Fortress Hungary

Based on her ethnographic research in Hungary, Elżbieta M. Goździak reviews how the criminalization of refugees and asylum seekers has played a crucial part in the built-up of Viktor Orbán’s “Illiberal Democracy”.

Elżbieta M. Goździak, Adam Mickiewicz University, Poznań

On a crisp fall morning in 2016, Péter, my research assistant, and I were buying train tickets at the Keleti Railway Station to visit a refugee camp in Bicske, when we spotted a poster aimed at recruiting “border-hunters.” Intrigued by the poster, I nudged Péter to talk to the recruiters to learn more about this scheme. We learned that the Hungarian police was recruiting 3,000 “border-hunters” to join 10,000 police and soldiers patrolling a razor-wire fence built along the 175-meter long border with Serbia to stop refugees from crossing into Hungary.

In the summer of 2015, the same Keleti Railway Station became a de facto refugee camp for tens of thousands of people fleeing violence in the Middle East and Afghanistan. However, by the early 2017, the Hungarian border patrol reported detaining fewer than 200 refugees reaching Hungary’s southern border with Serbia a day. Ten thousand police and three thousand “border-hunters” to deal with a couple hundred refugees.

Having been born and lived in communist Poland for several decades, I am amazed that a country that once sat behind the Iron Curtain has adopted a build-a-wall mentality to keep out refugees and asylum seekers. My Hungarian friends remind me that Viktor Orbán, the Prime Minister of Hungary, has been building Fortress Hungary for some time now. Hungarian border police, guns in holsters, swagger in pairs alongside the fence in a scene reminiscent of the Cold War. The “border-hunters” are equipped with night-vision goggles, body heat detectors, and migrant-sniffing dogs.

At a swearing-in ceremony of border hunters in Budapest in the spring of 2017, a few months after our encounter with the recruiters, Viktor Orbán, whose anti-immigrant policies have gone down well with voters, said Hungary had to act to defend itself. The storm has not died, it has only subsided temporarily, he said.

Policing and fortifying borders


Border controls have been irrevocably linked to contemporary security discourses. The link between migration and criminal activities, originally present mainly in the rhetoric of right-wing fringe parties, has found its way into the political mainstream on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. When Viktor Orbán, Jarosław Kaczyński or Donald Trump talk about migrants, they inevitably imply that migrants are criminals: terrorists, rapists, and thieves. Thus, borders need to by fortified to keep them at bay.

By the end of 2015, over 390,000 mainly Muslim refugees and asylum seekers crossed the Serbian-Hungarian border and descended on the Keleti Railway Station in Budapest. Yet, for Viktor Orbán, the arrival of refugees was not a humanitarian challenge but a Muslim invasion that required an appropriate response: closing the Balkan land route to the European Union.

Yet, this was not ‘enough’ as evidenced by the desire to recruit 3,000 ‘border-hunters’ to join the 10,000 police already patrolling the border. These actions stand in sharp contrast with the events of 1989, when Hungary opened its border with Austria and let thousands of East Germans through to West Germany. While it is true that the unprecedented influx of refugees and asylum seekers in 2015 did result in at least a handful of jihadi terrorists entering the Schengen Zone through Hungary, the government has systematically used the arrival of refugees as an opportunity to strengthen their Christian discourse—linking Christianity with the nation and simultaneously stigmatizing refugees as terrorists. The conservative media likened the recent migration with the Ottoman era when Hungary was a “bastion, “defending Christianity from “Muslim hordes”. Antal Rogán, at the time leader of the Hungarian Fidesz’ parliamentary group, warned of a future ‘United European Caliphate,’ while former Secretary of State László L. Simon urged Hungarians to make more babies to counter the negative cultural effects of mass migration. The political rhetoric included both national security concerns and cultural insecurity. Beyond political statements, armed military police patrols on the streets of Budapest have become a regular sight, as is the case in Paris and Brussels, while Hungary has yet to experience a terrorist attack.


Brussels or Budapest, that was the question


I got a glimpse at the ways Viktor Orbán manipulated the discourse about refugees in 2016 while in Budapest as the George Soros Visiting Chair in Public Policy at Central European University. A couple of weeks after my arrival, Orbán called for a national referendum and asked Hungarians a simple question: “Do you want the European Union to prescribe the mandatory settlement of non-Hungarian citizens in Hungary without the consent of the National Assembly?”

Voter turnout was poor. A mere 39 percent Hungarians voted, far short of the 50 percent participation required to make the referendum valid under Hungarian law. Never one to let facts get in the way of politics, Orbán, whose Eurosceptic Fidesz party has more support than all opposition parties combined, said in a televised speech:

The European Union’s proposal is to let the migrants in and distribute them in mandatory fashion among the member states and for Brussels to decide about this distribution. Hungarians today considered this proposal and they rejected it. Hungarians decided that only we, Hungarians, can decide with whom we want to live. The question was ‘Brussels or Budapest’ and we decided this issue is exclusively the competence of Budapest.”

Orbán decided that the 3.3 million Hungarians who voted “No” in the referendum spoke for the whole country of 10 million Hungarians.  After his speech, there were fireworks over the Danube river in the colors of the Hungarian flag.

The Hungarian anti-immigrant campaign started in early 2015, shortly after the terrorist attack in Paris on the offices of Charlie Hebdo. In a TV interview, Viktor Orbán said that “[I] would like to keep Hungary as the country of Hungarians,” indicating that there is no room in Hungary for any ethnic or religious minorities. This speech framed immigration as a security issue emphasizing that immigration and terrorism go hand-in-hand.

Between April 24 and July 27, 2015, the government conducted a national consultation on immigration and terrorism. A survey was mailed to all Hungarians 18 years of age and above to answer 12 multiple choice questions such as: Do you agree that ill-conceived immigration policies contribute to the spread of terrorism? Do you think that keeping illegal immigrants in custody round the clock should be made possible? The letter that accompanied the survey referred to refugees as economic migrants trying to cross the border illegally and gain access to social benefits in Europe. The letter also intimated that refugees and asylum seekers harbor terrorists, that they pose a ‘threat’ and ‘must be stopped’ (Bocskor 2018: 560-561).

As the survey was being mailed to all adult Hungarians, large billboards were being erected all over the country warning immigrants—in Hungarian (sic!) — not to steal jobs from Hungarians and to respect Hungarian law and culture. The Two-Tailed Dog Party (Magyar Kétfarkú Kutya Párt), a joke political party, erected their own billboards with messages such as “If you are the prime minister of Hungary you have to protect our laws” and “Immigrants do not take our jobs.” The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) joined the billboard campaign with their own posters. The national campaign cost 960 million HUF. Only one million of the eight million recipients filled out and mailed the questionnaire back (Kiss 2016). Nevertheless, Viktor Orbán continued to build Fortress Hungary.


Closing refugee camps


In addition to recruiting border hunters and building fences, Victor Orbán has closed most refugee camps.  The camp in Bicske operated as a refugee facility for over two decades. In the little museum established by refugees on the premises of the reception center one was able to see artifacts, coins, and paintings from many parts of the world. However, in December 2016, the camp was shut down as part of a government-mandated wave of camp closures. When I visited the camp a few days before it closed, 75 individuals, hailing from Cuba, Nigeria, Cameroon, Iraq, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, lived there.

At the time of my visit, Bicske, which could house as many as 460 refugees, was operating well below capacity. The number of asylum applicants in the country has decreased dramatically. According to data from the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, in October 2016, 1,198 refugees registered for asylum in Hungary compared with 5,812 in April 2016. As of October 2016, there were 529 asylum seekers staying in Hungarian refugee reception facilities: 318 at open reception centers such as Bicske and 211 in detention centers.

When the camp in Bicske closed, the refugees were relocated to a camp in Kiskunhalas in southern Hungary, some two and a half hours by train from Budapest. Not an optimal location.  The Bicske camp’s location offered its residents opportunities to access a variety of educational and recreational activities that helped them adjust to life in Hungary. Some refugees commuted to Budapest to attend classes at the Central European University (CEU) as well as language courses provided by non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Bicske residents often attended events and met with Hungarian mentors from groups such as Artemisszió, a multicultural foundation, and MigSzol, a migrant advocacy group. Christian refugees were bussed to an American church each Sunday morning. Moving the residents to Kiskunhalas deprived them of these opportunities.


Criminalizing assistance to refugees


While help from Good Samaritans is crucial for refugees and asylum seekers in Hungary, recent legislation has seriously curtailed the ability of civil society to provide assistance to undocumented migrants. In June of 2018, the Hungarian Parliament approved a package of laws called the “Stop Soros” bill that criminalizes assistance to undocumented migrants and creates a parallel court system to try those who attempt to provide assistance to migrants.  Many fear that this new legislation will be used for politically sensitive cases, accelerating efforts by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán to transform the country into what he calls an ‘illiberal democracy.’

Ironically, the new legislation passed on World Refugee Day. Under the new law, assisting migrants to legalize their status in Hungary by, for example, distributing information about the asylum process or providing them with financial assistance, could result in a 12-months jail term. The “Stop Soros” legislation has been condemned by the United Nations and Amnesty International as well as other human rights organizations. Patrick Gaspard, president of the Open Society Foundations, vowed to continue to support Hungarian organizations defending migrants’ human rights.


No to refugees, yes to migrants with money – and to Venezuelan refugees of Hungarian ancestry


While Mr. Orbán is vehemently opposed to finding homes for 1,294 refugees that the EU asked Hungary to assist, he is welcoming foreigners who are able to buy the right to live in Hungary. Since 2012, Viktor Orbán’s government has been selling government bonds worth about €300,000 ($331,000) that essentially act as resident permits for foreign investors. Apparently, some 10,000 Chinese have taken advantage of the scheme to move to Hungary as did smaller numbers of affluent investors from Russia and the Middle East. These investors are considered a threat neither to national security nor to cultural cohesion of Hungary.

Recently, Hungary has accepted 300 refugees from Venezuela. The Hungarian Charity Service of the Order of Malta has led the resettlement effort. The refugees had to prove some level of Hungarian ancestry in order to qualify for the resettlement scheme.  About 5,000 Hungarians emigrated to Venezuela in the 20th century, mostly after World War II and in 1956.

By Hungarian law, everyone who can prove Hungarian ancestry is entitled to Hungarian citizenship. As Edit Frenyó, a Hungarian legal scholar told me, “Of course process is key, meaning political and administrative will are needed for successful naturalization.” According to media reports, the refugees are receiving free airfare, residency and work permits, temporary housing, job placement, and English and Hungarian language courses, but apparently, they  are told not to talk about the reception they receive in Hungary. Perhaps the reason why they are supposed to be silent relates to the official narrative, an ethnonational story of home coming, in which they are presented as Hungarians, not refugees or . Gergely Gulyás, Chancellor of the Republic of Hungary, said: “We are talking about Hungarians, Hungarians are not considered migrants.”


Promoting anti-immigrant strategies among the Visegrád Four


Viktor Orbán is promoting his strategies—militarization of borders, closure of refugee camps, strict immigration policies — among leaders of the other Visegrád Four countries: Poland, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia. Anti-immigrant sentiments and xenophobic rhetoric are on the rise in Poland where Mr. Orbán’s friend, Jarosław Kaczyński, the Chairman of the ruling Law and Justice party, spews the same hatred of Muslim refugees. But the situation in Poland is a topic for a different blog post.


Elżbieta M. Goździak is a fellow at the Center for Social Justice at Georgetown University, Washington, DC and a visiting professor at Adam Mickiewicz University, Poznań, where she teaches in cultural anthropology and migration studies. She can be contacted at

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