Refugee crisis and Hungary

Transform_Cover_2013-12_EN_klBefore the current refugee crisis Hungary’s immigration policy focused on the fight against illegal migration, but an explicit overall migration strategy was blatantly lacking.

The battle against illegal migration was an important pillar of Hungary’s migration policy, based on EU policies and directives. Political discourse about illegal migration was strongly influenced by the official communications of the Office of Immigration and Nationality (OIN) and the Border Guard, which has been merged with the Police. Discourses about illegal migration aroused mainly in connection with criminal policy (e.g., the fight against human smuggling and trafficking), security policy (e.g., measures taken against document falsification) and the protection of human rights (e.g., the right to family reunion). There was a lack of public debate about an overall migration strategy that consideres the full scope of the social, economic and political interdependencies of the migration phenomenon. In addition, there was a rising xenophobic and nationalistic tendency among Hungarians, which is clearly seen if we look at the results of the latest EU parliamentary elections (the far-Right party, Jobbik, received almost 15% of the votes). No opinion polls have been published since the migrant crisis erupted in Hungary three weeks ago. A Tarki poll in July 2015 put Prime Minister Orban’s Fidesz party on 22%, with Jobbik on 13% and a huge 45% undecided.

Orban always keen to undercut his main political rival, the far-right Jobbik party, has vowed to seal Hungary’s Southern border with Serbia from Sept. 15, imposing tougher penalties for illegal entry and setting up transit zones. But success is far from assured. „Orban has masterfully seized the political opportunity provided to him by the migrant crisis – his radical anti-immigration stance has reversed the slide in his ruling party’s popularity by distracting voters from government corruption and arresting the rise of the Jobbik,” said Tsveta Petrova, a senior analyst at Eurasia Group. Orban has also invoked Europe’s historic Christian heritage, suggesting it is under threat from the mainly Muslim migrants who are anyway only coming – Orban argues – in search of a higher material standard of living.

The Right-wing media is against non-Hungarian migrants and sympathises only with ethnic Hungarians. Despite its shrinking population, which creates shortages in the national labour market, Hungary’s migration policy is mainly characterised by solidarity with Hungarian communities in neighbouring countries (diaspora politics). Critics of the official migration policy often point out that the implementation of Hungarian migration policy is characterised by short-term, security oriented treatment of the issue through defensive measures against non-Hungarian migrants, border control and residency rules, without a proper explicit overall migration strategy.

In the past we could see both a weak and neurotically flapping state, a lying government manipulation, a mass hysteria, a confusion and an artificially inflamed hatred. And of course many activists and ordinary citizens, who tried with incredible empathy and kindness to keep the refugees alive, supplying food, medicine and clothing – instead of the state.

Hungarians appear polarized by the refugee crisis. While some are ashamed by the strong anti-immigration rhetoric and the fence, and have tried to help the migrants, others back Orban’s approach, saying it is the only way to maintain order. What is visible is the compassion of the Hungarian people, which is of course very strikingly juxtaposed with the vicious xenophobia and petty political manoeuvring of the government. But then if you look at public opinion polls, you see that the majority, including the relative majority of supporters of those opposition parties that have taken a pro-refugee stance, believe that refugees pose a threat to Hungary. There is also a lot of harassment going on. Volunteers providing food are regularly verbally assaulted by other locals, and there have also been some attacks by far right-wing groups at Keleti railway station.

When this situation started early in the summer with the Orban government putting up posters with messages (but in Hungarian!) for the so-called migrants , saying that if you come to Hungary, you have to respect our culture, not take jobs from Hungarians, and so on, there was an interesting upsurge in direct action and civil disobedience. And this was not only in activist circles, but amongst ordinary people, who tore these posters down or painted over them. So the right-wing Orban government needed to find a scapegoat. In this case it’s the refugees. But what the government is doing is so obviously inhumane that it encourages many to find a way to help or in any case to sympathize with the refugees, because the other position seems morally untenable.

It goes without saying that Hungary is not responsible for the enourmous influx of refugees, but what the Hungarian government has done over the past half year showed a density of incompetence and evil which is without example since the system change.

The situation has become really extraordinary, but in principle it would have been managable by a competent government and an unified European Union. But the Hungarian government did not want to resolve the situation, instead it used for political gain and aroused hatred, so the practical solution to the problem remained for the laicist citizens who executed the tasks that the Hungarian state could not or did not want to perform. The situation became acute in August and spectacular: exhausted, hungry and thirsty adults and children mostly fled from warzones, laid in the streets of Budapest.

The Orban government, which has been infuriating public opinion against the refugees for months, and it was posing in the role of Europe’s savior, proved to be weak and inconsistent as well the most basic humanitarian tasks were refused. But the European Union was also unable to manage the refugee question.

Before 2015 in Hungary there has not been much talk about the refugees. For the Hungarians this question seemed to be an exotic problem of distant countries. But neither for Brussels nor for the Hungarian Government it could not have caused surprise that the Syrian War and the advance of the Islamic State sooner or later will be felt in Europe . It was clear (or at least it was supposed to be), that sooner or later the refugee wave could reach us because Hungary is situated in the Western Balkan migration and smuggling route. Unfortunately, the Hungarian government – like most of the governments of the EU member states and Brussels – instead of being prepared for the expected larger influx of refugees, was sitting on its laurels. The Hungarian government’s policies was different from the other EU countries. It has been spent months in a hate campaign based on the fear from the unknown as well as xenophobia and racism and has been using the period from the detection till the escalation of the problem to show up a common enemy for the society and it might be a savior.

The memorable campaign poster showed the immigrants for the Hungarians as an enemy suggesting that the arriving people are „economic migrants”, so to say crooks, and actually some of them are in need of protection. The Hungarian government has given exemption for those that had swept the country from these migrants. It suggested that the „good refugees” are those who are „really” fleeing from the war zones, and they are protected by Hungary. When the situation seemed to be aggravated, The Hungarian government tabled law amendments violating human rights, introduced restrictions, and the closed the Southern border by fences, which could panic among both refugees and Hungarian citizens. The refugees were afraid of being fallen on the road leading into the EU due to the razor sharp wire fence, but every day more and more people arrived. Many Hungarians, seeing the daily influx of thousands of refugees were convinced that their fear, carefully planted into the society by the government are proved.

Actually, this was a genious manipulation, built up by the Orban government, because the refugee question has been the sole topic of the Hungarian public life for months. But if we look into the statistics it can be shown that the government’s policy in recent months is built on lies and manipulation, and in addition to that it has failed not „only” for human rights, but „order-party” point of view.

In fact, compared to the previous years, this year exceptionally many people came to Hungary. In the mainstream news about 200,000 refugees are mentioned, but according to the Office of Immigration and Nationality (OIN) fresh statistics, 145,000 applicants were registered, which is many times surpassed all previous data. Approx. 90% of them (according to the OIN and former police statistics) almost immediately, i. e. before the end of the asylum procedure, disappear from the sights of the Hungarian state allegedly protecting Europe from the influx of illegal immigrants. Taking this into account a few thousand people remaining at the same time in our country does not seem too much, especially compared to the country’s population of 10 million.

For the sake of fairness we should also add that the unjustified arouse of panic characterized not only the Hungarian government’s policies in the past. According to recent UN data throughout the European Union 437 384 asylum seekers were registered by the end of July, which is exactly 0.08% of the population of 503 million people in the EU, and less than twice those arriving in previous years. There is no „invasion” and „occupation” at all, especially if you compared this figure to the two million refugees accepted by Turkey or the one million refugees adopted by Jordan and Lebanon each.

In contrast to the wave of immigrants from Kosovo in the first months of this year the statistical data show that the majority of immigrants come from war zones. According to the UN and OIN the majority of asylum seekers arrives from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq. Those who do not believe the data, they must look at the pictures: no one sends their children, and no one would get going with their baby at the mercy of smugglers if they would have any other option.

It is worth noting also that one cannot become illegal immigrant just to cross the green border, but due to the fact that one has no proper papers, or visas for the legal entry. However, in war situation it is impossible to settle these formalities because the operation of the state is partially or completely shut down under these circumstances. According to the Geneva Convention on refugees, which is also binding for Hungary, a refugee can not be punished just because of illegal border crossing, because he/she could not have come otherwise than illegally.

The sharp increase in the number of asylum-seekers without a doubt caused completely unjustifiably a crisis situation in Hungary and in the EU, because the crisis could have been managable finding a common solution that distributes the tasks more equally than the Dublin system, which places a disproportionate burden on states at the border to assess most of the applications and until the end of of the procedure – also in principle – the asylum seekers should remain in their territory. In fact, as stated above, the practice has long not worked. The vast majority of asylum seekers from the „front country” continues to go to the inner areas of the EU, from where in most cases refugees are not sent back to the EU border Member countries (e.g. from Hungary last year out of 43 thousand applicants, only 827 people were sent back according to the Helsinki Commission). In addition to the practice the European Court of Human Rights decided that returns can be reexemined, in the case of a „front country” does not respect the basic human rights requirements. (e.g. Greece and Hungary) It is also possible that in addition to the refugee status a general protection is given to people fleeing war front, just like the Syrians. For such a situation the definition of subsidiary protection was created in 2004 in the Qualification Directive in order to offer security to people who did not bear a personal atrocity, or threats, but flee only the overall risk to war. So it is not a generosity, but a legal duty to keep them in a safe country.

The fact that a country is safe means not only that there is no shoot, but also an essential care system and legal certainty as well as fundamental rights and needs of the asylum seekers are available. Serbia has not met these conditions for decades. According to the statistics of the Helsinki Committe in the last seven years, a total of 18 people only received some kind of protection from the Serbian state.

So the lies of the Orban government stirring hatred, are easily discernible. In the last days the „relief”, the opening of the border is not its merit, because the refugees and their civil assistants frayed out with their steadfastness, breaking out of a situation in which the government and the incompetence and wickedness of the Hungarian state repelled them. Moreover, this move does not mean a real solution to the situation, as people will continue to come and will continue to need help.

It is true that the Hungarian government not only falls short its humanitarian commitments, but also explicitly incites hatred, and is building a fence with razor-sharp barbed wire to injure and deter asylum-seekers and passing increasingly punitive legislation in refugee and penal law. However, refugee policy is also morally outrageous at the European Union level. There is a lot of hypocrisy on the part of Western European governments criticizing the Hungarian state, because it’s an easy target. Any chance of turning the Dublin mechanism into a more equitable system would be most welcome. In spite of all this misleading rhetoric about the burden of refugees in Europe, we should realize that most Syrian refugees, for example, are not and will never come to Europe. We need to put this so-called burden of receiving asylum seekers in Europe into perspective and we should think about how the EU can aid these countries which have a much lower GDP per capita but receive many more refugees. The response to the refugee situation should not only be Europeanized, but also more international.

Budapest, 16th September 2015.

Matyas Benyik


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