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Hungary’s horrific treatment of refugees, in one stunning video

Imagine you work at a refugee camp in Hungary, one that houses vulnerable asylum seekers desperate to find a better life in Europe. The people in the camp have risked their lives trying to get to your country. Many of them are Syrians fleeing the dangers of ISIS and one of the world's most deadly conflicts.

Imagine knowing all that, and then not only herding those people into humiliating, chain-link-caged pens, but throwing packets of food at them as if they were animals in a zoo rather than people to be treated with respect and kindness. That's what happened in the Röszke migrant detention center on September 9. The deeply upsetting incident was captured on video by Michaela Spritzendorfer-Ehrenhauser during a humanitarian mission with her husband, Austrian Green Party politician Alexander Spritzendorfer:

The video is heartbreaking. There is a particularly unbearable moment about 30 seconds in, as a small toddler with pigtails determinedly climbs the bars of the pen that stands between her and the table of food, staring hungrily as larger adults push past her. The guards ignore her, hurling packets of food in all directions but hers.

Hungarian officials claim to be investigating the incident — but the video shouldn't surprise them one bit. It's entirely consistent with the hostile, dehumanizing way that Hungary's hard-right government has responded to the influx of refugees into country.

Hungary treats refugees terribly — on purpose

Migrants walk toward a pickup point in Hungary.

Migrants walk toward a pickup point in Hungary.

(Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

Hungary is an important entry point for refugees trying to get into the European Union. Many cross over the southern border with Serbia (which isn't an EU country). Just this year, more than 170,000 migrants have arrived in Hungary, according to the Guardian.

And yet the available evidence suggests that most of the refugees trying to get into Hungary don't actually want to stay there. They're trying to pass through on their way to Germany or another, friendlier European country. This isn't surprising: Hungary's government is viciously, openly hostile to migrants of all kinds — including desperate refugees.

Attempting to cross the border is, to begin with, a miserable experience. "People are kept in pens like animals, out in the sun without food and water, without any medical assistance," Human Rights Watch's emergencies director, Peter Bouckaert, said in an interview with Al Jazeera.

And once refugees are in the country, the opportunities are scant. "If we stay in Hungary there is no work," Azad Darwish, a 23-year-old, told the New York Times. "We can’t study. The language is very strange, and they’re not helping refugees."

This refusal to welcome refugees is, to be clear, a matter of policy. Since the refugee crisis began, Prime Minister Viktor Orban has been consistently opposed to letting refugees into Hungary. He's built a razor-wire fence on the country's southern border, and made going around the fence a crime punishable by imprisonment. Train service to Germany has been suspended, in order to deter migrants from even crossing Hungarian territory. Orban's avowed goal is to get the refugee flow into the country down to zero.

"For us, Europe is at stake today; Europeans’ way of life; European values; the survival or demise of European nations, or rather, their transformation beyond recognition," Orban said in a July speech.

Once you understand that this is the man making policy, the miserable experience for refugees in this devastating video starts to make more sense. Geographically, Hungary is a useful waypoint for migrants into the European Union. But politically, it's a nightmare.

Why Hungary is so awful to refugees

viktor orban

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, a very charming man.

(Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

Anti-refugee sentiment exists across Europe, and has for some time. As Amanda Taub explains, the notion that migrants represent a threat to the fundamentals of European values is unfortunately common.

But Orban represents something scarier: genuine authoritarianism. He's cracked down on freedom of the press, and called for turning Hungary into an "illiberal" state. He openly admires Vladimir Putin as a model. "He is the only Putinist governing in the European Union," Joschka Fischer, a former German foreign minister and liberal activist, told the New York Times.

Orban wasn't always this way: In 1989 he was a pro-democracy, anti-communist agitator. He explains his new vision as a result of the 2008 financial crisis, which he sees as evidence of the failure of liberal politics. "What we should instead view as our starting point is the great redistribution of global financial, economic, commercial, political, and military power that became obvious in 2008," he said in a 2014 address.

Orban's illiberalism and far-right politics express themselves in many ways; one of them is his nationalistic embrace of "Christian" and "European values" and an overt hostility to refugees. Despite his radical views, or perhaps because of them, Orban held onto power in Hungary's elections last year.

And there's even scarier news: 2015 polls suggest Jobbik, a party that rose to power on nasty anti-Roma and anti-Semitic rhetoric, is the most popular opposition party. To call Jobbik's politics extreme would be to understate the matter severely: In 2012, Jobbik's leader called for the country to put together a list of Jews who posed a "national security risk" to Hungary, and the party's MPs have repeatedly referenced blood libels in parliamentary speeches and other statements.

Unsurprisingly, Jobbik's policy towards refugees is vicious. Jobbik opposed the construction of a new transit zone for refugees in Budapest that would give them access to running water and toilets, arguing (shades of Trump here) that the city should "spend the money on buses transporting the migrants away rather than building a transit zone." It has proposed stripping voting rights from refugees who are granted asylum in Hungary. In the 2014 elections, Jobbik won a full 20 percent of the vote.

And that's what makes Orban's anti-immigrant stance especially troubling: It's radical and immoral, but it also appears to be a disturbingly prudent political stance in Hungary today. Orban is marrying nativism with economic anxiety, and doing it in the service of avowedly authoritarian politics. If that sounds a little fascist, that's because it kind of is.