Non-Hungarian media outlets are covering the events in Hungary extensively. Everything that goes on in the country with regard to the refugee crisis is immediately reported, so I don’t think it makes sense to describe the current state of affairs here. I would just be repeating the same stories one can read in the pages of The New York Times, The Guardian, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, or Libération. Instead, I would like to share my thoughts on the real motivation behind Viktor Orbán’s latest twists in his “handling” of the refugee crisis.
Most commentators are baffled by the Hungarian government’s shifting positions on the would-be immigrants from the Middle East and Africa. Why did the Orbán government change its position suddenly and inexplicably in the last month or so? Earlier the Hungarian police patrolling the border between Serbia and Hungary allowed anyone who registered to leave as soon as they were ready to undertake the trip. No one was rushing after them, no one dragged them off trains or stopped cars to find “illegal economic immigrants.” As a result, there were no more than 1,000-2,000 refugees in Hungary at any given time. That arrangement suited both parties: the refugees were happy to leave Hungary and the Orbán government was pleased that they didn’t have to take care of these people.
But then the number of refugees started growing by leaps and bounds. While in 2014 41,900 people crossed the Serb-Hungarian border, half of whom were Kossovars, so far in 2015 more than 160,000 migrants have arrived on Hungarian soil. With the swell in numbers the government decided it needed a long-term “solution” to the problem.
The Orbán government’s final aim is to make sure that no refugee would ever choose a route that takes him to Hungary. To achieve this goal the government started inciting the population against the immigrants. Not that they needed much urging since Hungarians seem to be a xenophobic lot, but most of the population had never encountered these people since after their arrival they departed as speedily as possible. So, the government had to call attention to the “problem.” Hence the questionnaires and Hungarian-language billboards.
Once it became clear that more refugees were opting for the land route instead of the much more dangerous and expensive trip across the Mediterranean, the decision was made to slow the flow of refugees by building a fence. I’m almost certain that Viktor Orbán and his advisers on the refugee crisis knew all along that the fence would not stop the refugees from entering the country. They foolishly thought, however, that it would at least stem the tide. They were wrong. News about the construction of the fence galvanized the refugees to start off for Hungary as soon as possible. Before the construction of the fence began about 1,000 refugees arrived each day. By now three times as many are managing to get through.
It was at this point that the Hungarian government decided to keep the would-be immigrants in such miserable conditions that soon enough no refugee in his right mind would head toward Hungary. The chaos and cruelty one sees at the border, in the camps, and in and around the railway stations is not the result of incompetence or a lack of financial means. It is, I believe, a purposeful strategy devised by Hungary’s prime minister. The Hungarian government is doing practically nothing to alleviate the suffering of these people. If the volunteers didn’t provide food, clothing, and medical care for the refugees stranded at railway stations, those who have run out of money would starve. But as far as the Hungarian government is concerned, the worse the better.
For the time being one isn’t seeing a dramatic decrease in numbers despite the cruel treatment of the refugees. Yesterday, for example, according to the website of the Hungarian police, 3,313 people crossed the border. But as a result of the horror stories coming out of Hungary, I’m certain that eventually fewer people will try to cross into the country. News travels fast in the refugee community, and soon enough they, or smugglers, will figure out a different route that avoids Hungary.
In case word of mouth doesn’t work, there is a plan to set up transit camps that will be closed toward Hungary and open toward Serbia. Soon enough those who are already on their way will learn that the route through Hungary is blocked. This is “a solution” which, according to Jean-Claude Juncker, is incompatible with the European Union’s principle of “non-refoulement,” which forbids the expulsion of refugees where they can rightfully claim refugee status to a place where they may face persecution or other threats.
I’m sure all of you have heard about the 1,000-1,500 refugees who are marching along the highway toward Vienna, a trip of about 200 km. Six hundred Austrian civilians gathered on Facebook to travel either by car or to rent buses to pick up these people and take them to Austria. But Viktor Orbán today called attention to the fact that without valid visas these people cannot enter Austria. He said he is waiting to hear from the Austrian government about its stand on that issue. He also made it clear that he considers those civilians who are contemplating the rescue of the refugees to be human traffickers. Interestingly enough, a couple of months ago he wasn’t concerned about the legality of refugees going to Austria from Hungary with or without registration.
Today, in the late afternoon, Népszabadság‘s correspondent in Brussels learned from a very reliable source that the European Commission is planning to take over 50,000 registered asylum seekers from Hungary. Apparently, Orbán was hoping to get more money from Brussels, but it looks as if the EU decided that one cannot expect decent treatment of the asylum-seekers from the Orbán government and that it is much better if these people are moved out of Hungary as quickly as possible.
With his strategy Viktor Orbán might gain a domestic victory, but the international reputation of Orbán’s Hungary has been irreparably damaged.