March, 2017. Kelebija, Serbia. Newly-built Hungarian detention camp for migrants at the Serbian-Hungarian border. Krystian Maj/ Press Association. All rights reserved.On May 23, 2016 Abdullah, a 26 year old man from Afghanistan crossed the border from Serbia to Hungary. He managed to break through the razor wire reinforced border fence Hungary had just erected in the fall of the year before and was apprehended by uniformed men near a Hungarian village.
He and the eight other people who were caught with him were forced to return back to the border fence where 30 policemen waited for them. They were told to keep their heads down, not to catch a glimpse of what was about to happen. Yet, Abdullah raised his head, and saw the policemen approaching. They carried a big canister of pepper spray. Then the beating began.
After a while, the refugees were handcuffed and led to a little hole the police had opened in the fence. Suddenly, a police man approached Abdullah and sprayed his face with pepper spray. He could not see. The police men forced him to crawl through the little hole in the razor wire fence. As he was crawling, the policemen kicked his butt and laughed. By the time he had made it to the Serbian side of the border, he had suffered severe cuts.
Abdullah’s story is not unique. In 2017 alone, approximately 10,000 refugees were apprehended, and forcefully pushed back to the Serbian side of the border fence. The Hungarian border is now patrolled by a specially formed police unit that bears the official name of “border hunters” and by uniformed private vigilante groups. They go on the hunt for refugees.
A recently adopted law allows for these hunts. A refugee may be apprehended anywhere in the country and be pushed back to Serbia without being able to launch an asylum procedure.
Those that enter Hungary in one of the two transit zones may apply for asylum. Yet, their chances are slim. Only two persons are allowed to enter every day – one per zone. This means that families must remain on the other side of the border. Back in the days, we would have called these zones concentration camps. Now, the barbed-wire-surrounded container camps that are guarded by men with guns are not referred to as such.
The government of Hungary makes sure to emphasize that they do not detain refugees. After all, the imprisoned refugees may leave the zone any time – through a door that leads back to Serbia.
EU and EPP silence
These scenes occur daily at the periphery of the European Union. It is not met with resistance. The EU institutions remain quiet. So do individual member states such as Germany, France and the UK. Why?
The answer is as simple as it is hard to bear. Core EU member states profit from Hungary’s policies towards refugees. Sure, the EU commission has launched two infringement procedures against Hungary. Yet, none of them condemned the treatment of refugees at its borders. None concern the fact that it has become virtually impossible for men like Abdullah to apply for asylum.
Viktor Orban, prime minister of Hungary, is still a welcome guest of politicians of the likes of Austrian chancellor Sebastian Kurz, or leading German conservative politician Horst Seehofer. Likewise, Orban’s party remains a member of the European People’s Party group (EPP) in the European Parliament, and thus remains a partner to other conservative parties such as Merkel’s CDU and Rajoy’s People’s Party in Spain. The EPP has repeatedly and openly supported Orban’s election campaign that was focused solely on the promise to keep the borders closed and refugees out, even at the cost of a political regime that seems to slide into autocracy. Even though liberal circles have moaned at Orban’s policies towards refugees, their politicians have not taken action.
Core and periphery
The fact is that Hungary’s cruel policy towards refugees plays into the hands of other EU member states. They turn their eyes from the violation of human rights and the violation of the right to seek asylum, as long as Hungary’s policies keep away the refugees from their doorstep. While the dirty job is being done by countries at Europe’s periphery, core EU member states can prove to their electorates that the refugee crisis is over, that they must not be afraid from more people entering their country.
It is a sad “win-win” situation. Orban is allowed to prove that he is the sole protector of Europe’s “homelands and Christian culture”, as he has proudly said in his latest address to the nation, while politicians such as Angela Merkel may simultaneously proclaim that in their countries, the right to seek asylum represents a fundamental principle that allows for no compromise. At the same time that politicians such as Merkel polish their shining armour, the dirty job done at Europe’s periphery shelters them from actually having to apply their principles on their own territory.
Who has to bear the costs are people such as Abdullah. As long as other EU member states condone what is happening at the EU’s periphery, all principles of human rights and of the right to seek asylum remain nothing more than a promise in a far distant land – a land they may not enter.