Politics, nation and identity in the midst of Hungary’s refugee crisis

Erin Marie Saltman, senior researcher at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, discusses the current refugee crisis, and explores the politics of Hungary’s response to it.  

Hungarian political discourse has taken a dark turn as the refugee crisis has been enveloped with fear of a nation losing its identity.

The current crisis that now dominates headlines has shown images of Syrian refugees quarantined within Hungarian train stations, protesting for the right to safely pursue new lives in Europe as asylum seekers. Yet even before the current crisis now affecting Hungary, despite being a country with a relatively low influx and outflux of migrants, the topic of immigration has become increasingly salient with strong political divides.

Thousands of refugees have been sleeping for several days in train stations, many refused transportation onward – despite many being ticket holders. A large group of refugees have even begun to walk the 110 miles to Austria in desperation. The current situation is unquestionably severe. 160,000 migrants are estimated as having entered Hungary this year, mainly en route to various other destinations. Migrants have held demonstrations in Budapest, welcomed by heavy police presence, asking that they be allowed to leave on trains bound westward, where they hope for a more amenable situation.

And the solution?

The parliamentary majority Fidesz government has passed a string of new anti-immigration laws, backed by far-right party, Jobbik. These include making it a criminal offence to cross or damage the new razor-wire fence placed along the 108-mile border with Serbia, with a punishment of up to three years in prison. The protection of Hungary’s borders will be expanded with tougher laws on human smuggling. As tensions rise between police authorities and migrants held in border crossing areas, the prime minister, Viktor Orbán, has warned that migrants entering Hungary illegally, refusing due registration processes, will be arrested.

Government statements coming from Hungary along with other affected nations have also questioned the legitimacy of the current refugees. Orbán has said that the overwhelming majority of migrants in Europe are not refugees but rather, economic migrants. Slovakia’s prime minister Robert Fico has reiterated this point stating that up to 95 per cent are possibly economic migrants rather than legitimate asylum seekers.

This distinction is important for affected countries dealing with this influx since refugees and asylum seekers have legal rights for refuge and certain protections under the 1951 refugee convention in parallel to further EU-specific laws, whereas economic migrants coming from outside of the EU do not.

However, according to the UN refugee agency (UNHCR), of the 250,000 migrants detected arriving in Greece in 2015, nine out of 10 migrants reaching the EU have been individuals fleeing from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq. Other European entry points include migrants from Eritrea, Somalia and Sudan. All of these countries have been internationally deemed asylum-recognised nations, where the vast majority of arrivals are legally deemed to be official asylum seekers, fleeing from life-threatening conditions. At least 81 per cent of migrants entering Greece can expect to receive official refugee status or some form of EU protection.

Fidesz parliamentary group leader Antal Rogán has referred to the crisis as ‘the EU’s Islamisation’, while Orbán has vowed that he will not let Europeans become ‘a minority in our own continent’, reinstating his determination to decrease the inflow of migrants and refugees. Right and far-right rhetoric in Hungary has crystallised the current crisis into a question of preserving European Christianity versus the destruction of European values and culture.

As has happened many times in Hungary’s polarised political landscape, the nationalist Fidesz legislature has prompted a divided reaction and negative response from liberal and leftwing supporters. In reaction to the current government proposals, liberal left opposition parties have been openly adverse as the Socialist party, Democratic Coalition, Politics Can be Different (LMP) and Dialogue for Hungary (PM) stood together to block four of the 13 amendments on 4 September. PM and LMP spokespeople have called the planned amendments ‘inhumane and vile’ while declaring that punishing asylum seekers is against international laws.

While liberal-left opposition in parliament remains a minority, civil society groups have also held demonstrations in Budapest against the planned amendments with several thousand participants demonstrating outside of parliament. Migration Aid and the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union have called the proposals unconstitutional, shedding light on aspects of the law which would allow police to enter private homes without permit if it is assumed they are giving shelter to migrants. Despite this, government officials have insisted that their legislative changes comply with international and EU law.

The real immigration question and fear of a nation losing its identity

Since the Fidesz government first won its parliamentary majority in 2010 – a victory repeated in the 2014 national elections – Hungary has increasingly become a territory of rewritten narratives concerning ‘nation’ and ‘migration’. Since joining the EU in 2004 Hungary has, for the first time, had to face the question of significant immigration and emigration. With a population of around 10 million, the new influx of asylum seekers from Africa, Afghanistan, and more recently Syria, has been paralleled by the growing trend of Hungarian citizens leaving the country – primarily young professionals or unskilled workers – hoping to earn a better living abroad. Emigration out of Hungary increased by 46 per cent in 2014 alone, causing concern for nationalists over the decreasing numbers of ‘real Hungarians’ in Hungary while ‘non-Hungarians’ increase in number.

In fact, some of the migration out of Hungary has shed light on deeper and darker extreme nationalist sentiments coming openly from far-right party Jobbik and its sympathisers, but also the mainstreaming of extremism into the rhetoric of Fidesz. In 2013 the well-known Hungarian author Ákos Kertész was granted Canadian asylum at the age of 80 after receiving death threats and hate letters for writing a controversial open letter warning about the threat of extremism in Hungary. In 2011 whole Roma communities sought asylum in Canada after a series of murders against Roma-Hungarians. Again, right and left political ideologies were divided over the affair. While some saw this as a sign of dangerous far-right trends in Hungary, others believed the Roma migrants were being economically opportunistic by using the domestic controversy to better their situation.

Fears among certain far-right and rightwing constituencies continue to depict Roma, Jewish and ethnic immigrant populations as a detriment to Hungarian and even European values. While many Hungarians are staunchly against this form of extremist scapegoating, they are not adequately represented in the current political climate. Over the last five years the EU and other international watchdog powers have also done little to curtail knee-jerk policy reactions and fundamental changes to Hungarian law put forth by the Fidesz government.

It is Hungary’s misfortune that it has recently become a nation traversed by refugees en route from Greece to Germany, passing through Macedonia and Serbia before reaching the Hungarian border. Hungary has been vocal about its discontent taking on this role, speaking out against mandatory quotes to take on asylum seekers and refusing EU status as a frontline country. In Hungary’s defence, the country has had to try and develop an infrastructure around an unprecedented influx of migrants and act as a gateway manager to refugees that might or might not have been properly registered via their first EU-entry point in Greece.

Hungary is lacking in manpower, refugee facilities and legal structures to cope with the sheer numbers. However, the reaction and political rhetoric around the refugee situation has distracted the many away from the realities of this humanitarian crisis. To further problematise asylum seekers and refugees by seeing them as a threat to national identity dangerously lacks empathy and a broader understanding of the geopolitical situation bringing these individuals into Europe.

How the international community responds to an emergency of this scale is of the essence. The response, or lack of response, of the EU to assist in real terms to such a crisis will set a precedent showing to what extent humanitarian values exist as guiding principles of EU membership.

Erin Marie Saltman is a senior researcher at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue.

NoteThe views expressed in this post are those of the author, and not of the UCL European Institute, nor of UCL.

This article was originally published on Policy Network.

Photo by Matthew Waring on Unsplash

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