Hungary’s response to the 2014–2015 surge of asylum-seekers has been widely criticised in international forums. The criticism focused mainly on five points:

1) The Hungarian Government consciously tried to create a refugee-hostile environment within the country, by means of a manipulative “national consultation process” and a poster campaign.

2) The decision, taken in spring 2015, to build a barbed wire fence all along the southern border, was against EU rules as well as European principles and values.

3) The criminalisation of illegal entry into Hungarian territory is contrary to international law, in particular the Geneva Convention.

4) The “fast-track process” introduced in September 2015 to assess asylum requests does not afford minimum guarantees to asylum-seekers for their requests to be fairly assessed, in particular through the enforcement of the designation of Serbia as a “safe third country”.

5) In addition, there were various reports in the international press about the alleged brutality of the Hungarian police.

It is not within the scope of this article to examine the above five claims in depth, as each would warrant a research study of its own. But it is useful, for the sake of dispassionate debates and further research, to summarise the facts and the context, and indicate the major lines of analysis.

1) The “national consultation process” and the poster campaign. On 24 April 2015, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán announced that he had approved the issuing of a questionnaire addressed to all Hungarians, with the title “National Consultation on immigration and terrorism”.1 Questionnaires were sent out by mail shortly afterwards, or could be answered online, with the beginning of July as deadline. It contained twelve questions, which – aside from the title itself – can indeed be regarded as leading, non-neutral questions, clearly designed to elicit a certain response. (The rate of response was relatively high – over a million answers – showing the importance of the issue to most Hungarians.) The Government used the results of this survey to justify its subsequent actions on the refugee issue.

During the time that the survey was conducted, the Government also carried out a poster campaign all over the country. Three different messages were purportedly addressed to immigrants: “If you come to Hungary, you must respect our culture”; “If you come to Hungary, you must respect our laws”; “If you come to Hungary, you must not take away Hungarians’ jobs”. It was obvious – and confirmed by a government spokesmen2 – that the posters were not so much addressed to immigrants (the texts were after all in Hungarian), as meant to support the “national consultation” process, again in a manner that can be seen as manipulative.

The timing of the questionnaire and the posters is interesting. They were initiated no later than the beginning of April, and probably planned earlier. At the time, the great surge from the Middle East through Turkey had not yet materialised, although the signs were there. Did the Hungarian authorities have a clear sense of what was about to happen, and were preparing for the future crisis? Or was this initiative a response specifically to the Kosovar surge, which was peaking at the time, and which was overwhelmingly made up of economic migrants?

In any event, the consultation and the poster campaign served a domestic political purpose, that of pulling the carpet out from under the extreme right- wing opposition, who could easily have used the refugee issue as a campaign theme. Instead, the Orbán government seems to have taken a realistic reading of Hungarian public opinion – which, even before the government propaganda embodied by the consultation and poster campaign, was decidedly not favourable to immigration – and caught this particular wind in its own sails for the foreseeable future. This gain came at a high price: the already existing hostility of Hungarians against immigrants was whipped up with an unnuanced association with terrorists, and hardened like concrete after the Paris attacks in November. This can be seen as contrary to the basic European and Christian values that the Orbán government defends; and it feeds into a dangerous Europe-wide trend that may give us much trouble in the future.

A note on the “already existing hostility of Hungarians against immigrants” (quoted from the paragraph above). It is a fact that Hungarian society is relatively negative towards immigration in general, for quite a large number of reasons. It has a deeply ingrained sense of nationhood and fear for its survival and identity, amplified by the events of the 20th century. It already has a serious internal non- integration problem with its Roma minority. It is economically fragile. Lastly, there is a strong national memory of 150 years of Turkish – read Middle Eastern, read Muslim – occupation during the 16th–17th centuries.3 Hungarians can in fact show great sympathy and activism in favour of refugees: Poles during the Second World War, East Germans in 1989, Croatians and Bosnians (including Muslims) in the early 1990s; but the current migrant wave cannot, in their minds, be compared to those smaller and clearer earlier events, nor the characteristics and behaviour of current migrants to those of the earlier groups.

2) The decision to build a barbed wire fence all along the Serbian border. The accusation that this was against EU rules as well as European principles and values was built on a misunderstanding. Hungary never meant the fence to prevent refugees from entering the country: from the beginning, designated crossing points were planned, where travellers without documentation could immediately state their intention to seek asylum. (The details of how this is being carried out are another question – see points 3 and 4 below.) In fact, the fence was Hungary’s legally correct response to its obligation of protecting the Schengen border in the south. While the ultimate intention was clearly that of diverting the “problem” to other countries (and who would blame this intention, in retrospect?) it should be noted that Hungary complied, for longer than any other transit country, with its Schengen and Dublin obligations. It insisted on registering all asylum-seekers, mostly against their will, until the end of August, when the numbers became totally unmanageable and it was clear that its EU partners were not holding Hungary to its obligations. On the contrary, even Austria was letting refugees through to Germany.

3) Criminalisation of illegal entry into Hungarian territory. This came into force on 15 September, the day when the last section of the fence with Serbia was completed. This is indeed, prima facie, in contravention of the 1951 Geneva Convention, which states that asylum-seekers should not be penalised for having entered illegally into the country where they seek asylum. However, Hungary’s position is that it is criminalising only entries through “green borders”, that is, through unguarded points in the countryside, while maintaining its regular border posts open to refugees. (On what happens at these regular border posts, see the following point.)

The practical consequences of this criminalisation are somewhat murky. What happens in practice is that anyone caught crossing the “green borders” is arrested, charged under the new law and kept in detention. Sentencing is fast, and consists almost invariably of expulsion from Hungary plus prohibition of entry into the EU for two to five years. A practical problem arises at that point, because expulsion – generally to Serbia – cannot be carried out without the agreement of the Serbian authorities, who have been systematically refusing it. After three attempts – lasting, as bureaucratic processes go, for a few weeks or a couple of months, during which the offender remains in detention – the police must inform the immigration authorities that it is unable to carry out the sentence, whereupon the detainee is transferred into the custody of the immigration authorities, that is, to one of the open refugee camps. Generally, the ex-detainee then disappears within a few days, presumably crossing the border into Austria and then Germany. This has happened fairly systematically. It is certain that the criminalisation of illegal entry has not resulted in any overwhelming pressure on the Hungarian prison system, which in mid-November held no more than about 800 illegal entrants. It has, however, clearly acted as a deterrent: most of the apprehended illegal entrants were caught in the few days after the legislation came into force, when migrants were unaware, or were testing the system. In October–November, the numbers dwindled to near zero.

4) The “fast-track process” does not afford minimum guarantees to asylum-seekers. Since 15 September, when the fast-track process was introduced to pre-assess asylum requests at the legal border crossings, we do not know of a single person seeking asylum in Hungary whose request has been accepted for further processing. The key is the designation of Serbia as a “safe third country” under the terms of the Geneva Convention,4 which has been used in practically every single case. Hungary is one of the EU countries which have declared Serbia a “safe third country” for refugees from the Middle East. It is legally within its rights to do so, as this decision is the prerogative of each sovereign state; however, it has been the most consistent in applying it and the net effect is that since 15 September, Hungary has successfully shut itself out of the entire European refugee issue. Dublin regulations could bring it back into the ring, since in 2015 Hungary registered over 174,000 asylum seekers who subsequently moved to other EU countries; but this is highly unlikely for a number of reasons.

5) Press reports about the alleged brutality of the Hungarian police. In reality, given the size of the crisis and the lack of experience both at the operative and the leadership levels, resulting in some tactical mistakes and tense moments, the Hungarian authorities and police generally acted in a humane and restrained fashion.5 Press reports on these were often taken out of context or presented individual cases unrepresentative of the general situation. The four most often-quoted examples are worth mentioning:

a.) The battle between migrants and Hungarian police at the southern border town of Röszke, after the last gap in the fence was closed on 15 September. The clash started when a number of frustrated migrants who had been blocked there – mostly young males – started a mass demonstration and tried to force a closed gate. Stones were thrown from their side, and water cannon and teargas were employed by Hungarian police from the other side of the fence. It ended in a stand-off, and the refugees subsequently took the alternative route through Croatia.

b.) The above event was sometimes mediatised in conjunction with an earlier episode, a clash that took place on 29 June outside the Debrecen refugee camp, which is the only other documented episode in 2015 where Hungarian police used teargas against migrants. This event – which took place in the context of an open refugee camp with a capacity of 800, where about 1,800 people had massed, waiting for a chance to continue to Budapest and to Austria – started with an internal clash among asylum-seekers in the camp, and spilled out into the streets of the town, where a large police contingent was called in to control them.

c.) The widely-publicised episode in the cornfields near Röszke on 8 September, when a camerawoman filming a chaotic refugee scene for a right-wing newspaper was caught on a colleague’s camera kicking a little girl and tripping up a man who was running with a child in his arms. This was an individual, possibly panic- induced incident, and the camerawoman had to face quite heavy consequences, both from her employer and from the authorities, as well as getting such a volume of hate messages from fellow Hungarians that she temporarily went into hiding.6

d.) The attempted transport on 3 September of a trainload of migrants from the Budapest train station to the refugee camp at Bicske, on the false pretence that the train was going to Austria. An egregious piece of operative bungling, this story gave ample fodder to both extremes in the media. The “left” emphasised the deceit and high-handedness on the part of the authorities, adding far-fetched comparisons with the death-camp trains of the 1940s. The “right”, on the other hand, selectively publicised videos of frustrated, angry migrants at the Bicske train station yelling at the police and throwing back at them the food and water they had been offered. One particularly poignant scene stands out in memory: a distraught man, theatrically throwing himself, his wife and baby on the train tracks and vowing to kill himself and them, being forcibly rescued and brought back to safety by the police. Right-wing media emphasised the scene of the crazed man jeopardising his family; left-wing media focused on showing the police restraining a man forcibly, leaving out the context.


Having summarised the events, the data and the major points of the current debate, it may be useful to conclude by recalling some of the underlying categories. First of all, the distinction between the micro, meso and macro levels of the debate: the humanitarian, the political and the historical. It is essential to recognise all three levels, distinguish between them and give each the attention it deserves in its proper context, and without confusing them or slipping from one to another as the heat or expediency of the discussion dictates.

On the humanitarian level, we have up to a million people who arrived in Europe over the last year, claiming asylum and protection, and the majority of them clearly in distress. Beyond the Geneva Convention principles, another basic principle of international humanitarian law applies: the humanitarian imperative, which prescribes that any person in immediate danger must be assisted to the furthest extent possible, overriding every other consideration. When the first widely publicised mass drownings occurred off Lampedusa in 2013, the Italian government implemented this principle through the “Mare Nostrum” rescue operation; the same principle is applied today by those who save lives on the sea off the Greek islands.

Humanitarians, especially civil society organisations, who help the migrants in need, have been sharply questioned by other elements of society, who see any such help as misguided and denounce it for being politically motivated. The president of the Hungarian Charity Service of the Order of Malta gave a pithy answer to this: “We do not have a standpoint, we have a mission!”7 This statement boldly affirms the firewall between the humanitarian imperative – and the organisations whose mission is to work on the humanitarian level, with the people in need who are already among us – and the politico-historical aspect, which is the concern of quite different players.

However, the current migration flow is not only a humanitarian issue. On the meso and macro level, we must make an effort to be aware of the complex political, economic, historical and cultural aspects. These are far beyond the scope of this article. As stated at the beginning, its aim is limited to sketching out a factual approach and advocating for the recognition of the complexities, not to mention the historical importance, of the issue.

A note on an aspect deliberately left out: security. Although the possible links between the migrants and international terrorism are foremost in everybody’s mind, especially right now, the writer feels that it is of no practical use – and inhuman – to let these links influence in any way our treatment of the refugee issue. International terrorism, in particular Salafist Islamist terrorism including ISIS, is a major and real danger for Europe. Some of their ideological tracts, written years ago, sketched out a plan of action that includes an all-out attack on the West in 2016.8 It comes as no surprise to anyone that they took advantage of the migration wave to infiltrate some of their people into Europe, as proved by the Paris attacks of 13 November. But all this does not matter. The infiltrators would have found a way into Europe in any case – the migrant flow only made it easier for them. And does it need to be pointed out that 99% of the asylum-seekers are not terrorists, but rather, they too are fleeing from terror? Instead of thinking of restricting the flow of migrants in order to block out the terrorists (an impossible task, anyway), we should be recruiting the newly-arrived to help us in our war against Islamist terrorism. (No doubt Interpol and the secret services are doing it already on a large scale.)

Hungary and its neighbouring countries are emphasising what is perhaps the ultimate question that needs to be asked: what is our vision for the post-migrant- crisis Europe? We all more or less agree on European values that call us to welcome asylum-seekers – whether we express them in the secular language of freedom, human rights and international law, or the conservative Judeo-Christian values of compassion and love for our neighbour. But what European values do we feel the need to defend? What is the hard core that we do not accept to change? Some younger West European people, with whom I discussed this, baldly answered that there are no European values worth defending, or that we have forfeited our right to defend them through our past colonialist and imperialist history. Others focus on our economic achievements and standards of living, which are not a negligible point, but it is questionable whether they can be called “European values”. In Hungary, the emphasis is on Europe’s Christian values, although it is promptly admitted that these are in far greater danger from inside Europe – from materialism, reductionist multiculturalism and moral relativism – than from the current migration flow.

Perhaps the most important good that can come to Europe from the Great 2015 Refugee Crisis is to force us – in Hungary and in all of Europe – to articulate, discuss and re-establish who we are as Europeans, how we can treat the immigrants in a way consistent with our values, and how we can ensure that the Europe we build together, too, preserves these values.

The article is the second part of a study written in January 2016; as such, some of its data and conclusions are already slightly out of date, given the pace at which the refugee issue is developing.

1  The questionnaire – and its results – can be accessed on http://nemzetikonzultáció.kormá An English translation can be found on on-immigration-and-terrorism/.

2  Zoltán Kovács in ATV, 4 June 2015.


3  The capital, Buda, was occupied by the army of Sultan Suleiman in 1541 through a ruse involving a peaceful mass visit by a large number of Turkish troops, who suddenly took up their weapons and took control. This event was described in a famous Hungarian historical novel – Stars of Eger by G. Gárdonyi – and the average Hungarian is lugubriously mindful of it these days.

4  Under the terms of the Geneva Convention, a country where the asylum-seeker is not subject to persecution, or to refoulement to his country of origin from where he is escaping, and where there is a proper protection mechanism for those who seek it. If an asylum-seeker has transited through such a country, his or her claim may be rejected and he or she may be sent back to that country. Most EU countries do not regard Serbia as a “safe third country”, on the grounds that it lacks proper protection mechanisms and the guarantee of non-refoulement.

5  “Negative proof” is not straightforward. The evidence is that, during months of extensive reporting by the international media that were generally not favourable to Hungary’s position and actions, there were very few credible reports of police brutality against migrants in Hungary.

6  Heti Válasz, 24 October 2015, interview with camerawoman Petra László.

7  “Migrant aid service, a report of the Hungarian Charity Service of the Order of Malta”, November 2015.

8  “The Virtual Sanctuary of Al-Qaeda and Terrorism in an Age of Globalisation”, by Magnus Ranstorp – in J. Eriksson and G. P. Giacomello, International Relations and Security in the Digital Age (London: Routledge, 2007).

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