Refugee crisis and Hungary

Before the current refugee crisis Hungary’s immigration policy focused on the fight against illegal migration, but an explicit overall migration strategy was blatantly lacking.

The battle against illegal migration was an important pillar of Hungary’s migration policy, based on EU policies and directives. Political discourse about illegal migration was strongly influenced by the official communications of the Office of Immigration and Nationality (OIN) and the Border Guard, which has been merged with the Police. Discourses about illegal migration aroused mainly in connection with criminal policy (e.g., the fight against human smuggling and trafficking), security policy (e.g., measures taken against document falsification) and the protection of human rights (e.g., the right to family reunion). There was a lack of public debate about an overall migration strategy that considers the full scope of the social, economic and political interdependencies of the migration phenomenon.
Rising xenophobia
In addition, there was a rising xenophobic and nationalistic tendency among Hungarians, which is clearly seen if we look at the results of the latest EU parliamentary elections (the far-Right party, Jobbik, received almost 15% of the votes). No opinion polls have been published since the migrant crisis erupted in Hungary three weeks ago. A Tarki poll in July 2015 put Prime Minister Orban’s Fidesz party on 22%, with Jobbik on 13% and a huge 45% undecided.
Anti-immigration stance distracting voters from government corruption
Orban always keen to undercut his main political rival, the far-right Jobbik party, has vowed to seal Hungary’s Southern border with Serbia from Sept. 15, imposing tougher penalties for illegal entry and setting up transit zones. But success is far from assured. "Orban has masterfully seized the political opportunity provided to him by the migrant crisis – his radical anti-immigration stance has reversed the slide in his ruling party’s popularity by distracting voters from government corruption and arresting the rise of the Jobbik", said Tsveta Petrova, a senior analyst at Eurasia Group. Orban has also invoked Europe’s historic Christian heritage, suggesting it is under threat from the mainly Muslim migrants who are anyway only coming – Orban argues – in search of a higher material standard of living.
Only Hungarian migrants are welcome
The Right-wing media is against non-Hungarian migrants and sympathises only with ethnic Hungarians. Despite its shrinking population, which creates shortages in the national labour market, Hungary’s migration policy is mainly characterised by solidarity with Hungarian communities in neighbouring countries (diaspora politics). Critics of the official migration policy often point out that the implementation of Hungarian migration policy is characterised by short-term, security oriented treatment of the issue through defensive measures against non-Hungarian migrants, border control and residency rules, without a proper explicit overall migration strategy.
Civil courage, prejudices and harassment
Hungarians appear polarized by the refugee crisis. While some are ashamed by the strong anti-immigration rhetoric and the fence, and have tried to help the migrants, others back Orban’s approach, saying it is the only way to maintain order. What is visible is the compassion of the Hungarian people, which is of course very strikingly juxtaposed with the vicious xenophobia and petty political manoeuvring of the government. But then if you look at public opinion polls, you see that the majority, including the relative majority of supporters of those opposition parties that have taken a pro-refugee stance, believe that refugees pose a threat to Hungary. There is also a lot of harassment going on. Volunteers providing food are regularly verbally assaulted by other locals, and there have also been some attacks by far right-wing groups at Keleti railway station.
Anti-migrants campaign by the government and civil disobedience
When this situation started early in the summer with the Orban government putting up posters with messages (but in Hungarian!) for the so-called migrants, saying that if you come to Hungary, you have to respect our culture, not take jobs from Hungarians, and so on, there was an interesting upsurge in direct action and civil disobedience. And this was not only in activist circles, but amongst ordinary people, who tore these posters down or painted over them. So the right-wing Orban government needed to find a scapegoat. In this case it’s the refugees. But what the government is doing is so obviously inhumane that it encourages many to find a way to help or in any case to sympathize with the refugees, because the other position seems morally untenable.
Extraordinary situation would have been manageable
The situation has become really extraordinary, but in principle it would have been manageable by a competent government and a unified European Union. But the Hungarian government did not want to resolve the situation, instead it used for political gain and aroused hatred. So the practical solution to the problem remained for the laicist citizens who executed the tasks that the Hungarian state could not or did not want to perform. The situation became acute in August and spectacular: exhausted, hungry and thirsty adults and children mostly fled from warzones, laid in the streets of Budapest.
Refugees had never been an issue in Hungary
Before 2015 in Hungary there has not been much talk about the refugees. For the Hungarians this question seemed to be an exotic problem of distant countries. But neither for Brussels nor for the Hungarian Government it could have caused surprise that the Syrian War and the advance of the Islamic State sooner or later will be felt in Europe. It was clear (or at least it was supposed to be), that sooner or later the refugees could reach us because Hungary is situated in the Western Balkan migration and smuggling route. Unfortunately, the Hungarian government – like most of the governments of the EU member states and Brussels – instead of being prepared for the expected larger influx of refugees, was sitting on its laurels. The Hungarian government’s policies were different from the other EU countries. It has been spent months in a hate campaign based on the fear from the unknown as well as xenophobia and racism and has been using the period from the detection till the escalation of the problem to show up a common enemy for the society and it might be a savior.
In fact, compared to the previous years, this year exceptionally many people came to Hungary. In the mainstream news about 200,000 refugees are mentioned, but according to the Office of Immigration and Nationality (OIN) fresh statistics, 145,000 applicants were registered, which is many times surpassed all previous data. Approx. 90% of them (according to the OIN and former police statistics) almost immediately, i. e. before the end of the asylum procedure, disappear from the sights of the Hungarian state allegedly protecting Europe from the influx of illegal immigrants. Taking this into account a few thousand people remaining at the same time in our country does not seem too much, especially compared to the country’s population of 10 million.
There is no "invasion" of Europe
For the sake of fairness we should also add that the unjustified arouse of panic characterized not only the Hungarian government’s policies in the past. According to recent UN data throughout the European Union 437 384 asylum seekers were registered by the end of July, which is exactly 0.08% of the population of 503 million people in the EU, and less than twice those arriving in previous years. There is no "invasion" and "occupation" at all, especially if you compared this figure to the two million refugees accepted by Turkey or the one million refugees adopted by Jordan and Lebanon each.
No one is illegal
It is worth noting also that one cannot become illegal immigrant just by crossing the green border, but due to the fact that one has no proper papers, or visas for the legal entry. However, in war situation it is impossible to settle these formalities because the operation of the state is partially or completely shut down under these circumstances. According to the Geneva Convention on refugees, which is also binding for Hungary, a refugee cannot be punished just because of illegal border crossing, because he/she could not have come otherwise than illegally.
Dublin III does not work
The sharp increase in the number of asylum-seekers without a doubt caused completely unjustifiably a crisis situation in Hungary and in the EU, because the crisis could have been manageable finding a common solution that distributes the tasks more equally than the Dublin system, which places a disproportionate burden on states at the border to assess most of the applications and until the end of the procedure – also in principle – the asylum seekers should remain in their territory. In fact, as stated above, the practice has long not worked. The vast majority of asylum seekers from the „front country” continues to go to the inner areas of the EU, from where in most cases refugees are not sent back to the EU border Member countries (e.g. from Hungary last year out of 43 thousand applicants, only 827 people were sent back according to the Helsinki Commission).
In addition to the practice the European Court of Human Rights decided that returns can be re-examined, in the case of a EU border country does not respect the basic human rights requirements (e.g. Greece and Hungary). It is also possible that in addition to the refugee status a general protection is given to people fleeing war front, just like the Syrians. For such a situation the definition of subsidiary protection was created in 2004 in the Qualification Directive in order to offer security to people who did not bear a personal atrocity, or threats, but flee only the overall risk to war. So it is not a generosity, but a legal duty to keep them in a safe country.
Hypocrisy on the part of Western European governments
It is true that the Hungarian government not only falls short its humanitarian commitments, but also explicitly incites hatred, and is building a fence with razor-sharp barbed wire to injure and deter asylum-seekers and passing increasingly punitive legislation in refugee and penal law. However, refugee policy is also morally outrageous at the European Union level. There is a lot of hypocrisy on the part of Western European governments criticizing the Hungarian state, because it’s an easy target. Any chance of turning the Dublin mechanism into a more equitable system would be most welcome. In spite of all this misleading rhetoric about the burden of refugees in Europe, we should realize that most Syrian refugees, for example, are not and will never come to Europe. We need to put this so-called burden of receiving asylum seekers in Europe into perspective and we should think about how the EU can aid these countries which have a much lower GDP per capita but receive many more refugees. The response to the refugee situation should not only be Europeanized, but also more international.
Budapest, 16 September 2015