Tag Archives: refugee camps

Another summit, another battle: Viktor Orbán forges on

In this post I’m covering an unfinished story: the Brussels summit of the European Council that is taking place today and tomorrow. I believe, however, that I have enough Hungarian material to make some tentative predictions about the outcome as far as the Hungarian prime minister is concerned.

First, I want to emphasize that today’s summit looks very different from Budapest than it does from Germany, France, Great Britain, and the United States. The western media considers this particular meeting to be “a minefield” of “sensitive, explosive” stuff, but the topics so identified bear no resemblance to the ones described in the Hungarian press. The top challenges, seen from the West, are sanctions against Russia, the situations in Ukraine and Syria, and Britain’s decision to leave the European Union. Naturally, the migrant crisis will also be on the agenda, with the discussion centering on how to stop further migration from the Libyan coast to Italy.

Someone who relies exclusively on Hungarian sources would be surprised to hear this because Viktor Orbán’s clever propaganda machine has shifted the emphasis to topics that best serve his political interests at home. He is moving onto a battlefield populated with his self-created phantoms.

What do I mean by this? Orbán has been making sure that everybody in Hungary understands that he will wage a life and death struggle against compulsory quotas. Every important government official in the last few days has stressed that the “pressure” on Hungary is tremendous. The prime minister left Hungary this morning with the firm resolve to veto such a resolution. He will fight to the bitter end. Since the question of compulsory quotas will most likely not be on the agenda, it is an empty resolve. He can come out of the meeting and announce to the few Hungarian journalists waiting for him that he successfully defended the country from the Muslim peril, at least for the time being.

Orbán obviously thinks that the idea of Hungary, a small country but one that can threaten the mighty European Union with a veto, resonates at home. He made sure that everybody understands the significance of such a move. The Fidesz and KDNP parliamentary delegations specifically asked the prime minister to veto such a resolution if necessary, reinforcing the gravity of the situation. Of course, it was the prime minister’s office that gave the orders to the delegations and not the other way around.

For good measure, Orbán also threw in another issue he was going to fight for in Brussels: the European Union’s alleged decision to abolish government-set prices for electricity retailers. Initially, the plan was to lift price controls over a five-year period, but lately the word is that, once the proposal is accepted, it will be introduced immediately. Such a move would tie the hands of the Orbán government, which in the last three years has been using price controls as an effective way to lower prices and thus gain popularity. But as far as I know, the issue will not be discussed at the meeting. And for the time being, it is just a proposal. To become law the support of both the European Parliament and the qualified majority of the European Council is necessary.

Once Orbán arrived in Brussels he immediately began to trumpet his own importance to the Hungarian journalists waiting for him. Back in October in Vienna he proposed the establishment of guarded refugee camps under EU military control, an idea that was flatly rejected by the countries present at the meeting. Since then he has somewhat modified his original idea and is now just talking about refugee camps financed by the European Union situated in Libya and Egypt. He admitted during this short press conference that his proposal hasn’t been accepted yet by the majority, but he indicated that he is optimistic that his suggestion will soon be supported by most of the member states. He is equally optimistic about another suggestion of his: “the return of migrants rescued from the sea to wherever they came from.” The defense of borders he demanded was once a “forbidden point of view,” but by today attitudes have changed and “it has become a recognized common task.”

Viktor Orbán enjoying the limelight / Source: MTI/EPA

Orbán’s Hungarian critics believe that the prime minister has arrived in Brussels significantly weakened after his recent domestic setbacks. Despite the incredible amount of money spent to achieve a valid referendum on the compulsory quota question, Orbán ended up with a large majority but, because of lackluster voter turnout, an invalid referendum. Nonetheless, he went ahead with his plan to amend the constitution, allegedly to prevent the settlement of large numbers of unwanted foreigners in the country. But he was thwarted in this effort by Gábor Vona, chairman of Jobbik, an extremist party that has been trying with varying degrees of success to become a respectable right-of-center party.

Orbán therefore can’t portray himself as the voice of a groundswell of anti-migrant sentiment. The Hungarian voters didn’t give him a mandate, nor did the Hungarian parliament. And the Visegrád countries are no longer solidly behind him.

Instead, Orbán seems to be grasping at straws. For example, he urged Hungary’s mayors to sign a letter addressed to Jean-Claude Juncker, which the mayor of Kaposvár, Károly Szita, a devout Fidesz loyalist, would like to hand to the president of the European Commission in person.

Perhaps tomorrow we will learn how much of Orbán’s agenda was approved by the European Council. Personally, I don’t think it’s a cliffhanger.

December 15, 2016

Hungary’s “humane treatment” of the refugees

A couple of days ago Chancellor Angela Merkel, while explaining the reasons for her humane refugee policy in an interview with ZDF (Zweites Deutsches Fernsehen), recalled that she couldn’t have left Greece in the lurch and that she certainly couldn’t have treated the refugees as badly as Hungary did. Her remarks reached the Hungarian media in record time.

One of ATV’s reporters decided to sound out “the people on the street.” Did the Hungarian government treat the refugees badly? I know that answers from randomly stopped pedestrians don’t tell us much about the public mood, but I suspect that their rejection of Merkel’s remarks most likely reflects the thinking of the majority of the population. At least seven people out of ten claimed that Hungary had done its very best in providing humanitarian assistance to the refugees.

And yet the non-government Hungarian media is full of horror stories about what’s going on along the Serb-Hungarian and Croat-Hungarian borders. As we just learned, 10,000 soldiers and policemen are chasing those refugees who breach the fence to eject them. Those who opt to follow the proper procedure wait for weeks on end on the other side of the fence. The process is painfully slow. Hungarian authorities admit only 15 people a day to the transit zones. The others–without food, shelter, or basic hygienic facilities–are staying on a narrow strip of land which is commonly referred to as “no man’s land,” a misnomer because it is still part of Hungary.

Just to give you a sense of the assistance given to these refugees, when Gábor Iványi, the Methodist minister known for his humanitarian work, arrived with a few portable toilets he was forbidden to set them up. The reason? They would obstruct the officers’ view of the terrain. Iványi received a more honest answer from Sándor Pintér, minister of the interior, who explained to him that “because they want to avoid permanent settling near our borders” he can allow Iványi to set up the toilets only farther away from Serbian territory. To do what with them?

Building the fence was a costly affair (perhaps as much as 100 billion forints was spent on it), but it didn’t secure the border. Just this year 17,000 refugees managed to get through the fence. I suspect by now they are safely out of Hungary. Of the 7,182 official arrivals between January 1 and May 7, 2016 only four people were accepted to settle in Hungary, 39 received refugee status, and 109 subsidiary protection. In brief, for those who play by the rules, the chance of receiving refugee status or permanent admission to Hungary is close to zero.

According to Eurostat, in 2015 Hungarian authorities granted asylum to 170 Syrians, 100 Afghans, and 75 Somalis. In stark contrast, 104,000 Syrians were able to settle in Germany. In light of these disparities, the European Commission decided to try a different system that would restrict the discriminatory treatment of refugees by certain countries. Hungary, I’m sure, was uppermost on the mind of First Vice-President Frans Timmermans and Dimitris Avramopoulos, the commissioner responsible for migration policy.

Today’s announcement by the European Commission is bad news for the Hungarian government because “the Commission is proposing to replace the Asylum Procedures Directive with a Regulation establishing a fully harmonized common EU procedure for international protection to reduce differences in recognition rates from one Member State to the next, discourage secondary movements and ensure common effective procedural guarantees for asylum seekers.” The reform as spelled out by the European Commission seems quite thorough. And it will perhaps force Hungary to change its ways.

Just last week, on July 5, the Hungarian government introduced a new regulation to stop illegal entry into the country. If an illegal immigrant is caught within eight kilometers of the border, he can be sent back to the other side of the fence to wait to be admitted to the transit zone.

On the day the new regulation went into effect, 1,060 refugees attempted to get through the fence. Only 300 were successful, but even they were caught. Since then, another 600 migrants got through the fence while “the police and the soldiers prevented the entrance of 1,300.”

The legality of all this is questionable. In fact, on July 5 the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights expressed concern that the law may result in law enforcement agencies not respecting the human rights of migrants and the violation of international law by expelling them by force without any legal procedure. Moreover, when one reads that policemen and soldiers “prevented the entrance,” one can’t help thinking that physical force might have been involved.

The fifteen lucky ones who got to the "transit zone"

The fifteen lucky ones who got to the “transit zone”

And indeed, Human Rights Watch just published a detailed description of alleged abuses at Röszke, at the Serb-Hungarian border. Here Lydia Gall, Balkans and Eastern Europe researcher for Human Rights Watch, found that “people who cross into Hungary without permission, including women and children, have been viciously beaten and forced back across the border.” Interviews were conducted with 41 asylum seekers and migrants, some of whom claimed that “officials often used spray that caused burning sensations to their eyes, set dogs on them, kicked and beat them with batons and fists, put plastic handcuffs on them and forced them through small openings in the razor wire fence, causing further injuries.” Some of the claims may be exaggerated, but I have no doubt that members of the police and the army have been told to use force if necessary to make sure that no one gets beyond that 8 km zone.

That some beating was going on is certain because the Human Rights Watch activists could see wounds on some of the migrants “consistent with marks caused by baton.” There is a telling exchange between a group of migrants and the officers. The refugees told the police that they want to stay in Hungary and that they love Hungary, “but the police just told them, ‘We love Hungary, not you.” Later they were taken to one of the gates: “they pushed us through and said ‘No Hungary, just Serbia.’”

The treatment of the few thousand refugees who are already in Hungary is horrendous. In the Körmend camp they live in tents that leak when it rains and that were unbearably hot during the last few weeks when a heat wave gripped Hungary. All three meals for the day are distributed at once, at noon, and as a result of the intense heat, dinner and the next day’s breakfast were normally spoiled before they could be eaten. Many of the refugees leave Hungary at the earliest opportunity to try their luck in Austria and beyond.

On June 23 Hungary unilaterally suspended the Dublin III Agreement, which obligated Hungary to take back refugees who had been originally registered in Hungary “for technical reasons.” János Perényi, Hungarian ambassador to Austria, and Zoltán Kovács, government spokesman, informed the Austrian ministry of interior of the government’s decision. Kovács insisted that “we all want to have a European solution, but we must defend Hungary’s interest and the Hungarian population.” Hungary can look after 2,500 refugees and, as it is, it has 3,000. “The boat is full,” Kovács told Die Presse.” Of course, it is full when the Hungarian government refuses to provide decent accommodations for the refugees and even refuses to accept international help. The intent seems to be to make the refugees’ lives so miserable that no one would ever opt to stay in Hungary permanently.

July 13, 2016

Inventing a scandal at the Körmend refugee camp

Just because we haven’t heard about refugees arriving in Hungary lately doesn’t mean they don’t exist. In fact, if one combs through the Hungarian media’s articles on any given Monday one can often read that “over the weekend” several hundred migrants made it again. According to the best estimates, since January 1 about 12,000 men, women, and children reached Hungary. And, it seems, at least ten thousand have miraculously disappeared since. Officials at the Hungarian Immigration Office claim they have no idea where the refugees are. The best bet is that they are already in Austria or maybe even farther west.

The Hungarian authorities are not exactly heartbroken about the disappearance of these people. In fact, they seem to be facilitating their departure by moving refugees who are in camps close to the Serb-Hungarian border or in the center of the country to a newly designated site only a few hundred meters from the Austro-Hungarian border in Körmend. The Austrians aren’t stupid. A couple of days ago the Burgenland police reinforced its supervision of the border around the city. Hungarian intentions are so obvious that even the German conservative paper Die Welt published a long article about the Körmend camp. The author of the article is Boris Kálnoky, who speaks Hungarian and was on the spot when the first group of refugees arrived. As he says, the Hungarian decision to establish a camp in Körmend “suggests that Hungary discreetly wants to get rid of these people.”

Because of the government hysteria created around the refugee issue no community wants to see a refugee camp in its vicinity. Everywhere the government announced its intention to establish such a camp there was such opposition that the idea had to be abandoned. This time the plan was kept secret. It was only a few days ago that people found out that a camp capable of housing 300 migrants will be created in Körmend. After the first 12 migrants arrived, one could hardly find any pepper spray, costing 2,000 forints, anywhere in Körmend. The management of the local Tesco “asked their employees to dress conservatively. ” Blikk reported that “the women of Körmend are afraid to go out alone because of the migrants.” What really worries them is that the refugees can freely move about in the town. A few hours later 888.hu, Gábor G. Fodor’s internet rag, ran an article with the following title: “If you dress provocatively, you may be raped.”

It was in this atmosphere that a journalist of Hetek, a magazine established by Sándor Németh, head of a Pentecostal Christian sect called Assembly of Faith, published two articles. These articles led to great embarrassment for ATV, on whose website they appeared. And the Hungarian government was far too eager to jump in and condemn the events which, as it turned out, never happened.

Hetek is described in Wikipedia as an anti-Muslim publication, which is certainly true, but I don’t agree with the author of the Wikipedia article who describes the magazine as an example of yellow journalism. In general, articles in Hetek are reliable sources of information. It’s just that any article dealing with Islam and the Middle East should be viewed cautiously or skeptically. ATV, my favorite television station, is unfortunately owned by the Assembly of Faith, and the articles that appear on ATV’s website often come from Hetek journalists.

Two articles about the situation in Körmend, written by Zoltán Szobota, who reported from the scene, appeared early this morning. The first piece was a background story about how the camp was established in Körmend behind the backs and against the wishes of the people of the city. He said that nothing was prepared for the arrival of 300 people. The hospital will not be able to handle the migrants’ needs. The association of citizens who are willing to help the police don’t have enough money for 24-hour dispatcher service, police dogs, extra VW Passat cars, etc. Moreover, what an idea to place the camp right next to a high school. It is also unacceptable that the camp is close to the stadium where they hold practices and sporting events. For good measure Szobota added that earlier, when a large number of migrants went through Körmend on their way to Austria, “they robbed a tobacco shop which thanks to the local authorities didn’t become national news,” thus accusing the local police of covering up a crime.

Szobota’s first article was bad enough, but it was the second one that really set the Hungarian media and political sphere ablaze. This story involved the sports stadium he had been worried about already in his first article. He records the “growing aggressiveness” of the migrants as their numbers have grown. Only three days have gone by, and here is the first serious incident. A group of migrants were watching girls playing handball through a window when someone from the school came and told them to leave the premises. One got so mad that he kicked the window. Szobota heard all this from András Faragó, president of the local handball association, who allegedly added that the practice had to be interrupted and the “girls had to be moved to a safe place.” Parents, he said, are outraged that the police aren’t protecting their children. About 100 teenagers visit the stadium every day, and what will happen to their championship games if these girls can’t practice? Faragó himself is worried about his two girls, aged 10 and 13.

You can imagine what happened after the appearance of this article on ATV’s website. Here are some headlines: “Scandal, migrants attack girls playing handball.” “Dread has taken hold of Körmend.” “Because of migrants practices had to be suspended.” “Scandal, migrants harassed female handball team.” Well, one could say that journalists love sensational stories and, after all, ATV’s website gave credible-sounding details of the events. But Hungary’s prime minister also jumped the gun without verifying the story. The government undoubtedly found the story useful in its anti-immigrant campaign preceding the upcoming referendum against “compulsory quotas.” On the government website the following short announcement was made at 14:26. “Because migrants harassed girls playing handball Prime Minister Viktor Orbán instructed Interior Minister Sándor Pintér to take the necessary steps.” A few minutes later one could read on Fidesz’s Facebook page that “We will not have another Cologne here!”

However, less than an hour after Viktor Orbán gave those stern instructions to Sándor Pintér, János Tiborcz, the chief-of-police of Vas County, held a press conference. From it we learned that in Szobota’s entire story there was only one fact that was true: a window in the high school was broken. Otherwise no official of the school talked to the refugees; no one saw who broke the window; the girls didn’t have to be evacuated; the window had been cracked earlier; no one could see anything through the window because, first, the view is obstructed by two large radiators and, second, the window was covered with curtains. As Tiborcz said, “the objective of the article’s author was not a search for truth.” During the press conference one of the journalists asked the police chief about the alleged robbery of a tobacco shop during the fall exodus of refugees to Austria through Körmend. Tiborcz said that he had never heard of such a robbery. And “surely, we would have noticed such an event.”

At this point an unnamed article appeared on ATV’s website in which the management of the station defended the original story of Zoltán Szobota and basically accused the chief-of-police of lying. At almost the same time nyugat.hu got hold of András Faragó, who was Szobota’s chief source of information. After a fairly lengthy telephone conversation the journalist found out that Faragó wasn’t on the scene at all. He had left earlier. When the reporter inquired about the details of the evacuation, Faragó admitted that his own daughter had told him that the team simply went home. A parent nyugat.hu interviewed said the same thing.

In the hysteria created by the Orbán government, the gullible Hungarian public is ready to accept any story that reflects badly on the refugees. This latest piece of fiction should be a major embarrassment to both ATV and the Hungarian government. But we’ve seen before how the government stands by its misinformation and goes against anyone who dares challenge it. I wonder what will happen to that very decent and honest chief-of-police of Vas County.

May 5, 2016

Unprepared Hungarian government facing a refugee crisis

Yes, there is a refugee crisis in Hungary. No question about it. Thousands cross the Serbian-Hungarian border every day and the Hungarian government is totally unprepared. The number of refugees/migrants has grown, especially in the last few days, ever since the news arrived south of the border that the Hungarian government is planning to erect a 13-foot-high fence along the Serbian-Hungarian border. According to rumor, the Macedonian authorities are in fact facilitating the departure of the refugees still in their country to make sure that they reach the Schengen border before the fence is built. Some of these people must be truly desperate. An Afghan woman just today gave birth in Szeged, which means that she must have left Kabul seven or perhaps even eight months pregnant.

According to Gábor Gyulai, who is responsible for the refugee program of the Hungarian Helsinki Commission, by 2012 it became clear that the migration routes were shifting and that, as a result, more refugees would arrive in Hungary in the near future. The Hungarian government, however, did nothing in anticipation of such a development. Not enough money was spent to develop a functioning, efficient system. Instead of spending billions on a national consultation, anti-immigration billboards, and fences, the government should have expanded the facilities that house temporary and permanent migrants. And they should have beefed up the Office of Immigration and Citizenship, which simply doesn’t have the manpower to handle the number of cases before them.

But if the Hungarian government is that ill-prepared, why don’t relief organizations step in to help? I’m afraid I can’t find a reasonable explanation for their lack of involvement. Their most common excuse is that “the government didn’t ask for help.” In the case, however, of the Hungarian Maltese Charity Service/Magyar Máltai Szeretetszolgálat, a Catholic organization, I detected a reluctance to get involved. This was the organization that played a large part in the 1989 escape of East Germany refugees across the Austro-Hungarian border on their way to West Germany. Father Imre Kozma, the head of the organization, outright forbade the employees of the service to say anything to the media about the new refugees “as long as such a hysterical atmosphere exists in the country.” I have a strong suspicion that Father Kozma’s charity is somewhat biased toward Christians. He is not alone, I fear. Robert Fico, who shares Viktor Orbán’s anti-immigration attitudes, reluctantly said on the Slovak public television after his return from Brussels that “Slovakia is ready to take in a few Christian families.” How generous.

Then there is the Ecumenical Assistance Service/Ökumenikus Segélyszervezet, which is the favorite charity of Anikó Lévai, Orbán’s wife. She can occasionally be seen collecting toys for children or helping with food distribution. Their answer was that “they could consider involvement only if the government specifically asked them to participate.” Otherwise, the spokesman for the organization simply repeated the wisdom of Viktor Orbán: they believe in “solving the problems in the countries of origin.” But when asked whether the Ecumenical Assistance Service is involved in such work in Syria or Libya where most of the refugees are coming from, the answer was “no.” Earlier they had a program in Iraq, where the organization’s primary mission was assistance to the Christian minority.

Not only did the government do practically nothing to prepare for such a large number of refugees, it has done everything in its power since February to incite the population against the asylum seekers. And their hate campaign has borne fruit. Polls indicate that Hungarian xenophobia has grown measurably and that the antagonism of the majority of the population toward the refugees has greatly increased. In Debrecen, where there is a refugee camp, about 200 people, including some local Fidesz politicians, demonstrated “to show their solidarity with the people who live in the neighborhood.” But even MTI had to admit that neither in 2014 nor in 2015 was there even one reported complaint about the refugee camp.

Anti-refugee demonstration in Debrecen / MTI / Photo solt Czeglédy

Anti-refugee demonstration in Debrecen / MTI / Photo Zsolt Czeglédy

Fidesz politicians exacerbate the population’s fear by stressing the large numbers of permanent refugees that Hungary is expected to absorb. Lajos Kósa, who is unbeatable when it comes to verbal extravagance, talked about 200,000 newcomers to Hungary, a country that, as we know from Viktor Orbán, should remain purely Hungarian. As a result, fear and tension has been growing on both sides.

The government is doing nothing to diffuse this tension. In fact, the anti-refugee propaganda is growing. While the relief organizations are reluctant to volunteer, neo-Nazi football hooligans are eager to assist police efforts at rounding up refugees along the Serbian border. It’s no wonder that Magyar Narancs suggested that “now that they managed to send even the neo-Nazis to the front line, it is time to stop and take a deep breath.” Such a turnabout would mean a loss of face for the belligerent Hungarian prime minister, but it is possible that he will be forced by circumstances to follow Magyar Narancs‘s advice.

Political analysts suspect that, although in the short run Viktor Orbán’s strategy might work, if the Hungarian government’s efforts to stop the refugees at the borders fail, trust in Orbán’s solutions might evaporate and with it the newly regained political support. The “beneficial effect” of the anti-immigration propaganda on Fidesz’s popularity might come to an end in two or three months unless the government’s efforts are successful. And people familiar with refugee issues very much doubt that Orbán’s “solution” can be a winning ticket for achieving long-term popularity.

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.

Fidesz attack on the Hungarian Helsinki Commission and conditions in the Debrecen refugee camp

Just the other day Viktor Orbán’s friend Vladimir Putin signed a new law against “undesirable” NGOs. The law gives Russian authorities the power to shut down foreign-financed organizations, introduce fines, and even mete out jail time of up to six years for those who violate the law. This new law further restricts the activities of NGOs financed in part by foreign donors. The 2012 law affected 60 groups that were branded “foreign agents.”

Hungary is not far behind Russia when it comes to harassment of non-governmental groups that receive foreign financing. Some of them, especially those that deal with human rights issues, are under constant siege. The latest attack is on the Hungarian Helsinki Commission.

The occasion for Fidesz’s assault is a dispute over the origins of immigrants coming from outside the European Union. Under normal circumstances it wouldn’t warrant such an outburst on the part of the government party. In fact, the text of the press release reminded Hungarians of the darkest days of the Rákosi regime.

The pseudo-civic Helsinki Commission, which fulfills the political orders of the international financial speculators, brazenly tries to falsify black-and-white facts. As opposed to their lies, the fact is that four-fifths of those seeking refugee status, 35,000 people, don’t arrive in Hungary from war zones. They come only for the money. This year only 17.3% of the arrivals came from war zones, and hence the great majority of those who illegally cross the border are not political refugees.

We call on the Helsinki Commission to stop lying and at least in such an important and serious question not be preoccupied with stuffing their pockets with the money of György Soros.

The terms used here to describe the evil forces of international finance, with their anti-Semitic overtones, could be found daily in the notorious party newspaper of the early 1950s, Szabad Nép.

What makes Fidesz so jumpy that it feels compelled to release a Soviet-style rant about something that may have been a simple misunderstanding? There is a good possibility that it has something to do with the Hungarian Helsinki Commission’s involvement in the investigation into the circumstances in which refugees are forced to live in the Debrecen refugee camp.

It was about a month ago that Ombudsman László Székely and his associates investigated the situation in the Debrecen camp, and it is likely that the investigation was prompted by a request from the Hungarian Helsinki Commission. The report that was published in April is an indictment of the conditions in the camp. And that was enough for the Fidesz types to lash out at the “troublemakers.”

In the first place, the camp is terribly overcrowded. The facility can handle a maximum of 807 individuals, but right now there are 1,188 men, women, and children living in the former barracks that serves as a refugee camp. Although Viktor Orbán wants to close the Debrecen camp, an association formed to assist refugees and migrants is trying to convince the government to enlarge the facility.

The Debrecen camp has two sections. One is for people who can leave the camp during the day. There is, however, also a closed section, which is actually a glorified jail. The people held there didn’t commit any crime. They are the “lucky” ones whose refugee status is being contemplated by the Hungarian authorities. The rationale for their incarceration is the authorities’ demand that they be available at all times for “speedy decision making.” They can be kept captive for as long as six months. At the time of the ombudsman’s investigation, there were 65 people in this section. All, with the exception of one couple, were families with children from Kosovo.

A room in the Debrecen refugee camp

A room in the Debrecen refugee camp

The closed section of the camp is surrounded by a 3m-high solid fence, topped with barbed tape–a mesh of metal strips with sharp edges. The inhabitants are watched 24 hours a day by policemen situated in six guard rooms placed along the inside of the wall. The guards seem to do a thorough job screening new arrivals. For example, women complained that they had to strip naked in front of male guards. Apparently, when a family arrives in the camp, policemen strip search them as a group. So, the father and mother have to strip naked in front of their children. The armed guards even follow the new arrivals to their medical examinations.

There is a room where children can play for a few hours, but even these small children are under constant surveillance. Although the section in which these families are kept has plenty of rooms, the authorities often put two or three families in a single room. There are rooms in which a family with three children, along with a couple without children, have to live. Men can shave for only an hour–from 9 p.m.–and the act is again watched by armed guards. After the men finish shaving, the guards collect the razors. The next day these razors are haphazardly distributed to the “inmates.” Families with children have a hard time keeping clean. Although there is a room where they are supposed to be able to use an old-fashioned washing machine, the officials had difficulty even producing the key to the room. From the look of room inside, it was clear that the place hasn’t been used lately.

Viktor Orbán was terribly upset when some members of the European Parliament dared to bring up the treatment of Hungarian refugees in 1956. He indignantly announced that those 200,000 people who fled after the Soviets decided to quell the uprising “escaped from Soviet tanks.” Well, let’s face it, most of those refugees left Hungary in the hope of a better life. There were of course some who could be considered bona fide political refugees, but relatively few.

As for the treatment of the 56ers, let me give you a few examples from my own experience. In Eisenstadt, which was a major collection center, I was asked whether I would like to go to Wienerneustadt or the Alps. It was not a difficult choice. We received train tickets to the Carinthian Alps, where a Volkswagen bus took us to Weißensee, the highest mountain lake in Austria. There we were housed in a comfortable Gasthaus. There was only one couple with us, and naturally they received separate quarters. From our mountain resort we used to go to the nearest village, where the owner of the movie theater made it a point to order films with Hungarian themes. He never accepted any money from us. Once two of the boys returned from the village with brand new shoes because the owner of the local store had noticed that their shoes were in bad shape. When in Vienna, we didn’t have to pay for tickets on streetcars and buses and received a weekly stipend. We received meal tickets in restaurants owned by the city of Vienna, where the food was as good as any decent restaurant. Compare our welcome in Austria to the way the miserable people in the closed section of the Debrecen camp are being treated.

But since the Hungarian Helsinki Commission had the temerity to call attention to the unacceptable conditions in the so-called refugee camp, they must be part of an international conspiracy.

Spread of indifference and hate in Hungary

The events of the last few days have been shocking reminders that something has gone very wrong in Hungary in the last few years. Hungarian society has been poisoned by monstrous ideas. And it seems that the more the present government feels threatened, the more vicious it becomes in the hope of appealing to the beast in all of us.

Sometime ago I read about a study of the Orbán government’s social policy which appeared in the prestigious Journal of European Social Policy. It was written by a member of ELTE’s Faculty of Social Studies, a faculty whose existence has been threatened by the latest “university reforms.” She maintained that the present Hungarian government has no coherent social policy. One finds elements of neo-liberalism, neo-conservatism, and etatism, all at the same time. She came to the conclusion that “the only aim of the government is the punishment of the poor.” What an indictment.

In a recent editorial in HVG, “Hate the weaker!,” the author recalls those instances when the Orbán government incited hatred against the homeless, the unemployed, and now the refugees. This government went so far as to change the constitution to legalize punishment of homeless people. The government pared back unemployment insurance benefits to only three months. Welfare payments have been cut to practically nothing, while public works programs are used to influence electoral outcomes. And now here are refugees arriving with only the clothes on their backs.

The government is inciting the population against foreigners in general even though in January 2014 only 1.4% of the population consisted of foreign nationals. Although the government talks about the huge numbers of applicants for refugee status, in 2014 only 360 political refugees received permission to stay in Hungary. These incitements are intended to divert attention from the incompetence (and worse) of the government, but their negative effect on the psyche of the population is immeasurable.

A lack of compassion is discernible among Fidesz politicians, even when working-class Hungarians are the victims. The other day a 21-year-old girl was murdered while working in one of the stores allowed to sell tobacco products. Her murderer, a young boy as it turned out, killed her for 22,000 ft. ($80.00). The interiors of these stores cannot be seen from the street. Their windows are covered; the doors are solid and cannot be left open. All that in the mistaken notion that young people, just by glancing at packs of cigarettes through the shop window, will take up smoking. As a result, the number of robberies at these stores has been far above the average. But at least until now no shopkeeper was killed. But here we have the first victim of this ludicrous new law. The owner of the store where the tragedy happened had enough. He decided that he is taking off the protective material from the shop windows of all his stores. He cares not whether it is against the law. He will not endanger the lives of his employees. One death was more than enough.

Will the government change the law which clearly serves no purpose and endangers lives? A reporter for Hír24 was all set this morning to ask the opinion of Fidesz politicians as they arrived in parliament. One after the other, starting with the prime minister, they went by without a word and without the slightest sign of sympathy for the victim. A few muttered that they had no time to say anything. Up to now over 200 comments have appeared commenting on this video, and practically all of them are highly critical of the whole Fidesz lot. One recurring accusation is that they were elected by the people and have an obligation to answer reporters’ questions. Another charge is that these Fidesz politicians refuse to answer because they haven’t yet received their orders from above. They simply don’t know what the “right answer” is. And finally, there are many who believe that Viktor Orbán and his minions are incapable of admitting that their decisions could be wrong. These people also predict that the law will not be changed.

How much does Fidesz’s anti-immigration policy stem from racist prejudices? The first reaction is that it has nothing to do with prejudice. Fidesz is not a racist party. Viktor Orbán is just using the anti-foreign card for political purposes. It is only Jobbik, the far-right neo-Nazi party, that owes its popularity to openly racist, anti-Roma and anti-Semitic ideology. But then what can we make of what happened today at a press conference given by László Pósán, a member of Fidesz since 1992 and a member of parliament from 1998?

Pósán is a historian who became an associate professor of history at the University of Debrecen after receiving his Ph.D. in 2000. He is a medievalist who specializes in the German principalities and has written a book on medieval Germany. This illustrious professor of history told journalists that to allow people of different cultural backgrounds to settle in Hungary would have very serious consequences. After all, what would parents think if their child, returning home from school, “was surrounded by six African blacks making threatening gestures?” Naturally, he fully supports Viktor Orbán’s ideas on immigration. If this isn’t racism, I don’t know what is.

For good measure he told a few horror stories about the Debrecen internment camp for political refugees. According to him, at one point there was a fight inside of the camp that was so serious that “600 policemen had to be called to the scene.” Well, being a historian myself, I  looked into the 2013 incident in the Debrecen camp. Apparently the camp was terribly overcrowded. Some of the inmates didn’t even have a bed to sleep on. They had to be satisfied with a mattress on the floor of the cafeteria. The fight broke out as a result of a football game between two different groups. As for the number of policeman, Index heard about 100-150, but they could not confirm the number. So much for Pósán’s 600 policemen.

The Debrecen refugee camp in June 2013

The Debrecen refugee camp in June 2013

On the other hand, while I was searching for details about the fight in the Debrecen camp, I found a 2009 article, also by Index, which perhaps tells us more about the real state of affairs than Pósán’s exaggerated story. It was about an Afghan refugee who jumped from a second-floor window, trying to commit suicide. He didn’t die but broke an arm and a leg and damaged his spine. He was to be sent back to Greece and, when the police arrived for him, he jumped. He was first caught in Greece, from where he escaped to Serbia. He was arrested in Serbia and spent 70 days in jail. It was at that point that he headed to Hungary, where he asked for refugee status. He was promised that after ten days he would be sent to Debrecen as a refugee waiting for approval or rejection of his case. Instead, on the thirteenth day after his arrival he was told that he would be sent back to Greece. Apparently, the treatment of refugees in Greece is much worse than in Hungary, and he certainly didn’t want to go back to Afghanistan where he feared for his life. He claimed that his father had already been murdered by the Taliban, and he was afraid that he would be next. His long journey from Afghanistan to Greece, Serbia, and Hungary indicates to me that he was most likely telling the truth. He was not a “megélhetési bevándorló” or, to use Miklós Haraszti’s English rendition, an “occupational immigrant.” A few hours after the suicide attempt 27 Afghan refugees began a hunger strike to protest against and try to escape the fate of deportation.