Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s recent actions demonstrate that not only is he a crusader of wild talk, but ready for wild action, too.
In what is the biggest military maneuver of the Hungarian Army ever since the occupation of Czechoslovakia on the side of the Soviets in August 1968, Orbán has closed his borders to refugees.
Orbán described the country’s latest endeavour in a speech delivered earlier this month, explaining the implementation of new laws, razor-wire fences and military forces along the Serbian-Hungarian border. Police have also begun to crack down on rail travel and security, attempting to stop migrants from crossing into the Schengen zone or leaving the Budapest station.
Discriminatory comments and policies
His speech concerning the government’s strategies to combat the influx of refugees earlier this month was shameful to say the least. This often-mumbled mantra on Christian values and the saving of our very European culture and lifestyle has been heard before, but this is the first time he has uttered such humiliating words about the country’s largest minority group: the Hungarian Roma.
He defended the country’s actions by saying that the current situation is not a refugee crisis, but one of mass migration. Orbán referred to the historic decision to bring nomadic Gypsies to the country, saying it was a poor choice, the results of which we have to now live with.
Xenophobia rules on the right side of the Hungarian political scene.
However, Orbán does not want to send the Roma to Canada or any other country even though many Hungarian Roma have received asylum in Canada after escaping racist harassment. This harassment continues today, with it recently culminating in the KKK-style serial killings of six Romani people in 2008 and 2009.
To differentiate between citizens of the country is outrageous enough from the most powerful leader of one of the member countries of the European Union — a union based on cooperation and harmony that was formed after two devastating wars plus the divisive Cold War era. Most of the member states do put their own interests before others’, but such an unenlightened speech couldn’t be imaginable elsewhere in Europe.
These words are particularly dangerous considering Hungary’s strategic position on the world map. Hungary has declared a state of emergency in four of its outer regions and is set to deploy the army to patrol its frontiers in a crackdown against migration. Authorities have been given special powers to deal with the migrant influx in the southern districts bordering Serbia.
The move enables the government to use the army to seal off the border. The military has already engaged in border patrol drills over the last few weeks, and the announcement came as new regulations entered into force, imposing harsh punishments on migrants and refugees crossing over from Serbia — coming previously from Macedonia, Greece, Turkey and elsewhere.
Under the new rules, entering Hungary illegally or damaging its hastily-erected border fences — which are four meters high and 175 kilometres long—carries a possible three-year jail term.
Influx of refugees continues
A record number of asylum-seekers have crossed into the country over the last few weeks in a push to get in before the new laws came into effect on September 15. More than 9,300 arrived on September 14 — the highest number of arrivals in a single day recorded by police since the beginning of the crisis.
Meanwhile, hundreds of migrants spent the night camped on the Serbian side of the border near the crossing at Röszke hoping to be allowed in.
However, Orbán has said that economic migrants and refugees alike will be turned down, with the latter having to file for asylum in Serbia by declaring Serbia “a safe third country.”
“Hungary’s attitude is not European and is a disgrace for Europe.”
In order to stir opposition to receiving refugees, Orbán started a billboard campaign against refugees, or “migrants” as he likes to put it, whipping up a storm of xenophobia in the country. The campaign emphasized the potential terrorist threat these migrants posed to the country’s security.
Xenophobia rules on the right side of the Hungarian political scene, and the PM is more of a warmonger than a healer. Blackmailing the Union is an old trick of Mr. Orbán’s, and his propaganda machine’s best defence is to rally these xenophobia in the name of defending the Union from terrorism to the south.
Such tactics have stirred trouble with Hungary’s Balkan neighbours. In the last few weeks, the mostly Syrian refugees bypassed Hungary via Croatia and Slovenia because of these regulations. However, the presence of thousands of landmines left over from the Croatian War of Independence makes crossing the border into Croatia on foot extremely dangerous.
Hungarian-Romanian diplomatic connections have gone sour as well. Hungary is currently building a fence on its Romanian border — close to the Serbian-Hungarian borderline. Croatian, Serbian and Romanian officials have since compared Hungary’s tough policies to the practices of Budapest’s Nazi-backed World War II regime.
“Hungary’s attitude is not European and is a disgrace for Europe,” said Romanian Prime Minister Victor Ponta in response to these new policies. “To build fences between two European Union members, Hungary and Romania, is an unheard-of thing and has nothing to do with the European spirit.”
Russian president Vladimir Putin–backed extreme right parties are on the rise in Europe, and Orbán’s new xenophobia is one of their strongest tools. Trying to position his government in between Bruxelles and Moscow, Orbán is committing an unacceptable act in this era’s new Cold War, putting politics ahead of human lives.
This influx of refugees isn’t slowing down. The government says more than 200,000 migrants have arrived in Hungary since January, and refugees continue to challenge the barbed-wire fence erected along the Serbian border.
Most are headed to Germany and other northern European countries. However, more may not be able to make it if figures like Orbán continue to close their gates to refugees seeking salvation.
Author and filmmaker András B. Vágvölgyi was the founder (1989) and long-standing editor of the liberal weekly Magyar Narancs. He was Nieman Fellow Class of ’95 at Harvard, worked with the Japanese Broadcasting Corporation in Tokyo, has written dozens of books, made several documentaries and a feature film called Kolorádó Kid. He now teaches film at Metropolitan University in Budapest.