Can Europe Make It?

Hungary’s refugee policy: fencing off the country

The rapidly increasing influx of asylum-seekers poses a huge challenge to Hungary. The government responds with a complete lack of solidarity, massive demagoguery and arm-twisting in Brussels. 

Tamás Ibolya
7 August 2015
Fence Hungarian government is building on Hungary-Serbia border.

Fence Hungarian government is building on Hungary-Serbia border. Demotix/ Maciej Krawczyk. All rights reserved.In June 2015 the Hungarian government gave orders to construct a 4 m high and 175 km long fence along its border with Serbia in order to keep away the mounting influx of asylum-seekers, collectively labeled “livelihood immigrants”. True, building physical barriers on the EU's external borders is neither illegal nor an exclusively Hungarian phenomenon. But both rhetoric and legislation in refugee policies reveal a truly gruesome picture which gives every reason to be alarmed. 

The fence invokes a sad symbolism. It is still hard not to see the irony that the country which 26 years ago opened its western border for thousands of East German refugees headed to West Germany, and thus kicked off the process that led to the tearing down of the Iron Curtain, is now building fences in the face of the biggest refugee crisis in postwar Europe. Not to mention the exodus of some 200, 000 Hungarian refugees in the wake of the revolution of 1956 who were welcome and embraced in all parts of the world.

But overall, it is neither the symbolism nor any breach of EU-legislation that causes concern. It is the specific practices and broader context of Hungarian refugee policy in which stigmatizing is normal, detention is frequent, the government is running an openly hostile hate-campaign and current changes in asylum rules order practically automatic rejection of asylum seekers entering via the Balkans (meaning virtually everyone) without individual assessment of their claims.

To be sure, over the past 2 years the refugee crisis has hit Hungary hard. The country's 175 km long border with Serbia creates huge exposure to human smuggling via land routes from the south and an enormous pressure on its reception infrastructure (financed by and large by EU funds). With 42, 000 applicants registered last year, Hungary was the recipient of the second largest amount of asylum claims per capita. So far this year the influx has already surpassed 80, 000, a number that rockets the country to the top of the EU list. And whereas in 2014 almost half of all irregular migrants came from Kosovo, around 80 per cent of this year's migrants flee from war-torn countries like Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. The challenge is thus immense.

It was against this background that Europe's political maverick, prime minister Viktor Orbán, speaking before the European Parliament on May 19, outlined his hawkish ideas on "illegal immigration", bashing the EU's allegedly permissive refugee policies, calling the Commission’s quota plan idiotic and falsely accusing Brussels of “depriving Hungary of the right to protect its national borders.”

Within a few weeks the government announced that it would suspend the application of the Dublin III regulation, the EU’s key asylum rule that allows member states to transfer asylum seekers back to the EU country they first arrive in. As the Hungarian ambassador to Austria was immediately summoned over the issue and the Commission demanded instant clarification, the decision was reversed overnight. But the cowboy diplomacy - not at all foreign to Mr. Orbán's proclivities - did pay off, in one sense at least. The European Council in June pronounced Hungary a special case and the subsequent Justice and Home Affairs council in July accepted that Hungary - as the one and only member state - does not take part in any one of the EU's newly established relocation and resettlement mechanisms.

But it is one thing to put pressure on the EU for special treatment or bigger burden-sharing, and quite another to engage in a populist hate campaign against asylum-seekers. Domestic politics are the key to understanding these dynamics. By the end of last year - due mainly to allegations about large-scale government-backed corruption in the Hungarian tax authority – governing Fidesz had lost about one third of its voters, which made far-right and xenophobic Jobbik the main challenger of the ruling party. But soon after Fidesz support had started to drop steeply, Orbán was already close to being saved by the approaching double spectres of terrorism and ‘illegal immigration’, the ultimate piece of cake topics for right-wing hardliners.

The Charlie Hebdo shooting in early January provided him with the first opportunity to talk about the causality between immigration and terrorism (a virtually non-existent position in the European political centre), and within a few weeks the government placed immigration in the focus of its new political offensive. A large scale public campaign - the "National Consultation on Migration and Terrorism" was launched which cost roughly double the amount of Hungary's national share of its refugee budget and included a questionnaire sent to 8 million Hungarians. The questionnaire, among other things, stipulated a clear relation between immigration and terrorism, suggested that "livelihood immigrants" endanger Hungarian jobs and dropped the idea of putting them all into internment camps.

At the same time, giant anti-immigration roadside billboards came up all over the country reading "If you come to Hungary, don't take the jobs of Hungarians." The UN High Commission for Human Rights and the Council of Europe expressed grave concerns about the populist trend in the Hungarian immigration debate.

At this point it must be noted that the government’s argumentation for more draconian measures simply didn’t hold water. In contrast to the official line of reasoning, Hungary did not become a major destination of irregular immigrants who take away local jobs or prey upon welfare subsidies. In reality, Hungary has very little to offer to asylum seekers, and roughly 80 per cent leave immediately upon submitting their requests. This is hardly an astonishing fact considering the exceptionally poor record of positive asylum decisions. Last year only 9 per cent of all cases were concluded by granting refugee status or subsidiary protection. (For comparison it was 35 per cent in the UK and 40 in Germany.) The message is loud and clear: No one is welcome here.

But the anti-refugee campaign was only the beginning, intended to pave the way for a severe tightening of national asylum rules. The government has just introduced a number of restrictive amendments which would expand the scope of "asylum detention", accelerate asylum procedures so that a final decision could be taken within a few days, and limit the possibility to appeal. And as far the most problematic of all restrictions, from now on access to asylum procedure can be automatically denied to anyone who first passed through a list of countries that a governmental decree deemed "safe", including Serbia. The regulation deprives virtually all applicants of individual assessment and fair procedure and thus puts tens of thousands at risk. By this move, as Amnesty International points out, Hungary in effect dodges its obligations under national and international law to assist asylum-seekers.

And while people fleeing wars and conflict are automatically being rejected, railway stations become camp sites of irregular migrants headed to more generous countries, and the emerging soft humanitarian crisis bothers no one apart from dedicated civilian support groups, the frightening anti-immigration demagoguery continues.

At the end of July Orbán made his annual visit to Bálványos Free Summer University and Youth Camp, located in the Hungarian-inhabited part of Transylvania, the Hungarian nationalists' sacred heartland where, for many years now, he has made his major ideological speeches. Last year it was the infamous illiberal democracy speech. This time he concentrated on the refugee crisis. But not once did he utter the word "refugee". He talked about illegal immigration, "migration of peoples" flowing from the depths of Black Africa, the survival of Europe being at stake, immigration and terrorism, immigration and crime, immigration and unemployment and, of course, misguided western multiculturalism.

Moreover he proudly reported on the results of the national consultation questionnaire which were by now answered by 1 out of 8 million people. The results show, he concluded, that "Hungarians would rather see the government spend on families and yet-to-be-born children than on immigration." Who would have guessed that?

In conclusion, it may be worth noting that Hungary is certainly not the only country that deserves criticism on the refugee issue. Facing the refugee crisis the European Union as a whole is struggling with one of its core values and guiding principles, that of solidarity. But the openly hostile government language depicting refugees as potential terrorists, the overly security-informed management of irregular immigration, the fundamentally no-mercy approach and the shrewd political exploitation of people in need are distinctive to Hungary. In those respects surely Hungary is taking the lead.

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