On Sunday, March 5, 2017, a report from Belgrade was published in the Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet. It claimed that refugees “with visible traces of Hungary’s brutal policies” had told the Swedish journalist about severe beatings with batons by Hungarian policeman. The officers also used attack dogs. Their stories were confirmed by Andrea Contenta of Doctors Without Borders. According to him, the number of incidents has multiplied of late. There was at least one day when 20 people needed medical attention. One of the asylum seekers ended up into the emergency room of the nearby hospital. Accompanying the story were photos of the men with visible wounds and bruises.
In no time all the major newspapers of Europe and the United States picked up Aftonbladet’s story, which was followed by a worldwide condemnation of the Hungarian government’s treatment of asylum seekers. A day later the Hungarian ministry of interior released a statement that Magyar Nemzet described as an “ill-tempered personal attack.” In it, the ministry “categorically repudiated the unproven accusations that appeared in the international and domestic media” leveled against the Hungarian government. The ministry called attention to the fact that such accusations usually occur when “Hungary is forced, in the defense of the European Union and its own citizens, to strengthen its borders.” The press release also noted that Doctors Without Borders is supported by George Soros. As for the few possible incidents, Hungarian prosecutors have already investigated eight cases, six of which turned out to be bogus. The denial of these reports continued today when Zoltán Kovács, a government spokesman, declared that the report of Doctors Without Borders is nothing more than a pack of lies.
But that was not all. On March 7, two days after the Swedish newspaper story, the Hungarian parliament passed a new piece of legislation that will force all asylum seekers into detention camps. UPI’s report specifically recounted that “although [the law] was fiercely criticized after its submission last month, the legislation won near-unanimous approval … by a vote of 138-6.” This lopsided vote was the result of the abstention of MSZP members of parliament, a sign of their usual ambivalence when it comes to the migrant issue. While their cases are being decided, asylum seekers, including women and children over the age of 14, will be herded into shipping containers surrounded by a high razor-fence on the Hungarian side. These camps will be wide open on the Serbian side. Therefore, Hungarian government officials can declare with some justification that the people inside these camps are not incarcerated; they just can’t step onto Hungarian soil.
On the very same day that Fidesz-KDNP and Jobbik members of parliament voted for the bill that was to receive worldwide opprobrium, Viktor Orbán delivered a short speech at the swearing-in ceremony of 462 new “border hunters.” In the speech he called the new recruits’ job a “calling” in “the service of the country and the defense of the Hungarian people.” He pointed out that even if there is at the moment no migrant pressure at the borders of Europe, Hungary must be prepared for repeated onslaughts of migrants. It is for that reason that the Hungarian government will build a new fence which, according to some reports, might be attached to a source of low-voltage electricity. He described “migration as a Trojan horse of terrorism,” which assumes that all migrants are potential terrorists. Or perhaps one could go even further and interpret this sentence as akin to the contention of those American Islamophobes who say that Islam is not really a religion but rather an ideology of terrorism.
Another memorable Orbán line from this speech addressed the dichotomy between human rights and the law. Those migrants who cross Hungary’s border break the law. “This is reality which cannot be overwritten by all that rarified claptrap about human rights.” Orbán certainly doesn’t beat around the bush. Human rights are not something he worries or cares about. In fact, he is ready to transgress them in the name of “reality.”
A day later Magyar Nemzet reported that Nils Muižnieks, the Council of Europe’s commissioner for human rights, expressed his “deep concern” over the detention of asylum seekers in guarded camps which, in his opinion, violates the obligations spelled out in the European Convention of Human Rights. And he is not alone. Two rapporteurs of the Council, Tineke Strik and Doris Fiala, asked János Áder to refuse to countersign this new law that most likely is in violation of international agreements. Zeid bin Ra’ad al Hussein, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, considers it “a far cry from international norms” and recommends its withdrawal.
As far as the European Commission is concerned, there seems to be a shift in its position toward this latest outrage. At first Margaritis Schinas, the chief spokesperson of the Commission, informed inquiring journalists that the Commission would not make a statement now but would wait until the law comes into effect. A day later, however, another spokesperson, Natasha Bertaud, told Népszava’s correspondent in Brussels that Dimitris Avramopoulos, EU commissioner for migration, will be dispatched to Budapest “to conduct serious negotiations with the Hungarian authorities about the amendments to the Asylum Act.”
By now I don’t have much hope that any international organization, be it the United Nations, the Council of Europe, or the European Commission, will be able to influence Hungarian policies either on the migrant question or on the transgression of democratic norms. Here and there one can hear from European politicians that the Hungarian government’s behavior should at least have financial consequences, but so far Brussels has been unwilling to punish Hungary for the actions of its government.
There are times when Viktor Orbán, despite all his bluster, quietly falls into line. Like today, when he cast his vote for the reelection of Donald Tusk as president of the European Council. Orbán abandoned his best friend and comrade Jarosław Kaczyński and voted for “the icon of immorality and stupidity,” as the Polish foreign minister called Donald Tusk. There are steps which even Orbán is reluctant to take.