There are several new developments on the refugee front, both inside and outside of Hungary. Let’s first discuss Germany’s surprise move yesterday to allow all bona fide Syrian refugees to remain in Germany regardless of where they entered the European Union. The Germans thus made the first move to suspend the current rules governing refugees laid down in the Dublin agreement. As the spokesman for the interior ministry said, the decision was dictated first and foremost by humanitarian considerations, but there were also practical reasons for suspending the current practice. For instance, it took an incredible amount of paperwork and money to send refugees back to the first EU country where they set foot. I suspect that there was a third, unspoken reason for the change in policy. Out of the would-be immigrants, the Syrians are the most desirable from an economic and social point of view. Their integration seems to be the most promising. Learning from its past mistakes, Germany now offers new immigrants help to make their adjustment as easy as possible. Germany has registered 44,417 asylum applications from Syrians in the first seven months of this year.
In Germany new arrivals who are approved receive generous benefits. Their apartments are rent-free, and each adult receives 391 euros/month and children between 229 and 296 euros/month, depending on their age. The government also provides free intensive language lessons three hours a day, five days a week. Legal immigrants can become German citizens after six to nine years of residence. Even before the recent policy change, Syrians automatically received residency permits good for two years. But now Syrian refugees can really breathe a sigh of relief.
The Hungarian government’s reaction was typical. Government spokesman Zoltán Kovács “hailed the German decision, [which means] that no one will be deported back to Hungary.” He quickly added that Hungary is grateful “even if only one-third of the migrants come from Syria.” Kovács noted, however, that “one should not overestimate the German gesture because one cannot really argue about numbers, and the fact is that migrants arrive in Hungary from 67 different countries, including Bangladesh and Mali.”
Meanwhile, as everybody predicted, the new fence was an absolute waste of money. The Serbian government hires buses to move the refugees close to the Hungarian border where they can easily get across the low, flimsy fence or, even better, they walk along the railroad tracks bothered by no one. As a result, at Röszke, the official border crossing, the lines are getting longer and tempers are flaring. This morning there was a bit of a scuffle that ended in one jittery policeman using teargas on people who had to wait outside in the pouring rain. I assume that this confrontation is going to be used to justify new, more serious measures against the refugees who are, in the Hungarian government’s opinion, illegally crossing the country’s border.
The Orbán government’s strict measures seem to be inspired by Jobbik, a neo-Nazi party. The idea of building a fence was first suggested by the Jobbik mayor of a larger village close to the Serbian border. The next Jobbik demand was reestablishing the border guard units that were abolished after Hungary became part of the Schengen zone. Soon enough the government obliged and created a force with the intentionally frightening name of “border hunters” (határvadászok). Today we learned details of this force. It will be made up of 2,000 men who will start patrolling the border on September 1. One-third of the force will consist of second-year students from two-year police academies. There are four or five such police academies in the country, and the ones I checked have only around 200 students in each class. Thus, I gather that the entire incoming second-year class will be ordered to the Serb-Hungarian border instead of to their classrooms.
The Orbán government’s latest brainstorm, that is, sending the military to the border against the refugees, also comes from Jobbik. A couple of days ago János Volner, deputy chairman of the party, expressed Jobbik’s fear that “because of the growing aggressiveness of the illegal immigrants a police presence will not be enough.” He recalled that at the Greek-Macedonian border the police force proved to be inadequate to stop the masses of immigrants. He pointed out that the constitution allows the use of the military in case of emergency. Volner most likely has Article XXXI(3) of the Hungarian Constitution in mind, which reads: “During a state of national crisis, or if the National Assembly so decides in a state of preventive defense, adult male Hungarian citizens with residence in Hungary shall perform military service.”
The very next day the government announced that it is thinking about using the army along the borders. However, as Magyar Nemzet reported yesterday, legal experts can’t quite agree whether such use of the army is permissible without changing the constitution since Article 45(1) specifies that “Core duties of the Hungarian Defense Forces shall be the military defense of the independence, territorial integrity and borders of Hungary.” Clearly, the military would not be defending the country’s independence or its territorial integrity, but I suppose it would be argued that they would be defending its borders. This morning Zoltán Kovács informed the media that next week parliament will vote on the deployment of the army along the Serb-Hungarian border. That to my mind means that the government’s legal experts have decided that there is no need to change the constitution and that a two-thirds majority in parliament will suffice. Such a super majority can easily be achieved with the support of the large Jobbik parliamentary delegation.
None of these developments is heart-warming, although at the moment the scene at the border is more like what you see on this video. The refugees simply walk through gates in the sturdier fence that was constructed along a few sections of the border.
It is hard to understand what Viktor Orbán is planning to achieve with his harsh policies. No matter what he does, Hungary will be unable to stop the flow of immigrants. The fence has turned out to be a joke. Although government officials often talk about jailing all those who damage their fence, such a response is beyond the capability of the government. Then why all the saber rattling? I assume, like everything Viktor Orbán does, it is intended to consolidate support. He has but one overarching goal–to remain in power, if possible until he drops. And, he undoubtedly believes, Hungarian voters should reward him for protecting the country against the extreme danger these refugees pose. Thus far public opinion polls indicate that Hungarians haven’t bought into the government rhetoric. The vast majority of the population never encounter any refugees, most of whom disappear from Hungary as soon as they can, so they don’t feel threatened by these Middle Eastern and African asylum seekers. Hungary is just a thruway, not a destination–unless, of course, the EU eventually decides to return “undesirables” from Bangladesh and Mali to Hungary.