Naturally, Hungary is not responsible for the influx of refugees, but the reaction of the authorities to this issue during the past six months displays a dense mix of incompetency and nastiness which will stand out even in the context of the past 25 years of post-communist politics. A collapsing state, weak and hysterically aggressive at the same time. Mass neurosis, deceitful manipulation by the government, confusion, artificially stoked hatred.
Author: Nóra Köves – Hungary,
This is the picture Hungary has been projecting recently. And of course all those decent men and women, activists and common citizens who, with an unbelievable amount of empathy and kindness, tried to keep the refugees alive, clothed, fed and cared for – stepping in to replace the state. The situation is, in fact, extraordinary, but it shouldn’t have been unmanageable for a competent cabinet and the EU acting in unison. The Hungarian government, however, had no intention of solving the problem. Instead, it has used the lives of helpless people for political gains and to stir hatred, leaving any practical solutions to lay citizens driven by human decency to provide the services the authorities couldn’t or wouldn’t.
By August the situation has become dramatic and critical: the streets of Budapest were filled with exhausted, hungry and thirsty adults and children, most of them war zone refugees. (Of course, it wasn’t Hungary or any other EU country that started the wave of refugees, but the reaction of the government in Budapest to this issue during the past six months displays a dense mix of incompetency and nastiness which will stand out even in the context of the past 25 years of post communist politics).
Although the Orban cabinet has been inciting hatred against the refugees for months, while casting themselves into the role of Europe’s saviours, they turned out to be unable to implement the measures they promised as well as unwilling to provide even the most basic humanitarian support. The EU has failed, too – it doesn’t seem to be able to handle one tenth of the amount of refugees taken in by Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon. It is a cliché that most people are afraid of the unknown, especially if that unknown factor might influence their lives to a large degree.
Before 2015 refugees were rarely discussed in Hungary, it felt like a problem of far away, exotic countries. Still, it couldn’t have been a surprise for either Brussels or the Hungarian government that the effects of the war in Syria and the rise of IS would sooner or later be felt in Europe. It was (or should have been) clear too, that the refugees would at some point reach Hungary located on the West Balkan migration and trafficking route. Unfortunately our cabinet, along with most EU countries and Brussels, instead of preparing for a major influx, preferred to rest on its laurels.
The actions of the Hungarian government differed from those of other EU governments in one regard – it spent several months on a campaign of hatred based on people’s fear of unknown, xenophobia and racism, utilizing the time period between the first signs of the issue and its escalation to create a common enemy and cast itself into the role of the saviour of Hungarian society. The well known billboard campaign presented the refugees as enemies, suggesting that new arrivals were economic migrants, that is to say, frauds, and only a fraction of them needed protection. With this narrative the government supported those wishing to get rid of the newcomers, suggesting that ‘good refugees from ‘real’ war zones would be protected by Hungary.
The next steps, as the situation started to escalate, were new, tougher laws infringing on human rights, then the closing of the southern border which caused a panic both among the refugees and among Hungarian citizens. The former were scared that almost having reached their destination, the fence would stop them from entering the EU, so more and more of them came each day, and in turn the thousands arriving daily strengthened in the latter the fear cultivated by the government since spring. This was really a quite ingenious piece of manipulation – the government has succeeded in turning the refugee question into the single largest issue dominating the public opinion for months.
Numbers, however, can easily prove that recent policies are based on lies and deceit and they have failed not ‘only’ in regards of human rights, but from a ‘toughness’ perspective as well. It is a fact that compared to previous years a lot of people entered Hungary this year. According to the most up to date data of the Immigration and Citizenship Office (ICO) 145,000 asylum claims have been registered so far, which is several times more than any previous numbers. At the same time, according to the statistics of the ICO and the police, approximately 90% immediately disappear from the radar of the authorities before their cases are even closed – that is to say from the radar of the Hungarian government, which is supposed to be protecting Europe from the hordes of illegal immigrants.
Taking this into account, the few thousand people actually staying in our country at any given time (during the highest peak so far, between last Friday and Sunday only, about 17,000 people, according to the estimate of the German federal police) doesn’t sound like a lot, especially compared to a population of 10 million. To be fair, the Hungarian authorities weren’t the only ones creating unfounded panic. According to the latest UN data, 437,384 asylum claims have been registered in the whole of EU up until the end of July, which is exactly 0.08% of the EU population of 503 million, and less than twice than previous year.
So there is no ‘swarm or ‘invasion’, especially comparing the above to the 2 million refugees taken in by Turkey or the 2×1 million living in Jordan and Lebanon respectively. These numbers prove that people escaping a war will predominantly stay in the neighbouring countries (or in other regions of their own country – there is an estimated 7 million displaced people living in Syria today), and only a fraction will move on. Frequently only one family member makes it to the EU, the others will finance smuggling him through borders by selling all their possessions. From Afghanistan to the Serbian/Hungarian border this could cost as much as 2 -2.5 million HUF (EUR 6-8000).
This is why there is a high number of young men and teenage boys among the refugees – the families consider they are the most likely to survive such a dangerous journey. There is no reason for us to picture these teenagers (who should be in the army according to some) as the next generation of IS and al-Kaida or consider the presence of some darker skinned foreigners the prelude to the destruction of the Hungarian nation or to the fall of Christianity. Statistics also show that during the first few months of the year (as opposed to an influx of migrants from Kosovo) most people have still been arriving from war zones. According to the UN and the ICO, most refugees are from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq.
Those inclined to doubt this data should look at the pictures – no parents would send their children or undertake a risky journey with their babies at the mercy of human traffickers if there was any other choice. It is worth noting that it is not unauthorized border crossing that makes a person an illegal immigrant, but not having the right documents and visa for entry. In a war zone though it is pretty much impossible to obtain such documents promptly, since in most cases the services provided by the authorities are disrupted or non existent.
According to the Geneva Convention, signed by Hungary, refugees cannot be penalized for having crossed the border illegally, since in their particular situation, i.e. a lack of documents, there is no other way for them to enter but illegally.
After the recent murder of 71 migrants in a refrigerator truck, which is tragically by no means a unique case in Europe, there is no need to elaborate on the risks these people are taking by travelling with the help of human traffickers. Thousands die each year on sea and on land en route to the EU as a result of human trafficking, but also, at least in some degree, as a result of the flawed EU and national immigration policies. The increased number of asylum seekers should not necessarily have created a crisis in Hungary or the EU.
The situation could have been made manageable by a cooperation based on a more equitable division of burdens than the current Dublin system which – and the Orban cabinet has a point there in principle – puts too much pressure on the border states by requiring them to process most of the asylum claims and – also in principle – care for the refugees until the claims process is closed. In reality, none of the above has been working for quite a while, the vast majority of asylum seekers will move on during the claim process from the ‘frontline’ countries into central EU countries from which (and this is a fact the Orban cabinet doesn’t tend to mention) they are rarely sent back to their original place of entry.
According to the Helsinki Committee, last year from a total of 43 thousand claimants 827 were sent back to Hungary. Besides this practice, there are rulings by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) to the effect that decisions to send back people can be overturned when a ‘frontline’ country doesn’t abide by the basic human rights’ requirements. On this basis refugees often aren’t sent back to Greece or Hungary. It is also possible to provide on top of the refugee status a general protection for people fleeing from war, such as the Syrians. For such situations the 2004 qualification guidelines for the concept of additional protection has been created so as to be able to protect people who haven’t suffered atrocities or threat in person and are only fleeing the general danger of war.
Thus providing asylum for these people is not an act of generosity, but a legal requirement.
A country being safe doesn’t only mean no fighting, but also assumes access to the services and legal protection which are essential in order to safeguard the basic rights and needs of the refugees. In other words, they won’t be homeless or won’t be sent back to places where they would be persecuted. Serbia demonstrably hasn’t been measuring up to these criteria for decades. Here is a fact to illustrate this: in the past 7 years a total of 18 people received protection from the authorities according to the statistics of the Helsinki Committee. Thus it is easy to uncover the lies used by the government to stoke hatred. The recent ‘de-escalation and the opening of the borders is not their achievement, but the result of the relentless pressure from refugees and their supporters trying to improve a situation created by the incompetence and nastiness of the authorities.
These recent improvements won’t solve the original issue either – people will keep coming and will keep needing help. I happen to know some of the countries these refugees are fleeing. I’ve visited and lived in Kosovo and the Middle East, among other places in Syria and Iraq. I’ve seen dying children, people maimed by their torturers. I’ve been to prisons, the walls of which were scratch marked by the tortured inmates, I’ve worked with children held captive as prostitutes and turned into drug addicts to make them helpless slaves. I’m extremely angry and desperate, because I know what these refugees have endured before arriving to our border where we meet them with a fence topped with blades.
Once they overcome the fence, our government will make fun of them with cynical announcements, stripping them of their remaining dignity and using them as an alibi for declaring an unconstitutional sate of emergency. This is why I’m astonished and taken aback by my compatriots’ inability to see how damaging these past few months have been for everyone, including themselves. I’ve now reached a point where I cannot tolerate any longer those citizens and authorities who, while assisting to the recent mix of impotence and hysteria, pretend to be protecting their homeland / faith and / or helping ‘real’ refugees.
Kundera muses in The Unbearable Lightness of Being about being responsible for one’s decisions even when believing to be innocent due to not understanding, not seeing, not perceiving the consequences of one’s actions. ‘Isn’t his unredeemable crime exactly that he didn’t know, that he believed?’
I wonder how many people realize today that their decisions or apathy might costs some refugees their lives?
The author is a human rights’ expert of the Eötvös Károly Institute