Tag Archives: political refugees

Viktor Orbán’s redefinition of the refugee crisis

Two days ago the Hungarian ministry of foreign affairs and trade posted a statement on its website that emphasized that “political refugees have always been accepted by Hungary.” Péter Szijjártó continued: “It is incumbent on Hungary to be generous because of its history and experience…. When war was still ravaging the Western Balkans, Hungary received the refugees arriving from there, who ran from the region to save their own and their families’ lives from the war, without any major international assistance.” This statement presaged the prime minister’s redefinition of who counts as a political refugee–which, as might be expected, does not include people from the Middle East.

The original EU plan to distribute by a quota system 60,000 refugees currently in Greece and Italy failed, mostly because of the unwillingness of former socialist countries to accept their share of the burden. Donald Tusk, the Polish president of the European Council, sided with them. By contrast, Jean-Claude Juncker has very serious doubts that the proposed plan of voluntary offers by individual countries can possibly solve the problem.

There are two countries that do not have to accept any refugees from Greece and Italy: Bulgaria and Hungary. Bulgaria because it is the poorest country in the European Union and Hungary because this year one-third of all newcomers ended up in Hungary, more people than actually reached Italy. So Hungary doesn’t have to take the 860 refugees from Greece and Italy, as set out in the original plan. But this victory was more than offset by the fact that Viktor Orbán had to agree to follow the Dublin III Regulation, which governs refugee policy within the Union.

I suspect, however, that Orbán is preparing a new assault on Brussels in his effort to keep Hungary unicultural. He seems to be laying the groundwork by redefining key terms in the debate.

Earlier Orbán divided the newcomers into “economic immigrants” and genuine “political refugees.” At the time when about 40,000 Kosovars began their journey northward, Orbán might have been right that these people from a terribly poor country were indeed seeking a better life somewhere in Western Europe. Since then, however, the migration from Kosovo has slowed to a trickle, and most of the people who now cross the Serbian-Hungarian border are Iraqis, Afghans, and Syrians.

In this new situation, Orbán tried to argue that, although these people come from war zones, by the time they arrive in Hungary they are no longer political refugees because earlier they reached safe countries like Greece, Macedonia, and Serbia where their lives were not threatened. It looks to me as if this argument didn’t make an impression in Brussels because Orbán claimed right after the long debate on the refugee question had ended that Hungary will follow the rules of the Dublin III Regulation.

The old arguments are no longer useful or applicable, so an entirely new approach is necessary. Orbán offered a historical analogy. He renamed the refugee crisis a modern Völkerwanderung, the age of migration, or the barbarian invasions of the early Middle Ages. I gave the German term first because the word Orbán used is its mirror translation (népvándorlás). Between about 300 A.D. and 900 A.D. whole ethnic groups moved from east to west, west to east, and north to south. The last such mass migration was that of the Hungarian tribes in 895 and the Vikings’ conquest of Great Britain.

Orbán’s latest brainstorm is that we are not simply confronted with individuals escaping war and persecution but we are facing a modern-day invasion of sorts, the result of which will be the formation of an entirely new political and cultural map of Europe. Under these circumstances the Dublin III Regulation is no longer applicable.

Of course, the description of the current refugee crisis as a modern-day Völkerwanderung is deeply flawed. Most of the movement of peoples in the early Middle Ages involved force and unitary leadership. This is certainly not the case today. I think Orbán himself understands that giving a new name to a phenomenon is not enough to change the essence of it. But somehow, he believes, language can still serve his cause. He is now in the process of giving a new definition to the word “refugee.”

The dictionary definition of “refugee” is simple enough: “one who flees, especially to another country, seeking refuge from war, political oppression, religious persecution, or a natural disaster.” Orbán decided to create his own peculiar definition of the term. In his view one can be called a refugee only if he is running for his life and escapes to a neighboring country. “Since Hungary is not adjacent to Syria, when a migrant arrives at our door he is no longer a refugee.” Orbán, like Szijjártó, brought up the case of the Yugoslav refugees of the early 1990s who were real refugees, unlike those who arrive in Hungary today. If a refugee situation developed along the Hungarian-Ukrainian border, “that would be our responsibility.” The current crisis is obviously not. If tens of thousands of people sought refuge in Hungary from Ukraine he wouldn’t count on the help of the European Union.

I assume this mad talk is mainly for domestic consumption because I can’t quite believe that Orbán would dare deliver such a speech in front of his colleagues in the European Council.

In a Greek refugee camp

In a Greek refugee camp

I also doubt that Orbán will share his thoughts on the sole responsibility of Greece and Italy to handle the massive refugee crisis. According to Orbán, the problem is that Greece and Italy don’t comply with the regulations of Dublin III when they allow migrants to move on to other countries north in order to reach Hungary. All those who went through Greece should be returned to that country. Orbán made it crystal clear that Hungary doesn’t want to have any refugees and hence no refugee camps. All such camps should be set up only in Greece and Italy, which are officially declared to be “front countries.” Greece already in 2013 had 1.1 million refugees, or 10% of the whole population.

Judging from Orbán’s references to the status of front countries, it looks as if Hungary was either offered and declined or decided not even to apply for front-country status which it was entitled to, given the very high number of refugees appearing at its southern border. Such a status would have meant financial assistance to the tune of 130-160 million euros instead of the current 1.5 million. Orbán didn’t take advantage of this opportunity for obvious reasons. He does not want to see any refugees in Hungary, period.

I don’t know how much of this is only idle talk. But even if only half of it represents the Hungarian government’s considered position, I can foresee another round of sparring between Viktor Orbán and the European Commission.

The latest Hungarian plan to seal the border: It will be difficult

I am almost certain that, in the long run, the Orbán government will not come out well from its planned confrontation with the European Union. At the moment, the details of the government’s position are being worked out by clever Fidesz strategists. The government is planning to modify the present law governing the treatment of political refugees, a law that was introduced after the European Union found the previous provisions illegal. Prior to 2012 Hungary was able to arrest any and all who illegally crossed its borders. But, as Viktor Orbán admitted recently, the European Union threatened Hungary with infringement proceedings unless it abandoned this practice, and therefore the government caved.

From the various Fidesz politicians who in the last couple of days have expressed their opinions on the matter and have offered solutions to what they consider a serious problem, it looks as if the government would like to revert back to the days prior to 2012 when Hungarian border guards could arrest anyone who illegally crossed into Hungary, regardless of their possible refugee status. But surely, a restoration of the old law is out of the question, so new legal tricks must be employed. An alleged solution is already in the works. The Fidesz caucus would change the law on the refugee status of immigrants by authorizing the government to set up “a list of so-called safe third countries.” The idea is that no one would be accepted into Hungary who, in the course of his emigration, had been in a safe country.

We don’t know how long the list of “safe” countries will be, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Serbia heads it. Once Serbia is declared a safe country, there is no need for barbed wire fences along the Hungarian-Serbian border, which had been mentioned earlier by some of the politicians. Everybody who is caught crossing the border will be expelled immediately, no questions asked. Critics of the plan claim that the Serbian situation is not as rosy as Fidesz politicians portray it. The Serbian police “sometimes beat the refugees, sometimes rob them, and at times they do both.” And according to Boldizsár Nagy, a constitutional lawyer and an expert on refugee issues, declaring Greece one of those safe havens will not work either because Greece is so overwhelmed by the influx of refugees that the European Commission only recently asked other countries to take over about 20,000 refugees currently in Greece.

The government wants to change the definition of political refugee as soon as possible: anyone entering Hungary from a safe third country will lose his claim to refugee status. And Orbán is in a great hurry. He wants to have the amendment passed before the summer recess. It is likely that, with Fidesz and Jobbik votes, the amendment will sail through. But what still remains a question is the practical application of this newly amended law. Arresting everyone who crosses into Hungary from Serbia doesn’t strike me as a real option. What will the government do with all the people it arrests? Sending them back to Serbia might result in legal wrangling between the two countries. I should mention that by now the thousands who cross the Serb-Hungarian border are not Kosovars.  On Sunday the police caught 325 individuals, most of whom came from Afghanistan and Syria. According to estimates, 80% of the people who arrive in Hungary come from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, most of whom are definitely eligible for refugee status.

The frantic propaganda campaign against immigrants conducted by the government might just backfire, especially if their clever legal loophole turns out to be a dud. It could easily happen that the hastily put together plan will simply not work in practice. Or that the European Commission will take action against it. If after such a propaganda campaign Orbán’s plan fails, the reputation of the government may be further damaged.

As it stands, even some Fidesz supporters find the huge billboards distasteful. Népszabadság reported a case of a billboard that was placed in a schoolyard in Budapest. Teachers and parents initiated a “billboard reduction” campaign. They filled eggs with paint, which they threw against the billboard. Együtt organized a defacing campaign, and the party’s activists did quite a job on many of the posters. A group of six youngsters was arrested and kept in jail overnight. Two others tore down a billboard and then went to the closest police station and turned themselves in.

Poster plan / mkkp.hu

Planned poster / mkkp.hu

What I like best is an “anti-poster” campaign initiated by the “Two-Tailed Dog’s Party,” which as you can imagine is a group of jokesters who got together with a popular political blog called Vastagbőr (Thick skin). They began collecting money on Facebook for their own set of posters with messages of a very different nature from those displayed by the government. The response was phenomenal. As one of the organizers said, they receive 1 million forints every hour. Their original goal was three million forints, but by now they have reached 11 million (over 35,156 euros), which is enough for 150 posters. They have a few ideas already, and they’re waiting for others, which I’m sure will be pouring in. These guys are very clever.

Poster plan / mkkp.hu

Planned poster / mkkp.hu

Orbán’s hate campaign hasn’t gone unnoticed. A couple of days ago the Council of Europe issued a strongly worded report criticizing the Orbán government for its xenophobia and violence against migrants and minorities. Some Austrian and German papers have already noticed the “poster-war” that is currently underway. Now we just have to wait and see how successful Orbán will be at handling the immigration issue on his own instead of cooperating with the other EU member states.

Hate campaign against immigrants, rev. 2.0

The Hungarian government simply refuses to stop its campaign against immigrants despite the obvious failure of its national consultation effort. At the end of April the government announced its intention to spend 2 billion forints on poisoning the souls of Hungarians by mailing them a questionnaire with leading questions designed to incite hatred and fear of possible immigrants and refugees. When the commissioner for refugee affairs of the United Nations received a translation of the questionnaire, she could only gasp. Yes, she had heard about it and knew that it was bad, but when she actually read the questions she was shocked and “deeply concerned by the way the government increasingly vilifies people who have fled from war zones like Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq and who desperately need safety and protection in Hungary.” Yes, this government vilifies people who would need Hungary’s help, and it is not ashamed to show its true face to the world. It may even be proud of its tough “Hungarians first and only” stance. Viktor Orbán certainly doesn’t see anything wrong with his government’s behavior. He is convinced that his is the right way and that it is a position that Europe as a whole should follow.

Most observers think that Viktor Orbán is spreading “the bad name” of Hungary and Hungarians, some of whom are utterly ashamed of their prime minister, even of the fact that they belong to the same nation as he does. What will the world think of them? Well, some foreigners have already asked: how on earth could you elect such a man to be your prime minister? Or, how could you give him that much power? Especially the second time around? Or, why are you quiet, why don’t you send him somewhere where he will be far away from power and politics?

Well, the fact is that the vast majority of Hungarians didn’t fall for Orbán’s xenophobic campaign. That’s the good news. Eight million questionnaires were sent out, and thus far only 200,000 have been returned. Among them, I’d wager to say, given the mood of the country, several probably included unprintable remarks about Viktor Orbán and his government. At any event, a 2.5% response rate–and that by government calculations–is dismal, pretty close to what direct marketers can expect. To improve the stats, Hungarians can now answer the questionnaire online, and they will have two more months to do so. By the end it is possible that a much larger response figure will be announced, the accuracy of which, of course, we will not be able to ascertain. Nor will we know how they answered the questions.

Despite the poor response thus far, it looks as if the officials working in the prime minister’s office still think that they might be able to squeeze some political benefit out of this shameful topic. They switched into campaign mode to sell the original idea more aggressively. Perhaps their famous “communication” wasn’t effective enough, and if they turn up the volume a bit they will shift the mood of indifference to the anti-immigrant propaganda into one of frightened acceptance. They plan to use stronger language and better methods to increase Hungarians’ awareness of the dangers of immigrant hordes. They already tried hammering home the slogan that “Hungary should remain Hungarian,” but it didn’t have the desired effect. What about appealing to fears that immigrants will take the job of the natives? It looks as if this is the new scare tactic of the government.

During a press conference Zoltán Kovács, undersecretary for public diplomacy and relations, announced that this new “information campaign” will also include plastering the country with anti-immigration posters. It didn’t take long for the Hungarian media to get hold of a photo of one such poster from a print shop that got the job of producing 333 large billboards with the message: “If you come to Hungary you cannot take away the jobs of Hungarians!” At first blush, this poster looks like a joke since would-be immigrants couldn’t possibly understand the text. The message is, I assume, directed at the locals. The population should realize that if Hungary accepts 700 or so political refugees their jobs might be in jeopardy. They should therefore band together and support the prime minister to prevent these alien, job-grabbing people from settling in Magyarorszag.

"If you come to Hungary you cannot take the jobs of Hungarians!"

“If you come to Hungary you cannot take the jobs of Hungarians!”

Yes, the hate campaign is on. There are two more posters  in the works, and Index learned that the government in this new campaign is concentrating on areas along the southern border where specific anti-immigrant messages will be sent. I’m not sure what they expect. Perhaps that the local inhabitants will chase the immigrants away or round them up to be taken into police custody. But if I were the government, I would be careful. All that hate might be translated into action, and one day a “true believer” might just shoot some of the people crossing the border in the dead of night, rationalizing his foul deed by saying that these people were either political or economic terrorists who had to be stopped, that–just like the prime minister–he was protecting the country he loves.