Along the Croatian-Hungarian border not much has changed since yesterday or the day before yesterday, and therefore we can turn to Hungarian sentiment, which has been poisoned by the massive government anti-refugee propaganda. Anita Köműves of Népszabadság, who just returned to Hungary after a year as a journalist intern at the University of Maryland, was astounded by the general lack of knowledge about the causes of the refugee crisis and by the xenophobia that Viktor Orbán is generating. As she said, “take it from a Hungarian journalist: Orbán is playing a dangerous game.”
Just today Tamás Ungár, also a reporter for Népszabadság covering the region of southern Transdanubia, came up with a long list of opinions he gathered from Hungarians in a number of cities and towns from Pécs to Kaposvár. A young fellow from Pécs, a Jobbik sympathizer, is convinced that the current flow of refugees is financed by Israel. Where did he get this idea? He was told by others and that seems to be enough. Some Hungarians are convinced that the United States is behind the emigration of Syrians, Iraqis, and others. It wants to weaken the European Union. There is a widespread fear that terrorists are hidden among the refugees and therefore not one of the refugees should be accepted in Hungary. Most of the people Ungár talked to believe that these immigrants cannot be integrated into European society. Those with such decided opinions often refer to state radio or television as their source of information.
Ungár’s reporting was, of course, anecdotal. For more statistically significant insight we can turn to the follow-up public opinion poll by Publicus Intézet conducted this month. In mid-July Publicus polled Hungarians on three related subjects: the erection of a fence along the Serb-Hungarian border, the emigration of Hungarians to western Europe, and the possible immigration of refugees coming from the Middle East. At that time 46% of the population were convinced that the fence would not stop the flow of refugees and 21% were doubtful about the efficacy of the fence. As for the questions on emigration and immigration, by July government propaganda had already made inroads. While in May 57% of the people considered emigration a greater problem than immigration and 23% believed the opposite, by July the situation had changed. Only 42% of the people found emigration to be a greater problem and 44% were convinced that immigration was a greater threat.
Publicus’s September poll shows that the Hungarian government didn’t manage to convince the population about the usefulness of the fence. Today not 46% but 56% of those asked said the fence was totally useless and another 22% thought it was pretty useless. But how then do we explain the fact that when the respondents were asked whether, if they had been in the position of deciding whether to erect the fence, in July 56% would have decided against it and only 34% would have gone ahead with it whereas this month fewer respondents (50%) would have discarded the idea and 40% would have decided to build it. In brief, while today more respondents think the fence is useless, more would nonetheless have decided to build it.
Publicus was also interested in people’s attitudes toward the refugees. The participants in the survey had to express their opinion about the following propositions:
- It is our duty to help the refugees. The answer was overwhelmingly in the affirmative. 64% to 30%
- The refugees should be treated more humanely. 52% to 38%
- Hungary, according to her ability, should accept a number of refugees. 37% to 55%
- Too many refugees are arriving and Europe will not be able to handle the numbers. 87% to 9%
- If necessary, we must defend our borders with weapons in hand. 41% to 42%
I find this last figure especially troubling. I should also mention here that the majority of Jobbik voters (54%) are quite satisfied with the Hungarian government’s treatment of the refugees, which we know has been quite harsh and unfeeling. In their opinion, it seems, these refugees don’t deserve anything better.
Publicus was also interested in what the population thinks of the international reaction to the Hungarian government’s handling of the refugee crisis. Did foreign opinion of Hungary deteriorate or improve? To my surprise, Hungarians do realize that what Viktor Orbán is doing is harmful to the country’s image (66% as opposed to 18%). Why am I surprised? At least for two reasons. One is the oft-repeated claim that the Hungarian government is simply following the prescript of the European Union. In fact, it is only Budapest that observes the letter of the law. All other countries, from Greece to Germany, transgress the rules and regulations, and by their actions they aggravate the crisis. The second reason is that commentators often complain about the Hungarian population’s relative ignorance of the outside world. I read recently that only 12.5% of the population know a foreign language well enough to read a newspaper article or understand television news. Therefore, I must conclude either that the Hungarian opposition media is doing a relatively good job of informing people about the international reaction to the Hungarian government’s actions or perhaps that people extrapolated what this reaction must be from the videos that went viral on YouTube. I should mention though that while on the other questions only a relative small percentage of people had no opinion (2-10%), in this case 16% were unable to give an answer.
The feeling that Viktor Orbán has done harm to the country’s reputation is widespread and uniform. Even Fidesz voters believe that the international community reacted negatively to the policies adopted by the Hungarian government. For example, only 33% of Fidesz voters think that Hungary’s reputation has been enhanced by recent government decisions. And 65% of Jobbik voters realize that the country’s reputation has been seriously damaged in the last few months.
Finally, respondents were asked to grade the performance of the Orbán government in the refugee crisis on a scale of 1 (F) to 5 (A). Only Fidesz voters thought that the government deserved a grade higher than 3 (C ) (3.8). A C average is nothing to brag about.
What kinds of conclusions can we draw on the basis of this survey? There seems to be a growing number of people who feel somewhat ashamed of the government’s harsh treatment of the refugees and the callousness of most leading Fidesz politicians. At the same time very few people, one out of ten, would like to have any of these refugees settle among themselves. The reason, I suspect, is the propaganda about the unbridgeable differences in culture and religion between the refugees and Hungarians.
Most Hungarians seem to be convinced that the refugees cannot be integrated into European society. Yet facts tell a different story. There are already a fair number of Syrians, Iraqis, Lebanese, and Jordanians who have been living in Hungary for decades. There is a telling video taken in a village somewhere in the northeast corner of the country where the local doctor is a Syrian. A reporter went around in the village and asked people what they thought of accepting Syrian refugees. They were all dead against the idea. But, said the reporter, Dr. X. is a Syrian. To which the answer was: “Dr. X? But he is different. He is one of us.”