Tag Archives: border hunters

The Hungarian government’s shameful treatment of asylum seekers

On Sunday, March 5, 2017, a report from Belgrade was published in the Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet. It claimed that refugees “with visible traces of Hungary’s brutal policies” had told the Swedish journalist about severe beatings with batons by Hungarian policeman. The officers also used attack dogs. Their stories were confirmed by Andrea Contenta of Doctors Without Borders. According to him, the number of incidents has multiplied of late. There was at least one day when 20 people needed medical attention. One of the asylum seekers ended up into the emergency room of the nearby hospital. Accompanying the story were photos of the men with visible wounds and bruises.

In no time all the major newspapers of Europe and the United States picked up Aftonbladet’s story, which was followed by a worldwide condemnation of the Hungarian government’s treatment of asylum seekers. A day later the Hungarian ministry of interior released a statement that Magyar Nemzet described as an “ill-tempered personal attack.” In it, the ministry “categorically repudiated the unproven accusations that appeared in the international and domestic media” leveled against the Hungarian government. The ministry called attention to the fact that such accusations usually occur when “Hungary is forced, in the defense of the European Union and its own citizens, to strengthen its borders.” The press release also noted that Doctors Without Borders is supported by George Soros. As for the few possible incidents, Hungarian prosecutors have already investigated eight cases, six of which turned out to be bogus. The denial of these reports continued today when Zoltán Kovács, a government spokesman, declared that the report of Doctors Without Borders is nothing more than a pack of lies.

But that was not all. On March 7, two days after the Swedish newspaper story, the Hungarian parliament passed a new piece of legislation that will force all asylum seekers into detention camps. UPI’s report specifically recounted that “although [the law] was fiercely criticized after its submission last month, the legislation won near-unanimous approval … by a vote of 138-6.” This lopsided vote was the result of the abstention of MSZP members of parliament, a sign of their usual ambivalence when it comes to the migrant issue. While their cases are being decided, asylum seekers, including women and children over the age of 14, will be herded into shipping containers surrounded by a high razor-fence on the Hungarian side. These camps will be wide open on the Serbian side. Therefore, Hungarian government officials can declare with some justification that the people inside these camps are not incarcerated; they just can’t step onto Hungarian soil.

On the very same day that Fidesz-KDNP and Jobbik members of parliament voted for the bill that was to receive worldwide opprobrium, Viktor Orbán delivered a short speech at the swearing-in ceremony of 462 new “border hunters.” In the speech he called the new recruits’ job a “calling” in “the service of the country and the defense of the Hungarian people.” He pointed out that even if there is at the moment no migrant pressure at the borders of Europe, Hungary must be prepared for repeated onslaughts of migrants. It is for that reason that the Hungarian government will build a new fence which, according to some reports, might be attached to a source of low-voltage electricity. He described “migration as a Trojan horse of terrorism,” which assumes that all migrants are potential terrorists. Or perhaps one could go even further and interpret this sentence as akin to the contention of those American Islamophobes who say that Islam is not really a religion but rather an ideology of terrorism.

Another memorable Orbán line from this speech addressed the dichotomy between human rights and the law. Those migrants who cross Hungary’s border break the law. “This is reality which cannot be overwritten by all that rarified claptrap about human rights.” Orbán certainly doesn’t beat around the bush. Human rights are not something he worries or cares about. In fact, he is ready to transgress them in the name of “reality.”

A day later Magyar Nemzet reported that Nils Muižnieks, the Council of Europe’s commissioner for human rights, expressed his “deep concern” over the detention of asylum seekers in guarded camps which, in his opinion, violates the obligations spelled out in the European Convention of Human Rights. And he is not alone. Two rapporteurs of the Council, Tineke Strik and Doris Fiala, asked János Áder to refuse to countersign this new law that most likely is in violation of international agreements. Zeid bin Ra’ad al Hussein, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, considers it “a far cry from international norms” and recommends its withdrawal.

As far as the European Commission is concerned, there seems to be a shift in its position toward this latest outrage. At first Margaritis Schinas, the chief spokesperson of the Commission, informed inquiring journalists that the Commission would not make a statement now but would wait until the law comes into effect. A day later, however, another spokesperson, Natasha Bertaud, told Népszava’s correspondent in Brussels that Dimitris Avramopoulos, EU commissioner for migration, will be dispatched to Budapest “to conduct serious negotiations with the Hungarian authorities about the amendments to the Asylum Act.”

By now I don’t have much hope that any international organization, be it the United Nations, the Council of Europe, or the European Commission, will be able to influence Hungarian policies either on the migrant question or on the transgression of democratic norms. Here and there one can hear from European politicians that the Hungarian government’s behavior should at least have financial consequences, but so far Brussels has been unwilling to punish Hungary for the actions of its government.

There are times when Viktor Orbán, despite all his bluster, quietly falls into line. Like today, when he cast his vote for the reelection of Donald Tusk as president of the European Council. Orbán abandoned his best friend and comrade Jarosław Kaczyński and voted for “the icon of immorality and stupidity,” as the Polish foreign minister called Donald Tusk. There are steps which even Orbán is reluctant to take.

March 9, 2017

“Border hunters” join soldiers and policemen at the Serbian-Hungarian border

It was about a month and a half ago that I wrote two posts dealing with the abominable circumstances along the Serbian-Hungarian border where hundreds of refugees wait for admittance into Hungary but authorities process only fifteen people a day. The authorities could easily handle ten times that number, but they purposely slow the process to discourage those waiting on the other side of the fence. In addition, a new directive now allows Hungarian soldiers and policemen to catch and forcibly remove anyone who gets through the fence illegally and is found within eight kilometers of the border. This government order can easily lead to violence.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) published a detailed description of the alleged abuses at the Serbian-Hungarian border. The organization found that “people who cross into Hungary without permission, including women and children, have been viciously beaten and forced back across the border.” A few days later Nick Thorpe of BBC paid a visit to the area and confirmed the findings of HRW. What followed these reports was a furious denial by the Hungarian authorities of any and all wrongdoing.

Given the bad publicity, one would have thought that the ministry of defense and the ministry of the interior would make sure that soldiers and policemen along the border would be extra careful and would handle the deportation procedures without any unnecessary violence. But, according to an Afghan refugee, this is what happens if a refugee is caught by an officer. “First, they use pepper spray, after which they beat him, handcuff him, and then they let the dogs loose on him. After all this he will be taken back to Serbia.” And, he added, “Only God can help us!” A Syrian man drowned, even though he was a strong swimmer, when Hungarian soldiers or policemen attacked him and his companions with pepper spray and rocks. The Hungarian authorities are allegedly investigating this case. Most of the refugees who complained got nowhere. The Hungarian police didn’t think they had a case.

Medical urgency. The young man almost died.

Medical emergency. The young man almost died.

Yesterday, for the first time, Károly Papp, the national police chief, admitted that there have been several instances in which policemen mistreated refugees. In fact, criminal proceedings have been launched in four cases. We’ll see what happens. I wouldn’t hold my breath.

Meanwhile the Hungarian government decided that the Serbian-Hungarian border defense must be reinforced, and so it launched a campaign to recruit an additional 3,000 men and women. These people will constitute a special unit within the police force, specifically trained for duty along the border. They will be called “határvadászok” (border hunters) instead of “rendőrök” (policemen).

During the Rákosi and Kádár periods, when the borders were hermetically sealed, the military had a separate unit whose members were called “határőrök” (border guards). This special military force ceased to exist with the arrival of democracy and open borders. For years, however, the extreme right political party Jobbik has been demanding the re-creation of this force, which up until now the Orbán government has resisted. Finally, pressured by the flood of refugees whom they want to keep out of Hungary, the government obliged.

Naming these new border guards “border hunters” is significant. A guard is passive until whatever he is guarding is attacked. A hunter actively pursues the game. Orbán’s wordsmiths are exceedingly clever and know how to manipulate the linguistically unsophisticated public.

The reinforcement of the borders has already cost a small fortune, and adding this special unit to the police force will also be very expensive. According to the information provided by Károly Papp, seven units have been trained so far for border duty. Plans call for an additional eight units. That also means enlarging police facilities in several cities, like Budapest, Győr, Szombathely, Debrecen, Szeged, Orosháza, and Kiskunhalas.

The recruiting program is substantial because, I suspect, serving along the border is not exactly a cushy job. I have read horror stories about the primitive circumstances the soldiers and policemen must endure. The government’s hope is that unemployed white collar workers and those who are currently employed as public workers will be willing to become hunters. It seems that by now the police force is ready to hire even those who had been rejected earlier. The training will take six months. By next May an extra 3,000 men and women will be able to serve along the southern border.

All this frantic defense of the country from the refugees is totally senseless because the people who are waiting in Serbia for legal entry or who illegally try to break through the fence have no intention of remaining in Hungary. It is also unlikely that unwilling migrants would be forcibly settled in Hungary. Or, even if there was such a joint decision in Brussels, the numbers Hungary would have to deal with would be small. Moreover, as it stands now, Hungary is letting the few already registered refugees quietly leave the country. Those who until now have been living in closed camps are given a railway ticket and a map to find their way to Körmend, a town close to the Austrian border, from where they disappear across the Austrian border within a couple of days.

But if that is the case, why did the Orbán government insist on sealing Hungary’s southern border? The answer is simple. It is only for domestic political reasons. The overwhelming majority of the population supports Orbán’s migration policy and doesn’t mind the billions spent on the fence or on the manpower to hunt down the refugees. On the contrary, they welcome it. And Viktor Orbán is ready to sacrifice everything, including the reputation of the country and the country’s relationship with the rest of the democratic world, for political gain. Unfortunately, for the time being at least it seems to to be working.

August 25, 2016

Jobbik shows the way, the Orbán government follows

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.

kerites ma

This is what the fence looks like nowadays

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.