A barbed wire is seen in front of a European Union flag at an immigration reception centre in Bicske, Hungary June 25, 2015. 
Laszlo Balogh / Reuters

In the wake of widespread political upheaval, Hungary has been on the receiving end of an unprecedented flow of migrants. According to the European border agency Frontex, an estimated 67,000 people have tried to illegally cross Hungary's border between January and June 2015, a figure nearly ten times higher than during the same period in 2014. Most of the migrants came from Kosovo (35 percent), but a large number of them came from Afghanistan (26 percent) and Syria (20 percent) as well. During the summer months, migrants are increasingly coming from conflict zones: Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria.

Hungary has not faced a refugee crisis this large since the Yugoslav Wars in the 1990s, when Hungarian authorities had to handle close to 50,000 asylum seekers in 1991 alone. While right now the number of people coming to Hungary is much higher, most of them want only to travel through the country; during the Yugoslav Wars, most refugees wished to stay in Hungary to escape the war. This is an important distinction to make: given that most migrants want only to travel through Hungary, and the ratio of immigrants who want to settle down in Hungary is marginal, the issue Hungary faces is not an immigration problem in the classical sense but is not one that will not be solved automatically, and could increase in the future.

The Hungarian government has responded to the migration influx through a series of widely derided political and policy responses. First, the government launched a controversial “National Consultation,” a poll on immigration that contained highly manipulative questions that likened job-seeking migrants and asylum seekers to terrorists. For example, one question asked, “We hear different views on the issue of immigration. There are some who think that economic migrants jeopardize the jobs and livelihoods of Hungarians. Do you agree?” and another asked, “Do you agree with the Hungarian government that support should be focused more on Hungarian families and the children they can have, rather than on immigration?”The stated purpose of the poll was to ask citizens about their attitudes toward immigration, but in actuality, the poll sought to put immigration policy on the national agenda and to sway public opinion toward anti-immigrant sentiment. While the push poll allegedly aimed to monitor opinions before policy decisions, the government had determined their course of action on the most crucial issues (such as the construction of a border fence) even before the results were processed.

In the run-up to the poll, the Hungarian government launched a billboard campaign with messages such as “If you come to Hungary, you should respect our laws!” “If you come to Hungary, you should respect our culture!” and “If you come to Hungary, you cannot take away our jobs!” Since the billboards are all in Hungarian, it is hard to imagine that they really aim to target migrants and human smugglers, as the government claims. 

Government billboards vilifying immigrants destroyed by opposition activists are seen in Budapest, Hungary, June 10, 2015.
Bernadett Szabo / Reuters
Before the voting even ended, the Hungarian government announced plans to build a roughly 100-mile fence along its border with Serbia to keep the flow of immigrants at bay. This decision won the government harsh criticism from Serbia, Austria, and political leaders such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel and European Parliament President Martin Schulz. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban also announced plans to close permanent refugee camps in towns and cities, replacing them with temporary camps consisting of tents outside of urban areas.

At the end of May, Orban personally called for the closure of one of the biggest refugee camps in the city of Debrecen. “This is not a refugee camp, but an immigrant camp,” he said, referring to the idea that the inhabitants of the camp are abusing the generosity of the Hungarian state. Orban continued, “We don’t want more immigrants to come, the ones who are here should go home.” Given that the government received conditional grants from the EU for the modernization and maintenance of these camps for several years, closing them can harm Hungary’s adherence to EU regulations—a fact that even Orban acknowledged. The Hungarian government also raised the punishment for illegal border crossing in the criminal code from an offense to a crime.

The issue of migration is a tangible and real problem for the Hungarian government that unquestionably needs policy responses, but putting the issue on the top of the national political agenda serves specific domestic political purposes. Orban’s third tenure has been marked by strong accusations of corruption—including his tip-off to friends and colleagues of the impending collapse of the Quaestor brokerage firm, which allowed them to rescue their funds before the company became insolvent. By diverting Hungary’s national conversation away from personally unflattering stories, Orban has given his administration a short-term boost despite its slumping popularity. In the long run, however, Orban’s strategy will deepen Hungary’s political conflict by dividing the political community into two camps: anti-immigration and pro-immigration advocates. Orban claims his government represents only Hungarian interests, while his opponents serve foreign interests. In a recent speech, Orban claimed that the Hungarian left is “ready to welcome illegal immigrants, whom they would greet with open arms,” and said, “Quite simply these people, these politicians, do not like the Hungarian people—and they do not like them because they are Hungarians.”

But in order to save his domestic political position, Orban has sacrificed his nation’s international reputation. In the future, members of other EU states might be reluctant to think about Hungary as a potential partner in handling the refugee problem. After all, it was the only country that claimed a “double zero” for voluntary contributions to the EU’s migration: offering zero slots for the resettlement of the asylum seekers from Greece and Italy and zero openings for the relocation of asylum seekers from war zones. When explaining this decision (along with previous moves that torpedoed joint EU responses to the migrant crisis), Orban argued that the country is under unbearable pressure from migrants and that it would be against Hungary’s interests to take on migrants. He insinuated that western European nations—the target countries of migration—are “pushing back” migrants into eastern European states, including Hungary. The Hungarian government levied important criticism of the EU’s blindness to illegal land border crossings at the expense of the sea crossings that have distressed Greece and Italy, but arguing against joint EU solutions that aim to solve the migrant crisis can fundamentally hurt Hungarian interests in the long run. Hungary cannot deal with this problem alone and will desperately need the help of the other EU member states. Choosing to go it alone on migration sends the wrong message—that the Hungarian government rejects EU solidarity. It is not accidental that other countries at the southern periphery of the EU that are most exposed to the migrants (for example, Greece and Italy) prefer joint EU-level solutions instead of pursuing solo attempts to solve their migration issues. If Hungary finds itself isolated, it will be extremely difficult to deal with a mass inflow of migrants without the help of other member states.

Migrants from Syria use sleeping bags to protect themselves from the rain as they rest on the side of a road after crossing the border illegally from Serbia, near Asotthalom, Hungary July 27, 2015.
Laszlo Balogh / Reuters
 Hungary's government may have been in a class of its own when it rejected the notion of accepting refugees voluntarily, it was not alone in its attempts to torpedo other mandatory EU-level solutions. Hungary rejected the distribution of asylum seekers that was based on preset quotas with other Visegrad nations (Czech Republic, Poland, and Slovakia). Whatever Orban’s reasons against accepting quotas, doing so proves problematic and reveals a decreased commitment from central-eastern European EU member states (most of which are net beneficiaries of the integration) to EU solidarity on the migrant crisis—an issue whose solution will require assistance from the EU in the future. These measures have sent the opposite message, however, leading Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi to become outraged and say that state leaders who refuse mandatory quotas do not deserve to be called Europeans.

It is particularly worrying for Europe that Hungary is far from being alone in its antimigration sentiments. Every two years, the Hungarian think tank Political Capital Institute (with whom we are affiliated) releases the Demand for Right-Wing Extremism Index. The index has demonstrated that “platonic xenophobia,” anti-immigrant prejudices without the presence of immigrants, is a dominant tendency throughout many central-eastern European countries. While anti-immigrant sentiments in Hungary have hit record highs, the number of real immigrants (foreign-born citizens who live in another state permanently) is negligible in the country—hovering at around 1.4 percent of the total population. Respondents also demonstrated a propensity toward “welfare chauvinism,” the notion that social welfare programs should benefit native citizens rather than migrant populations. Paradoxically, eastern European countries that experience low levels of immigration (but are travel corridors for immigrants to other, more affluent countries) exhibit much stronger anti-immigrant sentiments than western European states that house many more immigrants. For example, Hungary’s foreign-born population was 4.5 percent in 2014—with most foreign-born citizens being native Hungarians from neighboring countries. Sweden and Germany’s percentages of foreign-born citizens stood at 15.9 percent and 12.2 percent, respectively. Still, only six percent of Swedes and 11 percent of Germans demonstrated xenophobic sentiments in 2013, compared with 45 percent of Hungarians. In other central-eastern European countries, these figures are also high: 39 percent of Slovakians and 32 percent of Czechs professed traits and thoughts that characterize as xenophobic or in keeping with welfare chauvinism. A 2013 poll by the Polish Center for Research on Prejudice indicated that 69 percent of Poles do not want nonwhite immigrants living in their country.

Recent anti-immigration views are all the more surprising given that, until recently, immigration has been a non-issue in domestic political discourse in the central-eastern European region. According to a Eurobarometer poll from October 2014, only one percent of Slovakians, three percent of Hungarians, seven percent of Poles, and eight percent of Czechs regarded immigration as a crucially important problem. For comparison, the figure was 37 percent of the German population polled. But as a response to growing migration, politicians have recognized the political opportunities that come with exploiting anti-immigrant sentiments. And so, far-right parties and movements have held massive anti-immigrant protests in Budapest, Bratislava, Brno, and Warsaw—with protests in Brno turning violent.  

Mainstream political forces are also happy to exploit Hungary’s immigration debate for their own gain. In this regard, Hungary became a regional model: Slovakian Prime Minister Robert Fico praised Orban for his courage in building the wall. Poland’s Civic Platform, the nation’s major ruling party, has campaigned strongly against the quota for redistribution of asylum seekers ahead of this year’s elections. The Czech government, too, has rejected mandatory redistribution quotas.

Facing condemnation, Hungary’s government and opinion leaders are pointing to other countries that have also built fences to keep immigrants at bay, including Bulgaria, Greece, the United States, and even Israel. And contrary to popular opinion, the use of a border fence is not extraordinary—it is a solution that has been used extensively in other nations to deter migrants from crossing. If we look beyond the obligatory (but not at all intense) critical remarks of western European leaders, it can be assumed that several western European politicians are happy that the Hungarian government is building the fence, regarding it as a sign of hope that migration pressures will be reduced—even if they would not dare say so publicly.

What is much more problematic than the fence is the political capital it has provided to anti-immigration advocates. Anti-immigrant rhetoric frames this issue through the lenses of crime, terrorism, and the abuse of Hungary’s (nonexistent) welfare system. By taking a tough stance on migrants in general, central and eastern European nations have been able to foment anger while rallying their constituents. But as a consequence, the countries of eastern Europe, whose own populations are declining at a pace similar to those of western Europe, are chasing away immigrants before they can even arrive, losing out on potential benefits to the population at large. The lack of doctors in Hungary, for example, could be alleviated by the migration of well-trained doctors into the country. Owing to the nation’s harsh view on immigrants, however, they would likely be dissuaded from coming.

Additionally, fueling anti-immigrant rhetoric at the EU level can backfire for countries that are themselves sending millions of immigrants to western European countries. The difference between migration within the EU and immigration from outside the EU is not self-evident everywhere in western Europe, where even mainstream politicians often argue against both. British Prime Minister David Cameron recently said, “To truly succeed in controlling immigration, we also need [to reduce] the incentives for people coming here from within the EU. Largely because of our economic success, many are: we have seen a big spike in the numbers coming to Britain.” Radical populist politicians in the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, and elsewhere have campaigned against the influx of Hungarian, Polish, and Romanian migrants. If eastern European countries are seen as a major source of emigration while being reluctant to host their share of migrants within the EU, it can undermine the free movement principle that helps many Hungarians find employment abroad.

  • PETER KREKO is Director of the Political Capital Institute, a Budapest-based think tank. He is an Adjunct Professor at Eotvos Lorand University in Budapest.
    ATTILA JUHASZ is Senior Analyst at the Political Capital Institute and a lecturer at the University of Pannonia in Veszprem, Hungary.
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