Tag Archives: Serbia

Hungary’s transit zones are actually prisons where even pregnant women are handcuffed

This post is the English translation of a Hungarian-language article that originally appeared in Index on June 12. The staff of The Budapest Sentinel translated this report, which gives us an inside look at life in these notorious transit zones. I’m grateful to the editor of The Budapest Sentinel for permission to republish it here.

Background

  • The Hungarian government set up transit zones along the border as a place for those fleeing war to request international protection.
  • These transit zones operate as though they are located in a “no man’s land”. In other words, Hungarian law does not necessarily apply at these locations. Until now, we had no knowledge of what happens behind the gates of these transit zones because the public access to these areas is restricted.
  • We found two families in Serbia who fled the Hungarian transit zones. The respective heads of these families, Labib (L) and Mohamed (M) spoke to us of humiliating treatment, prison-like conditions, and starving children.
  • Tímea Kovács, an attorney with the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, met with asylum-seekers in one of the containers at a transit zone. Kovács spoke to us about handcuffed pregnant women. United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees workers are allowed access to the transit zones. UNHCR press officer Ernő Simon helped us reconstruct what is happening behind the barbed-wire fence.

Prison conditions

Labib: There were five sectors at the Tompa transit zone. You could not travel from one sector to the other because a four-meter-high barbed-wire fence enclosed each sector and there were cameras in every corner. We had a small, ten-by-ten area where we sat all day.

Mohamed: There were two families in one container. Seventy to eighty people in one sector, of which about twenty were children, with one pregnant woman and a woman suffering from cancer. The police never talked to us. All the officials were women. They spoke harshly to us. If I asked them for a diaper, they just yelled “no” back at me. There was only one normal person there, a blonde lady, who treated us as human beings. She would greet us, smile at the children, and ask us them how they were doing. The children had one swing, and they would argue [over who gets to sit on it] all day long. Adults would sit in a small area in between the containers, looking at the barbed-wire or the sky. We would cry inside so the children would not see.

Labib: Upon arriving [at the transit zone], everyone was happy. But after a few days, everyone felt like a criminal. The conditions broke us. We were not allowed to go anywhere. The guards and police did not concern themselves with us. My 11-year-old son was kidnapped when we lived in Iraq, he was seriously traumatized, but no one concerned themselves with him. They didn’t have a kind word to say to him. My wife was sick but they did not care.

Ernő Simon – UNHCR: There are four sectors, each sector is bordered by a high, barbed-wire fence. The containers are placed in a manner to prevent people from moving from one sector to the other. The containers used by [the authorities] are air-conditioned, but there is no air-conditioner in the containers where the asylum-seekers are kept. The containers heat up as the day grows hot. The open areas of each sector are practically prison yards for the condemned. The white gravel makes it very dusty. There is no shade. This is no place to keep humans.

Tímea Kovács – Hungarian Helsinki Committee: The people kept in the transit zones feel as though they live in a prison, not a camp. A mother’s story about what her child asked her is very telling: “What have you done, mother, to deserve being locked in a prison?” The gates, armed guards, police with rubber batons, and restricted movement only reinforce the feeling that this is prison. The situation grows worse in that no one knows just how long they will be locked up.

Malnourishment, starving children

Mohamed: It was problematic that we were only offered four spoons of baby food per day. It didn’t matter that we asked for more, they wouldn’t give it to us. If a hungry child cried at night, we had to notify the police, who then notified an employee there who then looked through paperwork for the child’s name. It was a long process.  The child would constantly cry. At the end of this process, the child would receive two spoons of food, and they told us that we would not be able to ask for food until noon the following day.

We were given two diapers a day, and there was no bottled water. We had to mix the baby food with tap water. We would have heated the water but that was forbidden.

Labib: The feeding was very monotonous. There was no fruit, no vegetables. For breakfast, we received canned food and bread. For lunch, noodles and chicken. For dinner, canned food and bread. Poor medical attention and pregnant women in handcuffs.

Mohamed: Our two-month-old son became sick in the transit zone. The doctor was less than ten meters away from our zone, separated from us by a big fence. With my child in my hands, they escorted me — two police in front and two behind. Two police came into the doctor’s room with us. I felt as though my child and I are criminals.

Labib: If you had to visit the doctor, you were escorted by five police officers. On your way to the doctor, you could see people locked in cages, but you were not allowed to speak to them. You could see police and fences everywhere. This was psychological warfare. The doctor really only provided first aid. They just gave you a pill and that was that.

Tímea Kovács – Hungarian Helsinki Committee: The situation for pregnant women is especially hard because there is no assistance for them. They do not even receive vitamins, nor are they fed vegetables or fruits. And it’s especially hot inside the containers.

Last month, there was a woman who was escorted to the doctor in handcuffs. Because her stomach was large, they did not handcuff her from behind, but from the front. We haven’t seen instances like these in the past few weeks. But there was one mother who should have been taken to the hospital. Because she insisted that her child not see her in handcuffs, she declined to go to the doctor.

Ernő Simon – UNHCR: The sick are escorted to the doctor by police. There was one individual that was escorted 25-30 meters to the doctor by five armed guards. If someone must be taken to the hospital, they are handcuffed and escorted by police. All this despite not being guilty of anything. They came to Hungary to receive asylum.

Psychological warfare

Labib: After arriving, everyone is immediately taken to be interrogated. This took our family about 9-10 hours. We were interrogated one at a time, and were locked in a container for an entire day.  When we needed to use the restroom, we were escorted by police as though we were criminals. The purpose of these interrogations was to break us. They tried to upset us. They asked us religiously-sensitive questions — for instance, whether I would be open to changing my religion. I told the interrogator that I would switch to the Christian faith if she converted to the Muslim faith. She laughed, then continued asking questions.

Mohamed: My wife and I were each interrogated for four hours. They tried to corner us into answering questions in a certain way, and asked us questions for which we did not know the answers. For instance, why is there an eagle in the Iraqi parliament? I don’t know this because I am Kurdish and lived in the Autonomous Kurdish Region. I have never been to Baghdad. We didn’t even learn about Iraqi things in school.

Labib: The questions presupposed that we are in Hungary because of money. For instance, why didn’t we just stay in Iraq and live off the money we spent on our journey here. It didn’t matter that I was once a successful businessman and that we left because my 11-year-old child was taken by kidnappers for ransom. The kidnappers gave my child back when I paid them 50,000 dollars. Later they kidnapped me and shot me, and only let me go after I gave them 70,000 dollars. It was then that we sold everything we had and fled. It did not matter [to the interrogator] that I said I would never recoup the money it cost to flee [Iraq] even after working for five years, or that we fled not because of money but because of terror.

Mohamed: We did not receive water or food during the four-hour interrogation. And there was no restroom. By the end of it, I almost wet myself. That is when I told them that I must go outside. Two police escorted me to the restroom and stood next to me as I relieved myself. The interrogator asked me things like, “Say five negative things about Serbia.” This is where I had to say bad things about Serbia because if I would have said anything nice, they would have sent me back. I told them that Serbia does not care for human rights, they mistreated us, and they did not care for us adequately — but this is more true for Hungary.

Tímea Kovács – Hungarian Helsinki Committee: For families, these interviews take a long time and they are not offered any food or drink, nor do they know that they can use the restroom if they need to. They are not informed that they can request that an attorney be present, so they never have that opportunity. We also found out that the Hungarian authorities give no consideration to documents presented by these people, copies of such documents, threatening letters, or any documents clarifying their situation.

Retreat to Serbia

Mohamed: My child was very sick — choking. I took my child to the doctor every day but it didn’t matter that I said the medication wasn’t helping, we were only offered one spray and nothing else. By the end, the situation was so bad we were afraid our child would die. Our child could not keep milk down and vomited, nothing would stay in the stomach. We asked the Hungarian authorities to deport us back to Kurdistan. They said they would but first they would take us to Budapest, lock me in jail, separate me from my wife and child — who they would lock up somewhere else. We would not be able to see each other and only after that they would decide when and how we would be deported. They intimidated us. That is why we decided to come back to Serbia. Our child received medical care here and became better. We are given an entire box of baby food and even five diapers per day if we need it.

Labib: We were there for fifteen days. My wife was sick and it didn’t matter that I told them she needs to be taken to the doctor because she needs an operation. I wrote a letter to the [managers of the transit zone] telling them that this is a prison, not a camp, and that we would go back to Serbia if they did not take my wife to the hospital. Half an hour later, a supervisor arrived accompanied by two police officers. They gave me a plastic bag, told us to gather our belongings and to head back to Serbia. We told them that it is nighttime and asked whether we could just leave in the morning so that we could have a place to sleep. They told us to leave immediately. My family – myself, my four children and my sick wife – were put out on the border at night. I asked for them to give us a document showing that we asked to go back [to Serbia] on our own will. They told us we would get nothing. I asked for an attorney but they didn’t care.

Here in Serbia, I asked them to deport us. My wife would have been operated on in Serbia, but we waited to gain entry into Hungary because we thought that Europe would be better. I now have a different opinion of Europe. Disappointing. If we die, we might as well die at home.

The UN says all of this is unlawful.

“Not only are transit zones in critical condition but the entire system has problems,” the UNHCR’s top representative tells Index.

“It’s absurd and unacceptable that children and adults have their freedom of movement restricted and are locked behind bars by Hungarian authorities. This is especially a problem for the children, who should never be locked behind bars. On top of all this, we just don’t know how long children and adults are being locked up. The asylum procedures can last months, even up to a year,” says Ernő Simon.

“These children and adults did not commit crimes. They exercised a fundamental right that is guaranteed by international treaties: they have asked for asylum. What’s more, these people are not climbing over fences, they have done what the Hungarian authorities have asked of them and registered at the transit zones. Nothing justifies their detainment, except that they officially submitted their asylum request in Hungary. Hungarian authorities are punishing those who choose to exercise their right to asylum.”

The Office of Immigration and Nationality says none of this is true

We asked the immigration authority why they keep innocent people in prison-like conditions, why they handcuff pregnant women, and why the provide poor care. They told us that there is no truth to what our sources – asylum-seekers independent of one another, the lawyer, and the UNHCR – have said. Our questions and the immigration authority’s unabridged responses are the following.

  1. Parents with small children have said that they receive limited amounts of food, and that if a crying child asks for more, then they will receive less the following day. Why do the children not receive enough food?

This statement is simply not true. There are no limits to the amount of food for toddlers. The baby food is prescribed by a pediatrician and the food is ensured for babies and toddlers. Baby food and fruit sauce is provided in unlimited quantities for children aged four to six-months-old, respectively.

  1. We were informed of two pregnant women that were taken to the hospital in handcuffs when they needed medical attention. Why was it necessary to handcuff these pregnant women?

Without knowing the dates of the transport of these women, we must refute these statements. Documents in our possession show that six expecting women were placed in the transit zones, and none of them were transported to a health-care facility in handcuffs.

  1. Why is it necessary to handcuff those asylum-seekers who depart the transit zone to visit the doctor or for other reasons?

It is not necessary, and is only done in certain rare instances when justified under the law, for example when the person poses a risk to themselves or others.

  1. Which law lays out the circumstances under which it is justified to handcuff someone when that person is not being charged with any crime?

The curtailing of personal freedoms is established by the 1994 CCCIV law on law enforcement. (Index writes this is not justification).

  1. Asylum-seekers are afforded limited movement, having only a 10×10 m yard without shade if they choose to move around. Do you plan on changing this?
  2. Does [the immigration] authority not consider the restriction of movement to be inhumane treatment?

A solution to provide shade is under way. The opportunity to move around is not restricted for any asylum-seekers. What’s more, on April 6, 2017, you could have personally seen that asylum-seekers had access to sporting equipment.

  1. An individual we interviewed states that his wife – who needed hospital care – was only allowed to visit the camp’s doctor despite having documentation that indicated she may need surgery. Who decides whether someone is in need of a specialist physician?

The doctor decides whether a specialist physician is needed in every case.

  1. An individual we interviewed claims to have written a letter pointing out the lack of adequate medical care and stating that [they] would leave the camp and return to Serbia if they do not receive care from a doctor. Half an hour after submitting the letter, they were removed from the transit zone at night — a family with four children. They asked to be allowed to stay until the morning, but were not afforded the opportunity. Why were these asylum-seekers and families needing medical attention treated so strictly?

The authorities do not force anyone to leave the transit zone. The asylum-seekers leave the transit zone for Serbia when they so choose.

  1. Does [the immigration authority] plan to improve conditions at the transit zones? If so, what kind of changes can be expected?
  2. If there will not be any changes, is that because [the immigration authority] is satisfied with the conditions?

When designing the transit zone, we paid special attention to the divided sectors (separating single men from single women, and unaccompanied minors over the age of 14 and families) to make conditions as comfortable as possible. All sectors have ecumenical prayer rooms, wifi is provided, as is the ability to watch television with several Arab-language stations. Sports equipment is provided, and the family sectors have playrooms. Social workers from the the Immigration and Refugee Affairs Agency organize activities for the children during the day (drawing, painting, etc.).

  1. Is it true that asylum-seekers lose their right to submit asylum claims in Hungary if they return to Serbia?

It is not true. According to the regulations, the applicant who chooses to leave the country is not restricted from applying for asylum in Hungary again.

A Kurdish news agency even reported on the inhumane conditions

At the end of May, several asylum-seekers began to protest the poor conditions at the camp. They asked their children to hold up signs calling attention to the prison-like conditions. The protest made it all the way to Iraqi Kurdistan, where local papers reported on the Hungarian situation.

The Hungarian Consulate responded to the article, refuting the claims of the asylum-seekers and the UN. According to Csaba Vezekényi, the conditions at the transit zone are ideal, there are sports, and the children can spend the entire day on a playground.

Vezekényi also said that the transit zone was built for those who illegally enter Hungary. He misled the foreign newspaper’s reporter because the transit zones are used by the Hungarian state to treat cruelly all those who – acting in good faith – legally sought entry into Hungary after waiting in Serbia for months.

June 14, 2017

Fidesz exports its ideology and methods to the neighbors: Serbia and Slovakia

I have the feeling that most Hungarians living within the country’s borders would be appalled if they knew how much financial support ethnic Hungarian parties receive from the government in Budapest. Here I will write about the Hungarian government’s reach into Serbia and briefly cover its failure in the ethnic politics of Slovakia.

The area of the Autonomous Province of Voivodina has a population of about 2 million people, most of whom (66.76%) are Serbs.The next largest ethnic group is Hungarian (13%). The area has autonomous status, and the Hungarians have their own national council (Magyar Nemzeti Tanács). The Hungarian government supports the Voivodina Hungarian Association (Vajdasági Magyar Szövetség / VMSZ). István Pásztor, who became chairman of the VMSZ in 2007, has developed a close relationship with Viktor Orbán, with all the benefits that it entails.

To the surprise of everybody, including the leadership of VMSZ, in November 2015 Levente Magyar, undersecretary in the ministry of foreign affairs and trade, announced a 50 billion forint package for the improvement of agriculture and tourism in the Hungarian-inhabited areas of Voivodina. Thirty billion will be given in long-term low-interest loans, and the rest will be an outright grant. This grant is supposed to put an end to, or at least slow, the emigration of Hungarian youth to western Europe. VMSZ will decide how this money will be distributed.

All three Orbán governments have meddled in the political life of the Hungarian communities in the neighboring countries. The financial assistance they extend to the Hungarian minorities is based on ideological considerations: only those parties receive assistance that are close to the right-wing nationalist worldview of Fidesz. Viktor Orbán prefers monolithic parties, the kind he himself built at home. Apparently, István Pásztor is that kind of a leader but, unlike in Fidesz, some people in VMSZ objected to Pásztor’s style. Orbán noticed the rebellion that was brewing in the party and warned that “it is not in the interest of Hungarian national policy that the unity that has been achieved in the Southern Territories (Délvidék) in any way be damaged.” He indicated that his government will not assist any such deviance from the party line. Fidesz hoped that this incredible amount of money would strengthen Pásztor’s leadership, but this doesn’t seem to have been the case.

István Pásztor and VMSZ received the money in November 2015, and by February 2016 Népszava reported that eighty persons had been expelled from the party just before the April national election. Considering that the party has 11,000 members, this number doesn’t sound large enough to do much damage. However, some of those who were expelled are important personages in Voivodina politics. For example, Jenő Maglai, the only Hungarian mayor of a large Serbian city, Subotica/Szabadka.

If political unity in Voivodina comes to an end and if different Hungarian parties compete against one another, the strength of the Hungarian parties will dissipate. This is what happened almost everywhere Fidesz politicos interfered. Romania is perhaps the best example, where at one point two new Fidesz-favored parties tried to weaken the Romániai Magyar Demokrata Szövetség (RMDSZ), with little success. Fidesz managed to split the Hungarian parties both in Ukraine and Slovakia. The same situation is developing in Voivodina. A civic movement called Magyar Mozgalom (Hungarian Movement) has been formed, which has attacked VMSZ as “being totally subordinated to the Hungarian government.”

The Voivodina Gallop

The Voivodina Gallop

This was not the first time that VMSZ received substantial amounts of money from Budapest. Back in 2013 Pásztor received 11.3 billion forints or 27.8 million euros (at the 2015 exchange rate), which “to the last penny” went to friends and family of VMSZ leaders. The list of beneficiaries was acquired by the media and published in Gépnarancs in June 2015. Three million euros went to Olivér Bunford, who owns a horse farm and runs the Vajdasági Vágta (Voivodina Gallop) and who happens to be the son of Tivadar Bunford, member of the executive board of VMSZ. The older Bunford also received 4.5 million euros. Those who didn’t like the new ways of doing business within the party and dared to say something were forced to resign, like Deputy Chairman László Varga who bitterly complained about Pásztor’s autocratic ways. Not only did Fidesz export its penchant for using public funds for private purposes but VMSZ also follows the cultural policies of Fidesz. The party leaders have attacked the program and spirit of the Hungarian theater in Subotica/Szabadka.

The Slovak situation is somewhat different. There three smaller Hungarian parties formed a new party called Magyar Koalíció Pártja (MKP) in 1998, which became the coalition partner in the Dzurinda government (1998-2006). When Pál Csáky, a friend of Viktor Orbán and a Fidesz loyalist, was chosen to be the new chairman in 2009, however, several politicians, including Béla Bugár, the former chairman, left the party and established a party named Most—Híd, meaning “bridge” in Slovak and Hungarian. As its name indicates, it is an inter-ethnic party. It seeks to represent the interests of Hungarians while working together with the majority Slovaks. To everybody’s surprise, Most—Híd won 8.12% of the votes in 2010 while the Fidesz-supported MKP didn’t reach the cut-off point of 5% of the votes. Since then MKP has dwindled and found itself without representation in 2012 as well as in 2016. Most—Híd, on the other hand, managed to win 6.89% of votes in 2012, and 6.7% in 2016. Given Fico’s poor showing, Most—Híd might have a role to play in the forthcoming coalition negotiations.

The latest chairman of MKP has resigned. Despite strong Fidesz support, or perhaps because of it, Viktor Orbán’s favorite party has bombed. Yet the Budapest government refuses to do anything with Béla Bugár’s party because it is not a “purely Hungarian” party.

I think one can safely say that the money that is being spent by the Budapest government to bolster the chosen Hungarian ethnic political parties does more harm than good. Moreover, a great deal of the assistance ends up in the pockets of Fidesz loyalists. All in all, not a wise use of the Hungarian taxpayers’ money.

March 11, 2016

Viktor Orbán in Brussels: Success or failure?

There is huge confusion in the Hungarian media over Viktor Orbán’s success or lack thereof at the EU summit yesterday.

The Hungarian prime minister arrived in Brussels with a plan which, in his opinion, could have solved the unchecked influx of refugees coming mainly from Turkey and entering the European Union via Greece. He made sure that the world knew about the details of his plan, which he revealed while visiting Bavaria’s ultra-conservative prime minister, Horst Seehofer, ahead of the summit.

Orbán tried to portray the summit as a gathering of the leaders of the EU member states to discuss his proposals. After the marathon meeting ended, he triumphantly announced that, with the exception of his idea of a pan-European defense of Greece’s borders, all his proposals had received a favorable reception.

Yes, the idea of a common defense of Greece’s borders was vetoed, but that was not the only one that received a less than sympathetic reception. Orbán’s suggestion to set up “hot spots” outside of the EU borders also fell on deaf ears: there will be hot spots in Greece and Italy.

We heard nothing about the reaction to Orbán’s suggestion for “special partnership arrangements” with Turkey and Russia. I’m not sure what kind of a special partnership Orbán had in mind, but at the moment Turkey is alarmed over the Russian military buildup in Syria and I doubt that the European Union would want to get involved in that quagmire.

Orbán also demanded an official EU list of “safe” countries since the question of whether Serbia is a safe country in terms of being able to handle the registration and maintenance of large numbers of refugees is not immaterial from the Hungarian point of view. It is, of course, possible that such a list is in the works, but for the time being no decision has been made. As things stand, Serbia, as far as the EU is concerned, is not a safe country.

Finally, Orbán demanded worldwide quotas, which was also discarded by the representatives of the member states. For a man who furiously rejects quotas for his own country to suggest quotas for extra-EU countries is quite something. In fact, no quotas are necessary because countries are already offering to take in refugees. The United States has said it will take 25,000 Syrians. Canada has a commitment to resettle 10,000 Syrians by September 2016. This is in addition to 23,000 Iraqis. Australia will take 12,000 Syrians and Brazil 5,000. One could go on. I’m also certain that the United States will provide financial assistance to the United Nations for the aid of refugees staying in camps in the countries neighboring Syria.

A determined Viktor Orbán in Brussels / MTI / EPA Photo: Stephanie Lecocq

A determined Viktor Orbán in Brussels / MTI / EPA Photo: Stephanie Lecocq

In any case, despite his declaration of victory in Brussels, after the summit ended Orbán seemed by turns downtrodden and defiant. Because of the EU’s reluctance to defend Greece’s borders, Hungary has only two choices, he said. Either it continues to build the fence to keep refugees out of Hungary or it simply lets the refugees go to Austria. Although recent news from Hungary indicates that the fence building is continuing, not just along the Schengen border between Croatia and Hungary but also along the Slovenian-Hungarian border, I would be reluctant to predict the final move in this “fencing game” between Hungary and the EU. Tomorrow Viktor Orbán is paying a visit to his arch-enemy, Werner Faymann, chancellor of Austria, who is the greatest opponent of fences and who said that he is ready to take any number of refugees from Hungary.

If Orbán goes ahead with his current plans and orders the construction of a fence between Slovenia and Hungary, his rationale for building the fence in the first place evaporates. Until now he has piously claimed that the erection of the fence is for the sole purpose of defending the borders of Europe. Surely, a fence between Slovenia and Hungary serves only one purpose: to save Hungary from the immigrants. If Orbán decides to extend his fence northward between two Schengen countries he will be revealing his true intentions. I’m not sure he is ready to go that far.

On the other hand, János Lázár just announced that the Hungarian government is contemplating joining Slovakia in mounting a legal challenge to the refugee quotas agreed upon at the meeting of the ministers of interior despite the protestation of the Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovakia, and Romania. So, it seems that Viktor Orbán returned from Brussels with a renewed determination to fight any attempt to develop a common EU policy.

Meanwhile he is playing with fire just south of Hungary. It wasn’t so long ago that the Serbs and Croats were at war with one another, and now under the pressure created by Orbán’s fence the two countries are at loggerheads. Border controls have been introduced between the two countries, and they are engaged in a full-fledged trade war. Some people with Serbian passports were turned back at the border by Croat officials. It would be advisable for Orbán to stop his war of independence because it could have serious repercussions not just within the European Union but also in the Balkans, the powder keg of Europe.

Viktor Orbán seems to be endangering the stability of the region and sowing discord among the member states of the European Union for one reason only: to bolster the popularity of his party and ensure his desire for a perpetual premiership. At the moment he is ready to pay any price for that political victory at home. Unless someone stops him.

“El Camino de Balkan”: In the footsteps of the refugees from Greece to Hungary

Twelve days ago atlatszo.hu announced that a Hungarian journalist, who initially didn’t reveal his name, decided to go to Greece and from there join refugees traveling north to the Serb-Hungarian border. He published his experiences in daily installments in atlatszo.hu. They were titled El Camino de Balkan, a take-off on El Camino de Santiago, the pilgrimage route to the shrine of the apostle St. James the Great in the Cathedral of Santiago.

He went to Idomeni, the last Greek village, only about two kilometers from the Macedonian town of Gevgalija on the bank of the Vardar River. This is the favorite spot for refugees to begin their journey from Greece northward.

Of course, by that time the refugees had traveled thousands of miles from Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. Their last stop in Turkey was Izmir, a large city in the westernmost point of Anatolia. From there they sailed to Mitilini (Lesbos) or Kos and then edged their way to Athens, Thessaloniki, and Idomeni, where our man joined a group of refugees.

Greece to Hungary

He didn’t have to wait long. After walking about six kilometers he encountered the first group, about twenty Afghans whose final destination is Germany. They had left Kabul, Herat, Mazar i Sharif a month ago and traveled through Iran, Turkey, and Lesbos. They had just arrived from Saloniki by bus. According to the owner of a local pub, twenty busloads of refugees arrive daily in Idomeni. That is at least 1,000 people. Small shopkeepers sell their wares: hamburgers, soft drinks, ice cream. On a small field there are at least 300 refugees and a policeman, who tries to keep order by dividing them into smaller groups that then cross to Macedonia.

After sitting in the dust for about an hour our journalist encountered two Syrian brothers from Homs, who seemed to be terribly worried about the Hungarian part of the trip. “Everything will be decided there,” they said. They are heading to Norway, where allegedly the rest of the family is already. Eventually, they began their short walk to Gevgelija, the first Macedonian town from which one can reach Belgrade by train.

By the time our journalist, surrounded by Syrians, arrived at the Gevgelija railroad station, the whole place was full of refugees. Every shady spot was already occupied, but some volunteers of the Red Cross tried to help the ailing members of the group. They also distribute food and water twice a day. Apparently, the situation is much better organized now than it was a month and a half ago, when “chases took place among the bushes and the corn fields” and many of the refugees got hurt. Now the authorities organize the crossing themselves.

It was a long wait for the refugees to receive a piece of paper that allows them to stay in Macedonia for 72 hours. Eventually the train to Skopje, which carried only refugees, arrived, and all hell broke loose. There were more people than places and the adults, leaving their children behind, stormed the train. But don’t fret. They knew what they were doing. Once inside the train they lifted their children into the carriage through the windows.

Given how limited space was on the train, our journalist thought he shouldn’t take the place of a real refugee and decided to go by bus to Skopje. As it turned out, the bus was also full of refugees except that these were the better-off ones who could afford to pay their way. Here his companion was Aden from Iraq, with a master’s degree in robotics. Aden didn’t even know where he should go and asked the journalist’s advice, who suggested Norway because “surely there they need engineers.”

At each border crossing the police organized the smooth movement of masses of refugees. Some of them received the Macedonian handwritten piece of paper which makes them legal for 72 hours, some didn’t. It didn’t matter. They all got on trains or buses and moved closer and closer to the border they feared most: the Hungarian.

Our journalist, after reaching Skopje by bus, hired a taxi. Its driver took him to Tabanovce and pointed toward a forest, the customary path into Serbia. Soon enough another taxi arrived which brought seven Syrians. They were well-dressed men and women who received the same directions from their driver as he had. So, they began walking together, but a Macedonian policeman discovered that our journalist wasn’t a refugee and refused to allow him to cross illegally. As a result he had to walk 14 kilometers to the Serbian town of Preshevo. It was 35 degrees, with no shade. After about 8 km a group of Afghans, who until then had been hiding in the ditch next to the road, joined him. They spoke no English; they just kept repeating “asyl… asyl.”

Preshevo is an important station in this Balkan journey. The Serbian authorities are waiting for the crowd. Behind the railroad station is an area whose official name is “place for a single stop,” but everybody just calls it the “kamp.” Here the Serbian police hand out 72-hour passes, this time for Serbia. Again, the wait is extremely long because these passes are handwritten, just as in Macedonia. The crowd is so large that “the whole thing looks absolutely hopeless,” but unfortunately if a poor refugee wants to travel free on a “refugee train” from Preshevo through Belgrade to Subotica/Szabadka, he must have one of these pieces of paper.

Of course, the well-off refugees can save themselves days of waiting for this piece of paper. Our journalist, who worked for years in the Balkans, knows Serbian, and he learned from one of the policemen that “many avoid Preshevo altogether and take a taxi all the way to the Hungarian border. It is only a question of money.” Surely, the well-dressed Syrians our journalist encountered close to Preshevo were not standing in line for that piece of paper.

The situation in Belgrade is somewhat similar to that in Budapest. Two parks near the railroad station are full of refugees. Buses going to cities close to the Hungarian border are booked for days. In the Serbian capital our journalist sensed growing apprehension about the refugee issue. The reason: the fence the Hungarian government is erecting along the border.

The next stop was Kanjiža/Kanizsa, a small town in the Vojvodia, where 85% of the people are Hungarian-speaking. Three buses arrived at the same time from Subotica/Szabadka, all full of refugees. The main square was full of them, but by the next morning the square was empty because the refugees start their final journey at night. According to a town council member who is in charge of the refugees in Kanizsa, only the better-off Iraqis and Syrians end up there. The poorer Afghans wait in Subotica in a large camp set up for them. But still at least 1,000 people go through this town of 9,000 inhabitants daily.

You may have noted that up to this point there was not a word about the smugglers who are allegedly responsible for the onslaught of economic migrants, who lure innocent and ignorant people to begin their perilous journey only to strip them of their last pennies. Instead, we heard about willing Greek, Macedonian, and Serbian policemen who facilitate the refugees’ movement from country to country. This is not the case, however, on the Hungarian-Serbian border, and our journalist had the misfortune of encountering one of these smugglers during the last leg of his journey.

This last stretch meant a journey on foot from Kanizsa to Martonos, where he made half the trip by car thanks to a Hungarian Gypsy. Originally the driver offered him a ride believing that he was picking up a refugee, but when our journalist answered him in Hungarian he got excited: “Oh, my brother, you are Hungarian? Then I’ll take you free of charge.”

From Martonos the refugee route follows an embankment, which eventually goes to Szeged and beyond. Here our journalist encountered a group along the Tisza River of about eighty, led by a bearded Arab who was very suspicious of him, especially when he heard that he is a Hungarian journalist. “Not a good pedigree around here.” Half of the people were Kurds from Iraq and other half, Syrians.  The terrain was rough. It was a heavily wooded area, plus they had to cross a canal which was luckily dry, but the embankment was very steep and there were a lot of children in the group. There was a second canal, which is apparently the actual border between the two countries with an even steeper embankment. The leader of the group made them run as fast as they could through heavy brush only to stop and wait. The journalist found this all rather mysterious.

Eventually he figured out what was going on. The bearded Arab, who was about 35 years old, was the chief here, assisted by four younger guys. They were the ones who walked ahead of the crowd, and all four of them carried knives. At sundown these five washed their hands, face, and feet, and rinsed their mouths. The others watched in silence. Eventually two or three groups joined them, and it became clear that all these people were “paying customers.” A final mad rush and one of the young smugglers came to him, saying “Hungary, go!” They all ended up in Gyálarét, in the outskirts of Szeged.

* * *

Since then our journalist has revealed his real identity. He is György Kakuk, author of a book on Kosovo, where he spent a year during the NATO attacks on Yugoslavia. He worked as a foreign news editor at Magyar Televízió and Magyar Rádió. After retiring from journalism, he was a diplomat with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, mostly in Balkan countries. A few years ago he decided to enter politics and joined the Demokratikus Koalíció, where he is one of the foreign policy advisers to Ferenc Gyurcsány. He is also on DK’s ten-member executive board.

Yesterday Gellért Rajcsányi, one of the young editors of the conservative Mandiner, wrote a glowing report about the series of articles, which he read with amazement. He considered El Camino de Balkan “the report of the year.” At that time he didn’t know who the author of the report was. Since Rajcsányi is not exactly an admirer of Ferenc Gyurcsány, to put it mildly, I wonder what he would have thought of this fascinating story if knew the real identity of the author. I can only hope that he wouldn’t have changed his opinion.

Demographic realities and Viktor Orbán’s ideas on immigration

Over the past thirty years Hungary has been sliding toward a demographic disaster. And the slide has only accelerated of late. In 2010 the population fell below 10 million. In the first five months of 2011 10% fewer babies were born and 2.7% more people died than during the same period a year earlier. The second Orbán government was keenly aware of the problem and tried, in its own way, to remedy the situation with all sorts of financial incentives, which didn’t work. In 2012 Fidesz MPs delivered optimistic speeches about the beginnings of a baby boom, only to have the Központi Statistisztikai Hivatal (Central Statistical Office) announce in May that 3.6% fewer babies had been born between January and May of 2012 than between January and May of 2011. Between 2010 and 2014 the country’s population decreased by 158,000. And that doesn’t count the 350,000-800,000, take your pick, mostly young people who are working abroad.

Despite the government’s program to entice young couples to get married early and produce at least two or three children, recent studies show that, in fact, both men and women are waiting longer before having their first child. And even if some miracle happened overnight and suddenly all the hospitals were filled with babies, it would be only a quarter of a century later that there would be any beneficial impact. A recent study by the Népességtudományi Intézet (Demographic Institute) predicts that, if current trends continue, by 2060 Hungary’s population will be under 8 million.

Of course, Hungary is not the only country in Europe with very a low birthrate, but according to Péter Mihályi, a professor of economics at Corvinus University, if we ignore the former Soviet republics, it is only Bulgaria that is in worse shape than Hungary in this respect. From government propaganda one gets the distinct impression that Viktor Orbán’s concerns stem from nationalistic considerations. A fear that can often be heard in right-wing circles is that Hungarian speakers will one day be virtually nonexistent and the language will disappear. Mihályi, by contrast, looks at the situation from the point of view of an economist and recommends systematic and well-directed immigration policies as a solution.

In 2001 Viktor Orbán himself realized that the steady decrease in the population and its concomitant aging could be effectively remedied only by inviting immigrants. In 2001 he delivered a speech before the Amerikai Kereskedelmi Kamara (AmCham) in which he outlined a plan according to which in the next five years Hungary could welcome several million immigrants. Otherwise, he said, the country could not maintain its rate of economic growth. He claimed at that point that “Hungary could easily provide livelihoods for 14 million people.” What kinds of people did Viktor Orbán have in mind? Since in connection with immigration he also talked about the forthcoming admission of Hungary to the European Union, he was perhaps thinking of western businessmen settling in Hungary in search of economic opportunities. He also pointed out that every year several thousand ethnic Hungarians from the neighboring countries settle in Hungary. He certainly didn’t have in mind Muslims from the Middle East or refugees from Africa.

Lately, one often hears about the hospitality offered to Croats and Serbs escaping the ravages of civil war in Yugoslavia. In 1991 about 50,000 people arrived from the northern Slavonian region of Crotia, adjacent to the Hungarian border. They were well looked after. A couple of years later, however, 16,000 Muslim Bosnian refugees reached Hungary, who apparently received a less hearty welcome. In a village along the Serbian border Péter Boross, who later became prime minister, announced in 1992, as minister of the interior, that “Hungary is full.” Why were the Bosniaks less welcome? The difference was the refugees’ religion and culture, as a 1994 study pointed out. The author lists all the difficulties Hungarian authorities encountered with the Muslim refugees. Perhaps it was not a coincidence that a year after the arrival of the Bosniaks, the Antall government amended the law on foreigners’ settling in Hungary to make it more stringent.

Refugees from Bosnia. These are the kinds of immigrants Hungary doesn't want

Refugees from Bosnia. These are the kinds of immigrants Hungary doesn’t want

A few years later Viktor Orbán made it quite clear that, although in theory he is in favor of immigration, that immigration should not come from non-Christian countries. The occasion was the refugee problem of Muslim Albanians expelled from Kosovo. Western politicians came to the rescue by offering to fly a certain number of these refugees to their own countries. At this point Orbán declared that “there will be no numerus clausus in Hungary.” All refugees who ask for admission to the country will be welcome. How they would get to Hungary he neglected to say. That’s why a commentator called this “generous” offer “perhaps the most cynical statement of the prime minister’s ten-month tenure.”

So, it is not really true, as most commentators suggest, that in fifteen years Orbán completely changed his opinion on immigration. No, he hasn’t changed a bit: he does not want to have Muslim riffraff in his Christian  country. He especially doesn’t want blacks from Africa in a pristine, white Hungary.

Apparently, despite all the propaganda to the contrary, the government is fully aware of the long-term effects of the current demographic trend. Attached to the 2016 budget is the latest government prediction that by 2034 the number of people living in Hungary will be less than 9 million. That is, if the balance between immigration and emigration is zero, something which, given the recent population movement, is unlikely.

This demographic trend will have serious consequences. First, there is the problem of a rapidly aging society. Fewer and fewer people must support a larger and larger number of pensioners. The number of children is rapidly decreasing. In 1990 there were 2.1 million children under the age of 14. By 2014 there are only 1.4 million. At the same time, the number of people over the age of 65 is growing. That will put an ever increasing pressure on the pension system, especially if the proposed referendum passes, which would allow men, just like women, to retire after 40 years of employment. Those who have only eight grades of education could theoretically retire with full benefits at the age of 54-56.

A decreasing and aging population also means a smaller domestic market, which puts a brake on economic growth. And, according to Mihályi, it limits job opportunities, especially for less educated people. Infrastructure, houses, apartments, tourist facilities, museums, football stadiums, restaurants and pubs will be underutilized. If the facilities and their offerings have fewer takers, prices must be raised. But there is a limit to raising prices. Enterprises can end up being unprofitable, and in this situation fewer people will start new businesses. These are some of the economic consequences of unfavorable demographics that people who keep talking about Hungary’s inability to take up immigrants don’t consider. They think the fewer the better. As Mihályi says, only children think that it is better to have fewer guests at a birthday party because then each of them will have a larger slice of the cake.

Given the huge differences in living standards between the east and west of the European Union, Orbán’s old dream of filling the country with West Europeans cannot materialize for a very long time, if ever. The prospect of ethnic Hungarians coming in great numbers is also unlikely. Romanian living standards are on the rise, and the Hungarians in Slovakia are quite satisfied. The Serbian situation is different. I just read that Serbian men and women in the city of Szabadka/Subotica, where the majority of the population is Hungarian-speaking, are madly learning Hungarian. They want to apply for Hungarian citizenship. Of course, not to settle there. One of the men who figures in the story is already in Berlin. So, Orbán cannot be that choosy.

The fence “matches the brutal policies of Premier Orbán”

One of Viktor Orbán’s most successful political ploys, we often read, is to divert attention from the failings of his administration by bringing up new topics that dominate the news. So, the argument goes, last fall’s crisis that erupted after revelations that the U.S. had banned certain Hungarian officials from entering the United States due to corruption and this spring’s scandal of government involvement in the financial fraud of the Quaestor Group almost automatically led to the “creation” of the grave immigration crisis. Yes, the talking heads maintain, there is a serious immigration crisis in the western part of the European Union, but that is not the case in Hungary. Ninety-nine percent of those who cross the Serb-Hungarian border leave the country at the very first opportunity.

I am one of the few people who don’t subscribe to this theory. I am convinced that Viktor Orbán honestly believes that Hungary should remain uni-cultural and that the mixing of cultures brings only strife and conflict. Commentators tend to forget that already in August 2014, while delivering a speech to the country’s ambassadors, Orbán lashed out against immigration, stating that “the goal is to cease immigration altogether.”

Unfortunately, his own personal beliefs happen to coincide with the feelings of the majority of the Hungarian people. Orbán is a smart, if corrupt and immoral politician, who knows better than most people that the majority of Hungarians are xenophobic. Over the years, polling results unequivocally showed that Hungarians didn’t want to let immigrants into the country. They didn’t even want to have anything to do with “pirézek,” a nonexistent group of people. So, one doesn’t have to be a political genius to know that the “immigration card” is a sure bet. It will always work. Especially if it is presented in such a way that the population comes to believe that it is Viktor Orbán and his government who are defending them from a peril that threatens their way of life.

Such rhetoric can dramatically influence public sentiment, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Fidesz and Viktor Orbán’s popularity increases in the next few months. This game is not about diverting attention but about regaining popularity and hence retaining power. Preferably for decades to come. Orbán always seems to be capable of coming up with clever new ideas to secure his position. Whether these moves are injurious to the country’s reputation or its position in the European Union interests him not at all. Simply put, he is ready to do anything to remain the prime minister of Hungary. And as long as the Hungarians swallow his ideas hook, line, and sinker, he will succeed at his game.

A lot of people on the left are skeptical about the polling results of Századvég and Nézőpont, and they are certainly correct when it comes to Nézőpont, but Századvég numbers are more reliable. Therefore, I don’t seriously question Századvég’s latest poll on the population’s reaction to the three billboards that the government created in order to incite Hungarians against immigrants. It turns out that the majority of Hungarians agree with the billboards’ messages. Eighty-five percent agreed that the immigrants must obey the laws of the country, which is no surprise at all. Seventy-five percent agreed that they have to respect Hungarian culture. Even the most controversial message, “If you come to Hungary, you can’t take away the jobs of Hungarians!” is supported by 59% of the population. In the case of the first two questions there is no discernible difference between pro-Fidesz and pro-Jobbik respondents on the one hand and supporters of parties of the left on the other. When it comes to taking jobs away, those who reject the message come only from the left. However disheartening it may be, the majority of the population supports this sickening campaign.

All of the non-Hungarian newspapers I looked at today disapproved of the way the Orbán government is handling the crisis. First of all, almost everybody agreed that the problem is European-wide and can be managed only by the joint effort of all the member states. In addition, almost all the newspapers decried the brutish methods employed by the Hungarian government. As Die Zeit says, the construction of the 175 km-long security fence “matches the brutal policies of Premier Orbán.”

The idea of building a wall was first suggested by László Toroczkai, a neo-Nazi who last year became the Jobbik mayor of a village close to the Serbian border. That was back in February. Once again, Fidesz is taking over a Jobbik idea. Admittedly, there are other walls and fences all over the world by now which, by the way, are no answer to migration. But in Hungary’s case sealing the border with Serbia is especially shameful. Twenty-six years ago, on June 27, 1989, Gyula Horn, the country’s foreign minister, along with his Austrian counterpart, cut the wire fence between the two countries to symbolize the beginning of a new era. The country allowed thousands of East German refugees to cross to Austria and freedom. Hungary also sent its own share of refugees to other countries in 1956, refugees who found sympathy, shelter, and eventually new homes abroad.

A funny comment on the wall by an "internet artist"

A comment on the fence by an “internet artist”

Serbian prime minister Aleksandar Vučić was “surprised and shocked,” and tomorrow at a Serbian-Hungarian summit he most likely will reiterate his reaction. He declared that Serbia will not follow Hungary’s example: “it will not build walls … and will not live in Auschwitz.”

As for the seriousness of the situation, opinions differ widely. Jan Schroth, head of the Czech office of the International Organization for Migration (IOM), claims that the current situation is neither dramatic nor unusual. The only difference is that too many people are dying needlessly at the borders of the EU. Using IOM’s data, he alleges that in the first half of the year 100,000 refugees arrived, while last year the total number was 200,000. So, there is no appreciable increase in the numbers. In his opinion, “Europe with its population of 500 million could easily absorb one million immigrants over a number of years.”

A lot of economists would agree. The birthrate in European countries is very low, and hence their populations are aging rapidly. For the most part the immigrants are young, and they could contribute to economic and demographic growth. The Hungarian situation has been particularly bad as far as the country’s demographics are concerned. The last time the fertility rate was over 2, which would have kept the size of the population more or less stable, was in 1979. Since 1981 the natural change has been consistently in negative territory. In 1981 the country’s population was 10,700,000, while in 2014 it was only 9,849,000. This is an 8% decrease. To this figure we could add the almost half a million Hungarians who have left the country in the last ten years or so and yet remain on the census rolls. All efforts to change this trend have failed, and I see no other remedy than a gradual but determined policy of immigration. But for political purposes Viktor Orbán is doing everything in his power to prevent such a course of action.

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.