Hungary’s response to Europe’s never-ending “migrant crisis” has deepened divisions within the EU and Hungary itself. In Brussels, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán is criticised over his plan to “to keep Europe Christian”. At home, he stands accused of vilifying Moslems to lure his voters back from the extreme-right Jobbik party. While in Budapest the debate rages on, winter is making things even worse for the destitute asylum-seekers.
Hungary has been criticised for erecting a four-metre-tall fence with razor wire, sentencing migrants transiting through the country “illegally” for up to three years, and for refusing to accept migrants who have passed through Serbia on the grounds that Serbia and its Balkan neighbours are safe countries.
Orbán stands accused of fear-mongering as he has publicly warned Hungarians against migrants “raised in another religion” and a “radically different culture”.
“It doesn’t matter what you think of immigration, whether we need immigrants or not,” says Balázs Orbán (no relation), a government advisor and director of a centre-right think-tank launched last year to advise the government. “This influx is not healthy and will destabilise the European community.”
Balázs Orbán describes the migration “crisis” as “the biggest ideological question of the 21st century for Europe” with Hungary on the frontline. He is convinced that the European discourse on asylum seekers will change, as the same EU leaders pointing fingers at Hungary are shifting towards its policies of “border control”.
Germany, Sweden and Austria have imposed controls on their borders and Donald Tusk, President of the European Council, has declared that the Schengen zone is on the verge of collapse unless Europe can maintain its borders.
“All the politicians you quoted have already changed their mind or lost power,” Balázs Orbán tells me when I read him the long list of harsh words coming from Austria, Romania, Germany, Sweden and civil society. Among the harshest critics are Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and former president of the UN Security Council, who has publicly called Hungary’s policies “utterly appalling”.
“Hungary realised first what the situation is and why it is different from previous times,” Orbán says. “Now what is going on in Europe is that Europe is realising this fact as well.” The reason, he says, is that the EU is starting to realise that the influx has so far only been the tip of the iceberg.
Syria is not his biggest concern but rather the 60 million people who have been displaced globally, according to the UN High Commission for Human Rights. Conflicts in sub-Saharan Africa, Asia and the Americas are all escalating. Even the conflict in Ukraine is adding to the numbers of displaced people.
His research puts the numbers closer to 100 million with one primary destination in sight: the EU. “It’s not important whether they go to Australia, Russia, China, Europe or the US, but Europe is the only place where everyone is accepted. Everywhere else – even Canada – is saying, we want to make a decision about who is let in.”
Still, it’s not the need for protection from tyrants such as Syria’s Bashar al-Assad that amounts to the biggest numbers, according to his government-funded research.
“Economic situations in their home countries, climate change and population growth – these are the three factors. One example: in the first half of 2015, 40 per cent of asylum seekers were coming from Kosovo. Why did they come? There is no clear fear of persecution. They came because of economic reasons.
“Why are people coming from Pakistan? Why are people coming from Bangladesh? It’s simple: global warming, population growth and economic reasons.”
Earlier last year at the European People’s Party Congress in Madrid, Viktor Orbán made it clear that he sees the influx as “not a refugee crisis” but a “migratory movement composed of economic migrants, refugees and also foreign fighters”.
“We are always focusing on Syria,” says Balázs Orbán. “The situation is much worse, for example in Bangladesh or in Africa because there are millions of people who have serious problems.
“They just didn’t leave for Europe yet but they will. Syria is a very specific situation and there is a civil war in Syria, but we don’t have civil wars in Bangladesh or Pakistan but we have tension and serious political problems. We always have civil wars in Africa.”
The Hungarian government reportedly spent roughly EUR 3.5 million convincing Hungarians that they will not lose their jobs to foreigners in a billboard campaign that has been labelled a tool to capitalise on their scepticism towards migrants from Muslim countries.
In May, Hungary held a “national consultation on immigration and terrorism”, insinuating a clear connection between the two. The consultation sparked protest from a number of Hungarian intellectuals for framing immigration in the context of terrorism.
While Hungary’s hard line has been popular domestically, the legality under international law remains a different question.
“If Hungary wants to be in the EU, then it needs to adhere to EU laws,” says Lydia Gall from Human Rights Watch. “Everybody has concerns. The question is whether or not we follow the laws that we sign up to.”
According to her, Orbán’s government has seized the “migrant crisis” as an opportunity to score voters from Jobbik at the expense of human rights. As a recipient of EU aid, Hungary is eating at the EU table but is refusing to share the bill. Gall thinks it’s time for Hungary to roll up its sleeves and share the burden with the rest of the EU, rather than framing the migration influx as a sovereignty issue.
“This is obviously not a new thing and Viktor Orbán has been doing this for the last five years. Basically, he has established himself as the protector of the Hungarian people, culture and anything else,” she says.
While the ruling Fidesz party is considered right wing, even according to Balázs Orbán, last election saw voters shifting even further to the right as the radically nationalistic Jobbik took a large chunk out of Fidesz votes. While the government argues that addressing Hungarians’ scepticism towards Moslem migrants is necessary in order to curb more extreme movements, such as the Golden Dawn in Greece, Gall sees the move as a way of luring voters back to Fidesz.
“This has been slowly building and quite frankly no one needs to vote for Jobbik, because he [Viktor Orbán] is doing a damn good job at forwarding pretty much all Jobbik rhetoric and inserting into contemporary Fidesz rhetoric,” she says.
Xenophobic rhetoric from Hungary’s government confuses the issues of migration and refugees. The biggest confusion being the asylum process itself, she explains.
“We have asylum laws for a reason. Human Rights Watch is not advocating for an open-door policy. What we are advocating for is that people should have legal routes into the EU and that they will be able to present their claims, and if the claims are rejected on fair grounds, then the person must be deported back to the country of origin.
“If someone comes from Bangladesh and he only comes for economic reasons and he doesn’t qualify as a refugee, then he will be sent back. We don’t have an issue with this.”
She does, however, take issue with the mixing of refugees and economic migrants in an attempt to deliberately confuse Hungarians. Arguing that Europe must either build a wall or absorb anyone in the developing world looking for greener grass has nothing to do with the Geneva Convention or EU refugee law, Gall says.
She is not alone in raising eyebrows about the perceived flood of migrants on its way to Europe’s shores.
“Western Europe is not this dream land of all these 60 million people,” says Marta Pardavi, co-chair of the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, an international civil society group that among other things provides free legal assistance to asylum seekers arriving in Hungary.
“This is a completely false conclusion drawn from genuine facts. If there is 50-60 million people displaced in the world today and the numbers are likely to increase, then they are all not coming to Europe at all. That’s a global figure and most people will actually stay in their region.
“Out of the 4 million Syrians who have been displaced, most of them are actually staying in the region; Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon,” Pardavi says. “Everybody we spoke to said that they wouldn’t have left Syria if this wasn’t going on. They wouldn’t have left if they had the prospects of returning home or the prospects of a decent life in Turkey.”
Instead of deterring migrants with a wall and prison sentences for those that are able to get through, Pardavi thinks Hungary should focus on addressing the push factors from which these people are fleeing.
“This is an opportunity to look at Europe’s role in the world and to put our money where our mouth is. Instead of pouring EUR 4 million into billboard campaigns we should be pouring EUR 4 million into Turkish refugee camps.
“They should be looking into where the migrants that Hungary is seeing are coming from, and what are the ways to offer some better prospects for them and their children. People in Africa have the same kind of hopes for their children as we do in Europe, and I think this is completely being forgotten.”
Working with the EU is another obvious first step for Hungary, she explains. Labelling immigrants as terrorists while ignoring the problems they are fleeing from is not – unless the idea is to increase xenophobic tension for political gains, of course.
“In terms of real solutions, it’s clear that Hungary is not offering any,” Pardavi says. “Every idea proposal from the European Commission to work together more closely, quotas, hotspots, anything, is not accepted. The only thing they are pushing as a solution is border control.”
Viktor Orbán’s controversial letter in the German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, where he warned that “those who are overwhelmed cannot offer shelter to anyone”, also falls through, according to Pardavi, as Hungary is processing a total of around a thousand asylum-seekers. While hundreds of thousands have transited through the country, only a small fraction is willing to stay.
Given Hungary’s opposition to proposals from Brussels already, the painfully slow search for common ground between Hungary and the EU continues at the expense of asylum-seekers walking through the Balkans in increasingly freezing temperatures.
Gall, asked if winter will sway Hungarian public opinion on immigration, is not optimistic.
“Maybe when we see people start dying from the cold,” she says. “People are dying in the hundreds and thousands on the sea already but it hasn’t really swayed anyone, has it?”
“Let us not forget that those arriving have been raised in another religion, and represent a radically different culture. Most of them are not Christians but Muslims. This is an important question because Europe and European identity is rooted in Christianity. Is it not worrying in itself that European Christianity is now barely able to keep Europe Christian? If we lose sight of this, the idea of Europe could become a minority interest in its own continent.” –
Viktor Orbán, September 3, 2015.
Gábor Marotim, 29
“I hate everything about Viktor Orbán. That he is popular is a very big problem. The problem is that the world is very racist. I have a Spanish girlfriend and I try to be open-minded. I don’t dislike people because they’re black, white, yellow or green or whatever. I dislike them if they are morons.”
Maria Plasm, 45
“It’s a very hard question. I think we should take in a few because if I were Moslem and nobody wanted me that would be very terrible. We have to find a middle ground but not take in everybody.”
István J. Balázs, 35
“Because of what happened in Paris, I agree with Orbán. That’s my personal opinion because it is true that a lot of them are refugees from Syria. They are children and women and people with big needs but some of them are indeed ISIS sympathisers.”
Réka Albert, 23
“Viktor Orbán has a point in my opinion. I’m like the biggest hippie in the world, I love everybody. But I lived with Muslims before and I know the way they’re living. They can’t really leave their opinions and religion and they kind of live in their own way. They don’t see any other way of living. It’s not a problem if they would come here and if they can accept our religion and our culture. In this case it’s OK that we are trying to protect our borders because every house has its fences.”
Laura Kata Szegi, 22
“When the refugees came I always said that we should have them. I think it’s the people’s lives that matters. I don’t give a damn if they’re not Christian.”