for interviewing child victims.

While the State party had provided sufficient information regarding corporal punishment in school settings, information was lacking on this practice in other settings, such as the family or alternative care institutions.  The Co-Rapporteur sought clarification on the role of school guards and on whether they were the same as the police officers working in schools.  How was the Government addressing the issue of the use of force by police officers in school?

Replies by the Delegation

ATTILA BENEDA, Deputy Secretary of State for Family Affairs of Hungary, underlined the constructive and professional nature of the Committee's questions, for which he thanked the Committee.

The Government had expressed its commitment to address some issues related to migration and overcome the pressure related to "mass migration".  It only had an impact on the rights of the child to a very limited extent.  Every single child in Hungary had equal rights and opportunities. 

There were 60,000 non-governmental organizations operating in Hungary and the Government had fruitful cooperation with many of them. 

Whenever the Government identified a problem, it intervened as soon as possible.  This explained the numerous changes in the regulatory framework.  The world was changing fast and this required quick responses on the part of the Government.  Further, Hungary's international obligations also triggered regulatory amendments.

To reduce child poverty, added a delegate, the Government had adopted in 2007 a 20-year strategy called "Make it Better for the Children".  A Committee related to this strategy had been created through a governmental decree; it was comprised of representatives of governmental bodies, civil society organizations and churches.

The Hungarian Social Inclusion Strategy served as a basis for governmental action plans that spanned three or four years.  Reports on these action plans had been prepared. 

Programmes were in place to support young Roma students enrolled in university to encourage them to graduate.  Some 300 students were involved in such programmes, which did not exclusively benefit Roma youth, even though they were the primary targets.

As for a body in charge of children's rights, the delegation explained that the Government had consciously decided not to entrust a single body with overseeing the implementation and monitoring of children's rights.  Instead, it opted for a network of bodies or institutions, which it believed to be more efficient to achieve this goal.

On marriage, delegates explained, before the entry into force of the Civil Code, minors could enter into marriage in line with Hungarian traditions.  The legislation on family issues allowed children to enter a marriage at the age of 16.  At that age, children could petition a guardianship to get married and could contract a marriage without the parents' approval.

To understand the tradition behind this practice, it was important to note that such weddings were very often linked to the fact that the newlyweds were expecting a child.  They sought to get married to avoid having a child born out of wedlock.  This meant that their parents did not force such marriages.  Upon getting married, the children came of age and were no longer considered minors under the law.

Asked whether Hungary was willing to remove any exception to the prohibition of underage marriage, the delegation said that the guardianship authorities, prior to rendering a decision, reviewed the conditions and whether the girl was pregnant or not.  A psychological assessment was conducted and the ability to live in adequate material conditions was also considered.  For the Roma population, getting married prior to coming of age was common.  Therefore, if the Government enacted the change suggested by the Committee, this segment of the population would consider this change akin to removing one of their rights. 

Turning to the right of peaceful assembly, the delegates said that the Constitution provided for the equal enjoyment of this right for all, children and adults alike.  To prevent digital exploitation, the Government sought to improve children's digital skills.  A digital child protection strategy had been adopted to raise awareness and educate children on the conscious uses of the Internet that protected their rights.  School curricula now provided for the assessment of children's media awareness and digital skills.

A picture book had been published to serve as a tool to teach children about their rights, including the right to health, and freedom from violence and discrimination, amongst other issues.  A deck of cards had also been created to spark discussions with children about their rights.  Judges and judicial authorities were increasingly inclined to hear and consider the opinion of children under 14 before rendering decisions on parental custody.

In Hungary today, there were 58 child-friendly hearing rooms designed with the input of judges and psychologists.  Some of them had colourful decorations, books and toys.  Efforts were also made to provide information on the judicial proceeding to children in a child-friendly language.

As soon as unaccompanied children were granted international protection, they were integrated into the child protection scheme, on an equal footing with Hungarian children.

Turning to children in correctional facilities, childcare or foster care, delegates explained that a methodology was in place to assess the situation of a child victim of violence.  It was a tool to identify the needs for medical care and psychological support.  A legislative framework was being designed to ensure that children who were victims of abuse received therapy and any other support they required.  In the first phase, this methodology was deployed with a focus on most vulnerable children.  When the perpetrator was an adult, an investigation was systematically launched. 

The Government was now planning to offer services based on the Barnahus model at the regional level, aiming to offer nationwide coverage in a few years through the establishment of regional hubs.

Whenever there was a report of violence against children, a signalling system was triggered.  Any professional who dealt with children in any way, as well as ordinary citizens, could report a situation and so activate this signalling system, which was regulated by the Children Protection Act.  To strengthen the system, changes had been made a few years ago that had transformed it into a four-tier system.  There was also a national hotline that children – or anybody who had information about a child being abused – could call 24/7.

Questions by the Committee

ANN SKELTON, Committee Member and Co-Rapporteur for Hungary, said it seemed that there were still too many children who were removed from their parents as a result of poverty.  The State party in its report had written that poverty did not stand alone, that it was linked to other issues.  The Committee understood that point.  It nevertheless needed to know which kind of services the State party offered to adequately address the multiplicity of factors that led to removals.

Ms. Skelton inquired about the approach to foster care, especially considering that many foster homes were in remote areas.  She raised concern about the fact that – seemingly – Hungary believed that disability was enough of a reason to put a child in foster care.  She asked the delegation to comment and to explain its approach to attracting foster carers.  What was the Government's position on baby boxes?

The number of children born in Hungary was dropping, but the number of children under the age of three who were in institutions was increasing.  Why was this occurring and how was it being addressed?  The Co-Rapporteur also commented on the overrepresentation of Roma children in care and asked what was being done to address the issue.

Congratulating the State party for the progress achieved on inclusive education, Ms. Skelton asked about measures adopted to overcome the challenges in turning away from specialized education and towards the integration of children with disabilities in mainstream schools.  She also inquired about violence against children with disabilities in a specialized institution in Tophaz and discrimination against minority children.

RENATE WINTER, Committee Member and Co-Rapporteur for Hungary, remarked that the Convention did not make a distinction based on the age of children, and yet, such a distinction was made in Hungary.  Unaccompanied migrant children over the age of 14 were kept in transit zones, which they could not leave.  Going back to Serbia was no option, as they would be detained there, and the border police seemed to be violent with this group of children.  She asked about the age determination methodology used at the border crossings, the education provided to migrant children, and measures in place to facilitate their integration in Hungary.

The age of criminal responsibility had been lowered to 12 years for so-called heinous crimes, Ms. Winter remarked.  This implied that a child understood crimes such as terrorism before grasping petty crimes like stealing, which did not seem logical.  Perhaps Hungary should consider reverting to 14 as the age of criminal responsibility for all crimes.

Pre-trial detention could last up to a year for a 12-year-old child.  That was an exception in Europe, which should give those present a pause, the Co-Rapporteur said.

GEHAD MADI, Committee Member and Co-Rapporteur for Hungary, turning to the Optional Protocol on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography, asked how it was implemented in Hungary.  It was regrettable that the response was lacking to the Committee's previous concluding recommendations related to the Optional Protocol on the involvement of children in armed conflict, he said.

Replies by the Delegation

Responding, the delegation of Hungary said that the Government's approach was centred on strengthening families through financial support schemes.  The amount given to families had doubled since 2010.  Its increase in relation to Hungary's gross domestic product stood at four per cent approximately, one of the highest ratios in Europe.  This contributed to addressing child poverty.  The Government focused on most vulnerable groups when seeking to reduce extreme poverty.

The Government respected the decision of the Hungarian courts, which were independent, and wanted to ensure compensation money did reach the victims, to give them a chance at having a better life.

Hungary was considering adopting the Optional Protocol on a communication procedure.

Two strategies were in place that targeted children in regions where social inclusion was at issue.  The delegation explained that the Government relied on socioeconomic data to initiate projects; some regions, counties and municipalities were lagging behind, while others were doing well.  That was why measures to tackle poverty must be based on regional differences.  For instance, measures targeting children living in poverty were focused on certain districts with high birth rates. 

Concentrated programmes were rolled out there to strengthen human capacities, infrastructure and services for the benefit of children, including Roma children.  A programme to foster the social and economic development of Hungary's 30 least developed municipalities had been launched in 2019; in the future, the programme would be scaled up to 300 municipalities.

Compulsory education started at the age of three.  The "Safe Start Children's House" programme was in place to cater to the needs of children younger than that and offer them daytime activities.  Although it targeted disadvantaged children, the Houses were open to all.  Houses were not a day-care, rather, parents were expected to stay and use the services together with their children.

Stateless persons were entitled to Hungarian citizenship after three years of continuous residence in Hungary, explained the delegation.  Children adopted by Hungarian citizens were not granted citizenship automatically but received preferential treatment.  It was up to the competent authorities to make the nationality decisions on a case-by-case basis and often, Hungarian citizenship was granted to the adopted child.

Several thousand children had been removed from their families.  Poverty could not be the primary ground for the removal of the child, stressed the delegation.  The complex removal procedure would not allow it, while mechanisms in place would detect the removals based on a sole financial criterion.  Such removals were in contradiction with the national legislation and the Convention. 

The removed children were placed primarily in foster care, although some had been placed in institutions.  The proportion of children placed in foster care was increasing: 30 per cent were in children's home and 70 per cent were in foster care.  It was important to note that 87 per cent of children under the age of three were placed in foster care.  Currently, 60 per cent of removed children with disabilities were in institutions.  About 300 children were in children's homes.  Parents had the opportunity to keep contact with the child and receive visits from the child, when possible.  Every six months, the guardianship authorities reviewed the removal decision and determined the steps required for the child to return to the family. 

Baby boxes saved children's lives and the right to life superseded the right to know one's identity, the delegation reaffirmed.  If the baby boxes were not available, mothers would make more drastic decisions.  Very few children were placed in baby boxes, which seemed to be the last resort.  In 2018, there were 35 institutions that had baby boxes; 13 children had been placed in baby boxes in 2015 and only five in 2017.  The mother could claim the child for up to six weeks; after this period, it was deemed that the child had been given up for adoption. 

Regarding the allegations about the Tophaz institution, the Ministry of Capacities had initiated in May 2017 a comprehensive review of the situation, with the help of independent experts.  Following the results, the Ministry had concluded that the accusations that the children had been starved were not true.  Many children with disabilities in this institution had been bedridden and images that had been circulated and the related reports had conflated their disabilities with the alleged abuse.

The Ministry's assessment had found, however, that the conditions had not met professional and material standards for such an institution and could not provide services to 200 children and adults with disabilities.  The Ministry had put together a 30-point action plan and established strict deadlines to address this situation.  This institution would be transformed into support houses.  The first residents of Tophaz would move out in the spring of 2020.

There were now nine universities that trained special needs teachers.  The number of students enrolled in those programmes had doubled over the course of the past few years.  A scholarship system had been created to encourage special needs education trainees and a master's degree programme was also in place.  Delegates explained that when special needs were identified, a panel of experts was convened and decided whether the pupil should be part of segregated or integrated schools.  The rationale for their opinion was provided to parents, who decided which school their child would attend.

It was the district nurses' role to provide information and counsel to pregnant women about abortion and provide tailored advice to convince them not to get the procedure.  District nurses provided such counselling services throughout the country.  Based on the most recent data, there were 107 different offices where district nurses provided their services.

Youngsters received information on sexual and reproductive health in their schools.  Healthcare professionals met with them in groups or individually to provide advice.

To address school dropouts, the Government targeted students-at-risk, including those from low-income families.  Around 11,000 students received scholarships and mentoring, while 1,800 Roma girls participated in a programme that specifically addressed their needs.

Turning to migration, delegates explained that various methods were being used to determine the age of minors, including teeth and bone examination.  Psychological and cultural factors were also considered.  Additional examinations by forensic experts could be requested by asylum seekers, with the costs borne by the asylum authorities.  When in doubt, authorities ruled in favour of applicants.  Unaccompanied minors fell under the child protection law and were primarily considered children. 

Unaccompanied minors aged 14 to 18 had to stay in the transit zone until the end of the asylum process.  This measure had been put in place during the migratory crisis, which the Government had declared to be in effect until March 2020.  In 2018, out of 1,431 concerned children, 1,408 had left transit zones.  Controlling the migration flows was a legitimate purpose, which was also in the interest of the minors, the delegation stressed.  The European Court of Human Rights had ruled that staying in the transit zones did not qualify as detention and that asylum applicants had not de facto been deprived of their liberty.  While the matter of the transit zones could be considered a never-ending dispute, delegates expressed hope that this ruling would put an end to it.

On access to education in the transit zones, delegates said that children arriving in the transit zones had limited skills.  Some of them had never attended formal education in their country of origin.  The education provided to them was therefore preparatory.  For example, they learned about European traditions, which Hungary perceived as a starting point for meaningful integration.

Regarding allegations of violence at the border, delegates said that in 2015 and 2016 there had been sporadic mistreatments.  Now, if such actions were reported, they were duly investigated by the competent authorities.  No such actions had been reported in the last few years.

RENATE WINTER, Committee Member and Co-Rapporteur for Hungary, pointed out that in 2018, 359 unaccompanied children had arrived in Hungary, which did not amount to mass migration.  However, not one of those children had been recognized as a refugee and only 159 had received subsidiary protection.  Further, the Co-Rapporteur underlined that children were in transit zones and that the status of these zones was non sequitur, as the children could not enter Hungary nor return to Serbia.  What was the number of children in transit zones and the number of refugee, asylum-seeking and migrant children attending schools?  How many of them had access to healthcare?

The delegation said those replies would be provided in writing at a later stage.

Turning to criminal justice, delegates remarked that while there were no specialized courts for juveniles, there were specialized juvenile judges in every court.  The age of criminal responsibility was still 14 years.  In exceptional cases, children between the ages of 12 and 14 could be held criminally liable if two criteria were met.  First, they had to have committed one of the six criminal offences that were deemed "violent criminal offences".  Second, they had to be found able to foresee and understand the consequences of their actions.  This was determined through an examination performed on a case-by-case basis.  In other words, even if a 13-year-old child committed a terrorist act but it was proven that the child did not understand what he or she was doing, the judicial proceedings would be terminated.  In any case, even if found criminally responsible and guilty, the most serious sentence a child could face was placement in a reform institution.

Concluding Remarks

ANN SKELTON, Committee Member and Co-Rapporteur for Hungary, in her concluding remarks, urged Hungary to ensure the effective implementation of policies throughout the national territory.  She thanked the delegation for the candour with which it had answered the Committee's questions.

ATTILA BENEDA, Deputy Secretary of State for Family Affairs of Hungary, concluded by reassuring the Committee that their questions were taken seriously.  Hungary was striving to build a society based on the family and hard work. 

LUIS ERNESTO PEDERNERA REYNA, Committee Chairperson and Co-Rapporteur for Hungary, in his concluding remarks, stressed that the best thing for the children of Hungary would be the best thing for the country as a whole.

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