The following article was written by a Hungarian economic analyst who would like to remain anonymous.
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It is symptomatic how Hungary’s various actors have reacted to the topic of refugees in recent months.
Macro level–The government
In spring 2015, the government of Viktor Orbán saw itself confronted with major challenges. A series of corruption scandals came to light and the governing party’s popularity began to slide visibly. Fidesz had lost all three of the latest interim elections for parliamentary seats, sparking nervousness in their ranks.
Viktor Orbán realized the potential in the topic of immigration/refugees earlier than many others in Europe. Even though Hungary is not a target for immigrants and is a transit country at best for refugees, Mr. Orbán spoke as early as January 2015, after the Charlie Hebdo terrorist attacks, on the topic, blaming failed immigration policies for the bloodbath. That time, his words were received with indignation and contempt Europe-wide given that, as some pointed out, the Kouachi brothers were both born in France.
However, Orbán decided to make refugees the central topic of his political activity in the months to come. This was not an easy task given that the question was not very high on the populace’s agenda in the autumn of 2014 when only 3% of the population considered immigration a serious issue. See p. T18 of the Standard Eurobarometer.
Intent on changing this, Orbán started a ‘national consultation’, meaning a questionnaire was sent out to all four million households in Hungary, urging them to give their thoughts on the topic of immigration and refugees. The action bore the name ‘National Consultation on Immigration and Terrorism’. It was seen by many as distinctly manipulative and camouflaging malicious propaganda as a statistical poll, prompting several statisticians to protest the abuse of the discipline.
Parallel, state-owned media and government-friendly private media started intensively pushing the issue of ‘economic refugees’ and how they would take Hungarians’ jobs away.
As the intensive media campaign started to work and the flow of refugees into the country indeed started to intensify, the topic came more and more into the focus of voters’ attention. Fidesz used this to start a controversial PR campaign, putting scores of Hungarian language messages onto the streets, saying for instance ‘if you come to Hungary, you cannot take away Hungarians’ jobs’ or ‘if you come to Hungary, you need to respect our culture’.
Government politicians and state media alike were quick to highlight the risk of sleeper terrorist cells among the refugees as well as that of violent and petty crimes. State media was actively searching for any conflicts within the hopelessly overcrowded refugee camps or any Hungarians willing to testify to any misdoing by refugees. Such reports were then aired 24 hours a day.
In June, it was announced that Hungary would build a 4m high, 175km long fence along the Hungarian–Serbian border in order to stop refugees from pouring in. Building activities are just about to begin, including tests of various fence types in order to find out with the help of test-climbers which version is least surmountable. It became known that the fence will be barbed and include blades pointing to the Serbian side.
In their search for explanations for the fence, government politicians more and more portrayed refugees as dangerous criminals. For instance, a statement by the Fidesz parliamentary faction said: ‘We should not wait until the illegal immigrants arrive with guns’. Lajos Kósa, a prominent senior Fidesz representative and ex-mayor of Hungary’s second largest city, explained that basically anyone who’d come by foot into the country should be regarded as an economic refugee, because non-economic refugees would surely come by airplane.
Government communication continuously stressed the point that they are in fact not against providing shelter for ‘real’ refugees but rather oppose illegal border crossings. However, in 2014 only 9% of the refugee applications were decided positively, compared with an EU average of 45%. Even from Afghanistan, about 80% of them were denied. Human rights activists branded that as cynical argumentation, given that in order to enter the Schengen area (of which Hungary is a part), one needs a visa. In the case of political refugees, however, the visa would need to be obtained in war-torn countries where in many cases the embassies where such a visa can be obtained lie in cities controlled by the very powers the refugees are fleeing from (if they still exist at all).
The government also ensured that the refugees would not feel very welcome. They are being greeted with a Hungarian-only text advising them to travel to one of the refugee centers. Also they receive a map of Hungary showing just the refugee centers, but omitting any cities. The conditions within these centres have been criticised repeatedly by international bodies as being overcrowded and lacking in hygienic standards.
At the time of writing, a second public campaign is being launched by the government, inter alia showing a young lady claiming ‘We don’t want illegal immigrants’.
On July 16th it was announced that the refugee centres (comprised of solid brick houses) would all be closed shortly and replaced by tent cities farther away from cities and dwellings. Furthermore, Hungarian law is being changed by Parliament so as to treat illegal immigration as a serious crime. This is in order to allow the detention of refugees.
The unrelenting campaign against refugees has clearly been a political success – fear and aversion towards refugees has become rampant (prompting some attacks as well); the issue pushed the government’s scandals out of the public’s focus and allowed the government to portray itself as effectively protecting the people against a manifest threat. Fidesz’s popularity has started rising again.
Micro level–The far right
Hungary’s far right greeted the growing influx of refugees with bitter contempt, or plain hate. They welcomed the government’s actions, including the fence, but branded them as insufficient. There have been appeals on the internet to provide refugees with poisoned food. There are T-shirts on sale with the slogan: “the immigrants’ pay can only be death.” In towns near the borders, they organize para-military troops patrolling the border and searching for ‘illegal immigrants’. More and more far-right groups have also travelled to border towns in order to intimidate refugees and voluntary helpers. In some cases, police had to protect the latter. The first attacks on refugees (or Hungarians who look foreign) have occurred.
A young woman was beaten up when she tried to protect her foreign-looking Hungarian boyfriend from far-right henchmen.
Micro level–The civil society
When the suffering of a large number of refugees became apparent, Hungarian civil society organised itself quickly to provide help and relief. A number of NGOs and thousands of volunteers got into action, using Facebook and other social media platforms to organise help ranging from the provision of food and clothing and translation and assistance with administrative matters to trying to reunite families that have been separated in the course of their travels across Europe. A number of volunteers have travelled to the most affected towns and villages; others are helping by sorting through the donations that have been pouring in from all parts of the country and figuring out how best to distribute them. Several restaurant owners have offered their premises for feeding refugees or as a local HQ for the helpers. Notwithstanding the authorities’ and the far right’s opposition and sometimes even physical threats, the volunteers put up an effective, self-organised and self-financed grassroots support network within weeks.
They constitute the last remnant of hope in an ever-growing cloud of darkness.