Just as predicted, thousands of refugees still manage to cross the Serb-Hungarian border even where that useless fence is already in place. I don’t know who in his right mind thought that this pitiful-looking contraption would stop anyone who has been on the road for months from Afghanistan, Iraq or Syria with the intention of entering the European Union. After all, the refugees are facing their last hurdle, and it is unlikely that they will be frightened off by a flimsy fence and will turn back. Only people who know nothing about mass migrations could come up with such an impractical idea. Mass migrations have their own momentum that cannot be stopped by the command of a petty dictator like Viktor Orbán.
Surely, the Orbán government didn’t think that by building this fence Hungary could single-handedly defend European Christianity from the onslaught of Muslims. They couldn’t have been that naive, although this is the kind of talk one hears from high-level politicians like János Lázár. Some of his admirers compare Viktor Orbán to János Hunyadi (1406-1456), the voivode of Transylvania, who successfully defended Belgrade/Nándorfehérvár during 1443-1444 against the Turks, which saved Hungary from a Turkish invasion for about 60 years. The best Orbán could have hoped for was that the refugees would find another route and thus Hungary would not have to share the burden of a migration that affects the whole European Union. But he was mistaken.
News travels fast nowadays, and would-be refugees from as far away as Afghanistan have heard about the construction of the fence. Consequently, people are speeding up their departure in order to arrive in Hungary before the fence is finished. Mind you, they don’t yet know that the fence is so flimsy that it won’t stop anyone from crossing into Hungary.
For the time being the escape routes haven’t changed, but this fence has already caused considerable trouble further south. There was one very serious situation at the Greek-Macedonian border where the Macedonians, frightened by the prospect of being stuck with thousands of refugees sent back by the Serbs, tried to stop the inflow of refugees from Greece. In no time, however, they realized that a mass migration of this sort cannot be stopped, and Macedonia was forced to open its borders again.
One mistaken notion about the current migration is that the real culprits behind this “hysteria” are the smugglers who lure people into packing up and leaving. The Orbán government shares this naive idea. That’s why they originally planned to place billboards in Middle Eastern countries warning people against smugglers’ promises. But this is not how a refugee’s journey begins.
Since I took part in a mass migration in November-December 1956 after the failed Hungarian uprising, I believe I have a more realistic idea of the mindset of the emigrants as well as of the dynamics of the whole undertaking.
First of all, the circumstances from which a person tries to escape must be bad enough for him to leave everything behind except for what he can fit into a rucksack. Moreover, there has to be a prevailing feeling that the situation will not improve any time soon. In fact, there is a likelihood that the already bad situation will become even worse.
At first only a few people make it across the border, but news spreads of their good fortune: one refugee family received an old Volvo in Sweden in addition to a furnished apartment, and a friend from high school is already in France and has a scholarship to study at such and such university. As a result of stories like these, more people decide to escape.
Before leaving, people try to learn as much as possible about the safest route to the border. One hears that on certain trains the security forces check passenger IDs, and therefore that route ought to be avoided. In one village a man who was paid handsomely to lead the refugees across the border abandoned his group when they were still on Hungarian soil. Today all these stories are being transmitted by cell phones, but the gathering of information was just as important then as it is now. Let’s assume that the would-be emigrant was caught by either the Russians or the Hungarian border guards. In case of capture the authorities didn’t have to take the would-be escapee prisoner. It was enough to take his ID away. The ID-less person was then truly desperate to leave, fearing retribution after the post-revolutionary chaos was over.
What normally happened in 1956 was that a family or a couple of friends decided to leave. They made the journey alone, mostly by train, to the vicinity of the Austrian border. From there they had to proceed on foot and needed help figuring out where the border was and how to get across it. This is where the “smugglers,” if you want to call them that, entered the picture. In my case, they were enterprising railway employees and farmers thoroughly familiar with the terrain. They picked up people along the way, eventually shepherding a fairly large group of Hungarians into Austria. Although a substantial amount of money was collected for their assistance, the money had to be split among a number of people. Moreover, theirs was a dangerous job that might mean long years in jail.
Smugglers will always be found as long as there is a need for them. In today’s mass exodus they are definitely needed at critical junctures. But going after the smugglers will not put an end to the ongoing mass migration because others will be ready to take their place. Only the prices will go up.
An article of mine appeared in today’s Népszabadság, which is essentially the same piece I wrote for Hungarian Spectrum on Hungary as a country of immigrants over the centuries. A commenter, who basically agreed with me, added: “I am outright ashamed, but I haven’t read even one article or report in which just one single migrant said that he came here specifically and that it is here that he would like to start a new life…. That means that for these people Hungary is not good as a destination.” Perhaps instead of building fences, Hungary should find highly qualified refugees and tried to convince them that Hungary is not such a bad place after all. Mind you, that might be a hard sell.