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.
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.