Tag Archives: xenophobia

Spread of indifference and hate in Hungary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Debrecen refugee camp in June 2013

The Debrecen refugee camp in June 2013

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

Viktor Orbán will take care of Hungary’s unwanted immigrants

As many as 900 people may have drowned in the Mediterranean a few days ago in their attempt to enter Europe as illegal immigrants. This tragedy once again focused attention on the serious refugee problem the European Union faces. Thousands of people from war-torn Iraq and Syria have been joining citizens of African countries in dangerous journeys to escape danger and poverty. The EU has been slow to respond to the problem. The extraordinary summit held on Thursday dealt exclusively with those refugees who arrive by boat–admittedly the most pressing, life-threatening problem. But Hungary also receives a large number of applications for settlement in the European Union. The would-be immigrants are largely Kosovars, Syrians, and Iraqis who opted to travel by land across the Balkan peninsula. Their final destination isn’t Hungary but countries in western Europe. Hungary is just a transit point. Nonetheless, Viktor Orbán has been trying to use the immigration issue to his own political advantage.

Orbán’s populist attitude toward immigration has received wide coverage in the press. He appeals to the basest instincts of Hungarians, whose xenophobia is well known. Hungarian commentators point out that his latest suggestions for dealing with the immigrant problem–which currently is no problem at all–echo the ideas of Jobbik. (Jobbik warmly welcomed the prime minister’s new statements about refugee seekers.) Because it is Jobbik that wants to solve all problems by force, something that Viktor Orbán now advocates himself. This way, the argument goes, he hopes to recapture those Fidesz voters who have moved over to Jobbik and to bolster his sagging popularity among the population as a whole.

What are the main features of Orbán’s ideas on immigration? First and foremost, Europe does not need immigrants at all. Second, the European Union should be sealed and defended against intruders by the army. Third, the European Union should not overreach in its immigration/refugee policies. Each country should formulate its own policies and deal with its unwanted immigrants as it best sees fit.

"We need no refugees" Gábor Pápai / Népszava

We need no refugees” Gábor Pápai / Népszava

I will come back to these topics later, but first let me turn to the government “consultation” on immigration.The government will send out eight million questionnaires to the voting-age public, in the expectation that one million will be filled out and returned. The results will be seen only by government officials, if they bother at all with the exercise. The survey asks the following twelve leading questions.

1. How important is the spread of terrorism as far as your own life is concerned?

2. In your opinion could Hungary become the target of terrorism in the next few years?

3. Do you agree that mistaken immigration policies contribute to the spread of terrorism?

4. Did you know that economic immigrants cross the border illegally and that lately their numbers have increased twentyfold?

5. Do you agree with the opinion that economic immigrants endanger the jobs and livelihoods of the Hungarian people [magyar emberek]?

6. In your opinion did Brussels’ policies on immigration and terrorism fail?

7. Would you support the government in its effort to introduce stricter immigration regulations in opposition to Brussels?

8. Would you support a new regulation that would allow the government to place immigrants who illegally entered the country into internment camps?

9. In your opinion should those immigrants who illegally enter the country be returned to their own countries in the shortest possible time?

10. Do you agree that those economic immigrants who stay in Hungary should have to work to cover the cost of their keep?

11. Do you agree that the best means of combating immigration is to give economic assistance to the countries of origin of the immigrants?

12. Do you agree with the government that instead of allocating funds to immigration we should support Hungarian families and those children yet to be born?

I don’t think that I have to comment on this “national consultation.”

Instead, I would like call attention to something that few people have touched upon. In criticizing Orbán, many commentators point to the large number of Hungarians currently working in western Europe, Ireland, and the United Kingdom. Are they not “economic immigrants” in the countries where they have settled? The government’s answer is that the two cases cannot be compared. Hungary belongs to the European Union, which allows citizens of member states free movement and equal job opportunities anywhere inside the borders of the EU. Indeed, this is the case, and on this level the Hungarian government has a valid point. But let’s tackle the problem from another angle. Viktor Orbán appeals to a law that allows Hungarians the privilege of free movement. This privilege is an expression of the common will of the European Union. But now Hungary wants to be solely responsible for creating its own immigration policy that would deal with immigrants from outside of the European Union. When it is to his advantage, he appeals to the authority of the European Union, but when it looks as if he has to take joint responsibility for the immigrant issue, he refuses to cooperate.

If, by the way, Viktor Orbán thinks that immigrants from Eastern European countries are always welcomed by the population in countries of western Europe, he is very wrong. Just yesterday Austrian right-wingers demanded that the government introduce a quota system to keep Hungarians out of the country. They claim that there are enough of them as it is. And Orbán’s friend, British Prime Minister David Cameron, hasn’t shown himself to be exactly a friend of immigrants who come from the eastern periphery of the EU. In general, one can say that immigrants are unpopular, especially in economically difficult times. They are blamed for accepting jobs for less money and taking away the livelihoods of the natives. This is true now, and it was even true in countries, like Canada, where a large number of Hungarians settled in 1956.

As for the generosity of the Hungarian government, let me tell you about a Kurdish family who has lived in Hungary for the last seventeen years. The couple has three children, the oldest of whom is 18. The two younger ones were born in Hungary. Last year the office handling immigration issues refused to give the family permission to settle in Hungary. It was only two days ago that the court ordered a review of the case. The classmates of the older daughter wrote a heart-wrenching letter, pleading with the court not to expel their classmate from the country. So much for the famously Christian country.

Hungarian Christian Democrats and freedom of the press

The Parisian terrorist attacks will have, I fear, a negative effect not only on Hungary’s immigration policy but also on freedom of speech and freedom of the press in the country. At least this is the way things are looking at the moment.

In an earlier post I recalled Viktor Orbán’s long-standing belief that Europe as a whole and Hungary as part of the European Union should remain “European.” European in this case means ethnically and religiously pure. Until last week, however, we didn’t know that this sentiment was actually reflected in current government practice.

It was on Sunday afternoon, before Viktor Orbán’s by now infamous press conference railing against immigration to Europe, that I realized that strict anti-immigration policies have been in effect ever since 2010. They were introduced quietly, under cover so to speak. Antónia Mészáros, a reporter for ATV, had an interview with Zoltán Balog on Friday afternoon, which didn’t air until Sunday, in which he admitted that the Orbán government has been conducting an anti-immigration policy all along.

Now there is an opportunity to put this unspoken policy into law. On Monday morning Antal Rogán seconded Viktor Orbán’s position on the undesirability of immigration. The next day the “international spokesman” of the Orbán government, Zoltán Kovács, followed suit and explained the Hungarian position on CNN, not with the greatest success. Richard Quest, the reporter, worried that the kind of debate the Hungarians are promoting will become a witch hunt. He ended his program (and this is a rough transcript) by saying that

What’s worrying is when politicians start whipping up the rhetoric. `Hungary for Hungarians,’ – when it starts to become immigration must be stopped. Then you go into you’ve crossed the line. It’s no longer a debate about whether immigration is good or bad, it becomes one to whip up a ferment. History is replete with examples where this has happened, and anybody who tries to deny an innocent-sounding comment for what it could turn into in the future is simply misguided.

As it stands, four out of ten Hungarians share Viktor Orbán’s and his government’s point of view. Tárki, a Hungarian polling firm, has been keeping track of Hungarian xenophobia for some time. In the decade between 2002 and 2011, 24% to 33% of the population were anti-immigrant. After that date the anti-foreign sentiment shot up to 40%, which is not surprising given the rhetoric of Viktor Orbán and his government.

I talked earlier about some right-wing journalists who intimated that the staff at Charlie Hebdo were responsible for their own fate. They provoked the followers of Islam by drawing crude caricatures of their prophet. This argument is now being taken up by the Hungarian Christian Democrats who are, on the whole, even more radical than Fidesz when it comes to religiosity. Their party is often described as the “political arm of the Hungarian Catholic Church.” According to their whip, Péter Harrach, “neither freedom of the press nor freedom of speech can be extended to blasphemy.”

ShawFareed Zakaria, the American reporter who came up with the label “illiberal democracy” for countries like Turkey or Hungary, wrote an article in The Washington Post on the subject of blasphemy. In it he pointed out that the Koran “prescribes no punishment for blasphemy.” However, as we know, today many Muslim countries have harsh laws against blasphemy. It seems that Péter Harrach finds this practice attractive. But Harrach doesn’t have to look to current Muslim practice for a model. As Zakaria points out, only “one holy book is deeply concerned with blasphemy: the Bible.” The Old Testament is full of stories of blasphemers who receive harsh punishment for their sin. It seems that Harrach wants to lead Hungary all the way back to Old Testament times.

This morning representatives of five parties  (Fidesz, KDNP, Jobbik, MSZP, LMP, Együtt) got together to discuss the fight against terrorism. According to Antal Rogán, the parties agreed that “the European Union cannot defend its member states” and that therefore they must formulate and enforce their own strategies. “Political correctness by now is not enough.” Fidesz suggests that “certain public symbols and values should receive special protection.” Rogán made it clear that “religious symbols” would certainly be covered by the new law. I wouldn’t be surprised if among Hungarians’ “common values” we would also find national symbols. Or even political offices. Or high dignitaries of the land, like the president or the president of the house.

There are some analysts, for example, Gábor Török, who are convinced that the terrorist attack in Paris came at the right time for Orbán, whose party lost another 2% in support last month. According to Ipsos, some of the lost voters drifted over to Jobbik, and therefore the Fidesz top leadership decided to turn up the volume on far-right talk. With this strategy they are hoping to regain solid control of the right. Maybe, but I wouldn’t be so sure. According to some fairly reliable sources, Fidesz leaders are not panicking over their loss of popularity at the moment. In their opinion, the current level of support is still high enough for the party to bounce back. Demonstrations will end soon, and people will forget about their grievances over the introduction of toll roads and the Sunday store closings.

As opposed to Török, I don’t believe that Orbán’s outburst in Paris has anything to do with his party’s popularity. I think that he is convinced of the ill effects of immigration and is happy that he found an opportunity to take up arms against it, alone if necessary, quite independently of the European Union. He most likely explored how far he can go and came to the conclusion that he can introduce a law that would effectively stop immigration to Hungary and that he could also restrict freedom of the press as long as the law does not differentiate between religions. Therefore, I fear that Hungarian journalists can look forward to greater restrictions to their freedom.