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Viktor Katona

Oil Supply Specialist at MOL Group, RIAC expert

Hungary is under siege. Every day, thousands of refugees from Asia and Africa are crossing the border illegally. The country’s capital in the news reports on a daily basis against the backdrop of an ever worsening situation for the migrants, while the nation wonders with great concern just how and when it will all end.

Hungary is under siege. Every day, thousands of refugees from Asia and Africa are crossing the border illegally. The country’s capital in the news reports on a daily basis against the backdrop of an ever worsening situation for the migrants, while the nation wonders with great concern just how and when it will all end.

Today, a few hundred migrants found refuge on Pope John Paul II Square in Budapest. There was no room for them on the lower level of the Keleti Railway Station (Keleti pályaudvar); many of them simply did not want to sleep on the cold floor of the rail terminus. Most of the refugees are young men in their twenties, although there are also a number of families with children. There are practically no elderly people whatsoever. It has become the norm in Budapest to see refugees populating the city’s parks.

They started arriving from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan a few months ago, although the exodus began in earnest only in July–August 2015. The latest estimates suggest that as many as 156,000 migrants have entered Hungary illegally. Having reached Hungary, the refugees would promptly head towards the capital. From there, they would plan their further movement into the continent.

Transit zones have been set up at three railway stations in Budapest – at the Keleti (East), Nyugati (West) and Deli (South) stations – as the municipal authorities have refused to offer the refugees accommodation because of their numbers. A resolution passed by the city’s administration states that the refugees must remain within the territory of the transit zones at all times, where they are provided with basic sanitary conditions. Despite all this, control over the movement of the migrants, as well as sanitary norms, is severely lacking.

Control over the movement of the migrants, as well as sanitary norms, is severely lacking.

The Hungarian security authorities have made a number of errors, which are all the more evident given the heightened tensions: having already allowed several hundred refugees to continue on to Munich, the authorities evidently became spooked by the sheer number of those wishing to follow suit and promptly banned all refugees without the proper documentation (practically all of them) from getting on trains bound for Germany. They also failed to deal with those looking to make a profit from the affair by accosting the refugees for the duration of their stay in Hungary, offering train tickets to Vienna for 200 euros (they cost one tenth of that amount at the ticket booths, but then you have to provide the necessary documents, such as a visa), and smugglers have met very little resistance from the police.

Migrants entering Hungary after September 15, 2015 will have even less room for manoeuvre.

As a result, a large majority of the first wave of migrants that had got stuck in Hungary was transported to the Austrian border on the night of September 4, 2015. As the eyes of the country were fixed on the Euro 2016 qualifying match between Hungary and Romania, the police was busy organizing the transfer of refugees to the city of Hegyeshalom on the border with Austria. By that time, a number of the refugees, angered by the fact that they had been unable to get to Austria by train, decided to walk to Vienna instead, paralyzing transport in Budapest in the process.

Migrants entering Hungary after September 15, 2015 will have even less room for manoeuvre, as it is then that legislative amendments made during an extraordinary session of the Hungarian parliament will come into force. The concept of a “crisis caused by mass migration” will enter the country’s regulatory framework and may be announced should the need arise. A number of activities that had until now been overlooked will now be considered criminal offences, including: illegally crossing the border and causing damage to – or obstructing the construction of – border fencing, which could complicate and slow down the smooth movement of refugees into Germany. Hungary will also set up transit zones on the border with Serbia where migrants will be registered and the proper paperwork filed.

The Radicalization of Society

The radical Jobbik Party was quick to take advantage of the crisis. Lobbying for the country’s borders to be closed off, the leaders of the party talk about the unavoidable humanitarian catastrophe – not for the refugees, but for the Hungarian people. By calling for migrants to be punished for crossing the border illegally and for an armed border control to be set up, the Jobbik Party is to a large degree playing a key role in adopting the government’s reaction to the crisis. Jobbik is taking the average Hungarian citizen’s views into account (who are not exactly sympathetic towards the migrants), thus forcing the government to resort to even more drastic measures while at the same time consolidating its own positions on the political scene.
For decades, the word “migration” in Hungary was associated with people leaving the country, rather than the other way around.

A number of Hungarian politicians, including the Minister of Prime Minister’s Chancellery János Lázár, hold the European Union responsible for what is happening – for the inability to protect its own borders. Prime Minister of Hungary Viktor Orbán has also stated that the refugees are Germany’s problem, not that of Hungary. Orbán  is following a very pragmatic policy stating that he, unlike the European institutions, offers solutions that take the opinions of his people into account (link in German). While clearly populist in nature, these statements have nevertheless served to stop the ruling Fidesz Party’s declining popularity in the wake of a series of political scandals, notably the bankruptcy of a number of brokerage firms that have links to Fidesz members.

Reuters
Migrants rest in front of a wall with slogans
near the Keleti railway station in Budapest,
Hungary, September 3, 2015

Many artists with left-wing leanings have pointed out that Hungary already experienced a very different refugee crisis in 1956, when 200,000 fled the country. The government, they say, could take a page out of Austria’s book – in two months, the Austrian government managed to resettle 180,000 Hungarians in 37 countries around the world. But the question begs: at what point does drawing parallels between 1956 and 2015 – between the Hungarians and the Syrians or the Afghans – fall apart, given the religious and socioeconomic differences between those groups?

A Role Reversal – Migration to Hungary

For decades, the word “migration” in Hungary was associated with people leaving the country, rather than the other way around. The lack of well-paid jobs has forced the younger generation to move to developed Western countries: there are 300,000 Hungarian immigrants in the United Kingdom alone, while Germany has 135,000 and Austria is home to another 65,000. Statistics show that Hungarians generally move abroad for financial reasons: 84 per cent are in search of employment overseas, while only 3 per cent are looking to gain qualifications, and 4 per cent are housewives [1].

Building a fence will not save Hungary from the influx of refugees; it will merely make their movement towards Germany more predictable and consistent.

Before the 2014–2015 crisis around 4,000–10,000 migrants entered Hungary illegally per year, mostly from Romania, although the country was rarely the final destination. Rather, it was more of a staging post on the way to more attractive destinations like Germany. It all started in 2014 with the mass exodus of Kosovans, who had been forced out of their home country by the 40 per cent unemployment rate and the complete absence of prospects. It was against this backdrop that the Hungarian political elite concocted the idea of building a fence along the border with Serbia, a move that caused concern in Belgrade, which likened the undertaking to the Nazi’s setting up their concentration camps. The European Commission and the European Parliament were also heavily critical of the plans to construct the barbed wire fence. At a meeting held on September 3, 2015, Viktor Orbán asked Donald Tusk, Jean-Claude Juncker and Martin Schulz if there was a better alternative, to which they replied “No, but we’re not happy about this.” [2].

Building a fence will not save Hungary from the influx of refugees; it will merely make their movement towards Germany more predictable and consistent. Matrasses and sleeping bags line the fence at intervals of ten to twenty metres. The refugees use them to get over the barbed wire. The migrants know the best time to cross the border (when it is dark, around 2 to 5 o’clock in the morning), when police guards patrol the area (every ten minutes) and how much a “taxi” (drivers waiting on Hungarian soil) from the southern border to Budapest costs (100–200 euros). Over 90 per cent of refugees made it past the Hungarian border with the help of smugglers. On average, migrants will pay between $10,000 and $12,000 to be smuggled from Turkey to Hungary, suggesting that the refugees currently flooding to Europe are by no means the poorest strata of society.

Migrants will pay between $10,000 and $12,000 to be smuggled from Turkey to Hungary, suggesting that the refugees currently flooding to Europe are by no means the poorest strata of society.

Germany has promised to grant asylum to 800,000 Syrian refugees. But what about those who are fleeing from Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Eritrea and other countries? The German Chancellor has not said anything about taking in refugees from Pakistan, for example, the majority of whom are not fleeing war, but poverty. No matter how you swing it, conditions for Syrian and Afghan refugees in Hungary are worse than they would be in Western Europe. Even before the mass influx of migrants, Hungary accepted fewer applications for asylum than any other European country (9.4 per cent). Switzerland, which granted asylum to 300,000 refugees in 2014, has an acceptance rate of 76.6 per cent.

Migration is a Blow to Central and Eastern European Identity

Sandor Ujvari/MTI via AP
More than 1,000 people enter Hungary
from the south every day
The European Union risks cutting itself off even further from the mood and opinions of its citizens, which could pave the way for right-wing and ultra-right-wing political parties to gain a foothold in the future.

The first serious identity crisis for the citizens of Central and Eastern Europe is the result of the shortcomings of European integration. Central and Eastern Europe has been slotted into the EU’s mechanisms and institutions, and the region increasingly regards itself as a European entity. However, not all aspects of integration are acceptable to Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic. For instance, the members of the Visegrad Group voted against setting compulsory quotas within the European Union for resettling refugees (link in Russian). At the same time, the voluntary quota system proposed by the Central and Eastern Europe countries was doomed to even greater failure, as each country would go to great lengths to ensure that the number of migrants entering their territory is as low as possible. Slovakia, for example, intends to grant asylum to a few hundred Christians – Muslims are not welcome (link in Slovak).

While at times it may seem that the migration crisis will soon be over, the facts suggest otherwise – more than 1,000 people enter Hungary from the south every day. The Balkan countries, which account for most of the migrants coming in from Africa and Asia (in 2014, the Central Mediterranean route towards Italy dominated), are tired of the never-ending stream of refugees and help usher them on towards the European Union. The European Union risks cutting itself off even further from the mood and opinions of its citizens, which could pave the way for right-wing and ultra-right-wing political parties to gain a foothold in the future, especially if conflicts arise against the background of the migrant crisis. Even now, by insisting on discussing quotas rather than tightening border controls, the European Union is risking losing the confidence of those who, because of their poverty or their radical views, are staunchly opposed to the current pan-European policy. All the more so because the European government does not seem to understand the magnitude of the problem (Brussels is not in a position to resettle 160,000 refugees in every European country), especially as the actual number of refugees is tens (if not hundreds) of thousands more than that.

The first serious identity crisis for the citizens of Central and Eastern Europe is the result of the shortcomings of European integration.

It is unlikely that Hungary will spark a political crisis amidst the migration crisis, although the rhetoric of Viktor Orbán – a pocket Putin (link in Hungarian), Europe’s Donald Trump, and defender of Christian values in Europe – will quietly spread to other European countries, increasing criticism of the European Union and focusing more and more intently on national interests.

1. Magyarok migrációja. // HVG. 2015. Szeptember 5. P.12.

2. Orbán Viktor: Schengen forog kockán. // Magyar Nemzet. 04.09.2015

 

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