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.

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