Scaling the Wall

Hungary's Migration Debate

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

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