Tag Archives: Serbian-Hungarian border

Orbán’s new super fence

It took less than an hour after Viktor Orbán said that a second “more massive” fence will soon be built along the Serbian-Hungarian border for all the major newspapers in the world to report his announcement. If we can believe the Hungarian prime minister, practically everything is ready for the work to begin. This new structure, he claims, is necessary in case the present arrangement between Turkey and the European Union unravels for one reason or another. It could easily happen that 100,000 migrants would storm the existing fence, which couldn’t withstand that kind of pressure. But the one the Hungarian government is going to install will be so advanced technically that “it will be able to stop several hundreds of thousands of people at one time.”

The text of the interview that took place during the early morning show of Magyar Rádió, Hungary’s state radio, is still not available on the prime minister’s website, so I have to rely on summaries that appeared in the Hungarian media. According to them, Orbán assured his audience that “not even a bird will be able to fly into Hungary without control.” He continued: “The borders cannot be defended with flowers and stuffed animals. The borders must be defended with fences, with policemen, with soldiers, and with weapons.”

Commentators immediately questioned the need for another fence because the present one has reduced the flow considerably. And, as I noted yesterday, the few who get through leave the country at the very first opportunity. Some observers are convinced that the announcement of a second fence was designed solely to serve Orbán’s domestic political agenda. He desperately wants to make sure that the October 2 referendum is valid, and the prospect of hundreds of thousands migrants attacking the country’s border might make voters more eager to cast their votes in the referendum.

Others pointed out that fences, no matter how many there are, are never foolproof, especially if we are talking about the more than one hundred thousand people Orbán envisages. Index, in an article titled “One fence is no fence but sometimes not even three are enough,” told the story of the fences at Melilla, a Spanish autonomous city located on the north coast of Africa, sharing a border with Morocco. A migrant must first climb a six-meter fence, then a three-meter one, followed by another six-meter one. A daunting but not impossible task. From the thousands who storm the triple fence a not insignificant number succeed. See the video. In 2014 February about 200 managed to enter the town of Melilla. In 2015, 50 people made it.

The infamous triple fence at Malilla

The infamous triple fence at Melilla

László Toroczkai, the Jobbik mayor of the border village of Ásotthalom, who himself organized irregular volunteers who went to hunt for refugees, is naturally quite pleased with the announcement. He believes that the new fence will be 2.0-2.5 meters from the existing one and that it can easily be patrolled, especially since thermographic cameras are already installed along the border. On the other hand, engineers are convinced that only a reinforced concrete wall could withstand the pressure exerted by crowds of that size. Experts questioned by Népszabadság could think only of the Berlin Wall as something allegedly foolproof, but even that couldn’t withstand a crowd of one hundred thousand.

The government has kept plans for this new structure a secret from the parliamentary committee dealing with defense and police matters, according to Ágnes Vadai, DK member of the committee. She said that members of the committee should have been notified if there is a danger of the arrival of a hundred thousand people, but no such information reached the committee. In her opinion, there is a very good possibility that this particular issue will never get before the committee because Hungary has been under a nationwide state of emergency ever since March and therefore the law governing public procurement has been suspended.

Months ago Magyar Nemzet asked the prime minister’s office for a detailed list of expenses in connection with building the fence along the Serbian-Hungarian and Croatian-Hungarian borders. What they got the other day was difficult to decipher, mostly because the details were sketchy and sloppy. The documents do suggest, however, that approximately 12.6 billion forints ($45.7 million) have been spent so far. If Orbán actually carries out his announced plan to build a more massive fence or wall, the cost will rise sharply. It is an enormous waste of money.

The Hungarian government likes to parade as the defender of Christian Europe from the Muslim hordes, but the fact is that Hungary’s fences haven’t deterred refugees from entering the territory of the European Union. If they can’t enter through Hungary, they will find some other route. Surely, a fence or a wall a few hundred kilometers in length will not solve the problem. Countries that act individually to protect their own borders only force other countries to pick up the slack. Unfortunately, Viktor Orbán refuses to endorse any common policy to resolve this serious human and political crisis. If it depended on him (and if so much money weren’t at stake in the form of EU subsidies), he would abolish the institution of the European Commission and would place all the power in the hands of the 28 leaders of the individual member states. That would, of course, be the death of the idea of a United Europe.

August 26, 2016

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

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

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

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

Medical urgency. The young man almost died.

Medical emergency. The young man almost died.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

August 25, 2016

Orbán’s crack police force in action at the Serb-Hungarian border

It was on September 16 that the Hungarian police, with the active help of members of TEK, the so-called anti-terrorist force created by Viktor Orbán to serve as his and his regime’s bodyguards, brutally attacked a group of refugees. The asylum seekers had been led to believe that the Hungarian authorities had decided after all to open one of the gates on the freshly closed border between Serbia and Hungary. Given the large number of reporters and cameramen on the scene, many videos and descriptions of the “battle” exist. Although nowadays an event that took place more than two weeks ago no longer holds much interest, this story doesn’t want to die.

One reason for the survival of the story in the media is that it was not only asylum seekers who were beaten by members of TEK but also journalists and cameramen who were on the spot. Altogether eight reporters were beaten by the Hungarian special forces, three of whom were also arrested and held at police headquarters in nearby Szeged. These people made sure that their story would be told and retold. Hardly a day has passed without a report in the Hungarian media on the incident.

One of the witnesses (and victims) was Warren Richardson, an Australian freelance photographer, who summed up TEK’s role in the event as “a dress rehearsal.” As he put it, “the TEK boys wanted to find out how successfully they can handle an antagonistic crowd.”

This interpretation assumes premeditation. Descriptions of events to date strongly suggest that TEK did indeed receive instructions from above to create a situation that would necessitate aggressive police action. TEK is subordinated to Interior Minister Sándor Pintér, a former high-ranking police officer of questionable reputation who has a permanent place in every Orbán government, which suggests a special relationship between him and the prime minister. Given the nature of governance under Viktor Orbán, if instructions to attack came from above, it had to be from the prime minister himself.

But why would Viktor Orbán want to provoke such an incident, which has been injurious to his government’s reputation? The standard explanation is his desire to prove to Hungarians, already suspicious of the motives of the migrants, that these people are indeed a dangerous and violent lot who ought to be feared. It is true that a few hours earlier some young men threw rocks at the policemen guarding the border and broke through the fence, but the riot police handled the situation easily with teargas and water cannons. No one could dispute the right of the Hungarian police to defend themselves against bodily harm, and if a few hours later the “TEK boys” hadn’t decided to attack peaceful asylum seekers, nobody would have complained.

The government normally justifies TEK’s attack on the crowd by describing it as an answer to the rowdies in the crowd who were throwing rocks at the police. But that gives a false account  of the events. The rock throwing took place at around 2:30 in the afternoon, and the TEK attack occurred after 5:30. Moreover, the two incidents took place at a considerable distance from each other.

Why did the asylum seekers think they could legally cross into Hungary? The police phalanx retreated about 30-35 meters from the fence and opened the gate to allow a sick little girl and her family to cross into Hungary. At this point the crowd, thinking that the Hungarian authorities had officially opened the gate and that they were allowed to proceed, began chanting: “Thank you, thank you, Hungary!” It was at that point that members of TEK, who had arrived on the scene shortly before, began their attack.

Yesterday Atlatszo.hu published a description of the events at the border by two reporters, the aforementioned Australian Warren Richardson and Tímea Beck, the photo reporter for the Slovak Dennik N internet news site. Richardson was badly beaten by a TEK man, who, according to him, smiled as he kicked Richardson four or five times in the head. Finally, he was arrested and taken to police headquarters. Although he was kept there for twelve hours, eventually the authorities let him go without fingerprinting him or even making a report. He knew his rights, which frustrated his interrogators, who for a good twelve hours madly tried to come up with some piece of legislation that would fit Richardson’s “crime.” Eventually they simply gave up.

Tímea Beck from Slovakia is certain that “the members of TEK received orders from above.” She also describes the situation as entirely peaceful. Most of the people who were attacked by TEK were women and children. When the TEK force arrived everybody started running, including Beck who received the first blow on her back and later two more on her shoulder. At this point she thought that if she speaks Hungarian and explains that she is a journalist perhaps she could make headway with the TEK people, but she was told “to shut up because [she] has no right to speak.” One of the TEK people handcuffed her, threw her on the ground, and took her along with Warren Richardson and the Polish reporter Jacek Tacik to police headquarters in Szeged, where they accused her of illegally crossing the border. Tacik, as the picture below shows, suffered a fairly serious head injury. He was originally accused of attacking a policeman, but eventually all charges were dropped.

Jacek Tacik, the Polish journalist who wasn't beaten

Jacek Tacik, the Polish journalist who, according to the government, wasn’t beaten

These three journalists were not the only ones who were hurt. According to the latest count, eight journalists were beaten by members of TEK during the encounter, including the entire camera crew of the Serbian public television station. They also claimed that the Hungarians purposely broke their equipment. The police denied that they manhandled any journalists, which might be correct, strictly speaking, if we assume that the assault came from TEK and not the regular police.

The European Federation of Journalists (EFJ) immediately denounced the attack on and arrest of journalists by the Hungarian authorities. So did the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), which found the manhandling of journalists who are reporting on an event of worldwide interest unacceptable. Nina Orgnianova, CPJ’s Europe and Central Asia program coordinator, announced that “the Hungarian government must make a clear and unequivocal statement that it will not tolerate such behavior.” I’m afraid she can wait for that statement.

At the moment the Hungarian government is in desperate search of a bona fide terrorist among the refugees. They arrested a few suspects, but apparently proving their guilt has been difficult. I don’t know whether they have given up on the idea or whether they have decided to continue their investigation. Finding a terrorist would be a real coup for Orbán’s propaganda machine.

Viktor Orbán’s message to Brussels

Viktor Orbán is again marching to a different drummer. While European politicians and leaders of the European Union are working hard to find a humane and peaceful solution to the refugee crisis, the Hungarian prime minister is preparing for war–war against anyone who tries to seek refuge in Hungary.

Angela Merkel, by legalizing the settlement of Syrian refugees in Germany, took a step in the right direction. But Germany cannot solve the problem alone; there must be a common effort by the 28 member states. Johanna Mikl-Leitner, the Austrian interior minister, is also of the opinion that bona fide refugees should be given a permanent home, a step that should end the kind of human trafficking that resulted in the death of those 71 people who were found in an abandoned truck on an Austrian highway. Viktor Orbán and the politicians of the party he leads, however, see it otherwise. The Hungarian government will not accept anyone, refugee or not, and today officials worked to make sure that they will have the legal means to introduce draconian measures.

The day started with Zoltán Kovács, government spokesman, blaming the refugees who died in that truck for their own death. Since there is no war situation in the Balkan countries, there was no reason for them to escape to (and through) Hungary. “Therefore we are talking about people who make themselves victims.”

Yesterday János Lázár and Antal Rogán laid the groundwork for the government’s response to the waves of people entering Hungary when they insisted that the use of the army along the border and modifications of the criminal code are necessary because of the “growing aggressiveness” of the asylum seekers. It matters not that the ministry of interior is unaware of any such aggressiveness, which is not a criminal category in any event.

Jobbik and Fidesz are vying with each other to see which party can come up with the most hateful anti-refugee propaganda and which one can suggest the most severe measures against the asylum seekers. This rivalry is especially evident when it comes to the question of deploying the army along the border. Gábor Vona, chairman of the neo-Nazi Jobbik party, submitted a proposal yesterday to modify the constitution to allow the use of arms in the defense of the borders because, as Ádám Mirkóczky, deputy chairman of Jobbik, said, “a situation may arise when the soldiers and/or the police must use firearms to defend themselves.” Fidesz claims that the government can achieve the same end without touching the constitution. Their proposal also includes the use of “coercive instruments.” They can use guard dogs, rubber bullets, pyrotechnics, tear gas, and netting to stop the people at the border. Also, they can use firearms “if they encounter an attack which seriously endangers life or causes bodily harm, or if the asylum seekers attack an object under surveillance.” The troops will be moving into the transit zone on September 15. Because there is no real difference between the two positions, I have no doubt that Jobbik will assist Fidesz in enacting this horrendous new law.

What else is waiting for the refugees and those who try to help them? The punishment for climbing over the fence will be three years in jail. Taking part in a mass disturbance warrants a maximum five-year jail term. If someone loses his life during the disturbance, any participant could end up in jail for a term of five to ten years. Those who are found guilty will be automatically expelled from the country even if that means forcible separation from their families. There are a few exceptions to these rules: the expulsion of pregnant women and mothers of children under the age of one can be postponed, but only if their stay in the country doesn’t seriously endanger public safety and public order. In addition, the police can enter private property without a warrant if they suspect that Hungarian citizens are hiding refugees in their homes.

It will be much worse soon / AFP-photo Attila Kisbenedek

It will probably be much worse soon / AFP-photo Attila Kisbenedek

As for refugee camps, the government finally came up with the “perfect” solution. Several “transit zones” will be created along the border. They will be fenced in on the Hungarian side but will be open on the Serbian side. The refugees will have to enter one of these camps, which will protrude sixty meters into Hungary. The necessary land will be expropriated from the present owners. After processing the applications, authorities will make a decision within eight days about the fate of the refugees. It is quite clear from the messages we get from Fidesz politicians that nobody will be considered a refugee who comes through any Balkan country. So basically, they will go through the rigmarole of registering the refugees, which is necessary to comply with current EU rules, and then will deny them entrance to the country on the ground that they are not refugees. That will be the Hungarian solution to the refugee crisis.

Finally, Fidesz decided to send a message, in the form of a parliamentary resolution, to Brussels, “whose irresponsible policies are responsible for the death of people.” The resolution, titled “Message to the leaders of the European Union,” was submitted by seven Fidesz and two Christian Democratic politicians, among them important people like Antal Rogán, leader of the Fidesz delegation, Péter Harrach, leader of the Christian Democrats, Gergely Gulyás, the legal whiz of the party, and Szilárd Németh, the heavyweight in more than one ways who was in charge of utility rate cuts two years ago.

The resolution continues: “We must declare that every European politician who encourages the immigrants with the hope of a better life to leave everything behind, to imperil their lives, and to begin their journey toward Europe is irresponsible.” I guess this includes Angela Merkel, who by allowing Syrians to settle in Germany is actually encouraging them to pack up and leave. The document, speaking in the name of all Central European countries, goes on to say that they “cannot be the injured party as a result of the mistaken policies of Brussels.” Furthermore, they have “the right to defend [their] culture, language, [and] values.” Therefore they “call on the leaders of the European Union to listen to the voice of the people. Get their senses back and defend Europe and the European citizens.”

I worry about the fate of the refugees who try to cross into Hungary. I fear that Brussels may soon have cause to turn the Hungarian government’s own words against it: that its “irresponsible [I would say cruel] policies [were] responsible for the death of people.”

From the government’s words and actions in this refugee crisis it’s hard not to conclude that it is made up of a bunch of psychopaths. Just consider the first eight characteristics of Robert Hare’s checklist to determine who is a psychopath: glibness and superficial charm, grandiose sense of self-worth, pathological lying, cunning/manipulative, lack of remorse, emotional shallowness, callousness and lack of empathy, unwillingness to accept responsibility for actions. Check, check, check, check, check, check, check, check.

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.