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Why Hungary is so awful to refugees

A migrant child on the Serbian side of the Serbia-Hungary border.
A migrant child on the Serbian side of the Serbia-Hungary border.
(Armend Nimani/AFP/Getty Images)

The global refugee crisis is full of horror stories. Lately, a lot of them seem to be coming from someplace in Europe: Hungary.

"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. The country has built a razor-wire fence on its southern border in Serbia to keep refugees out. Hungarian officials have been caught, on tape, flinging food at hungry refugees. A Hungarian journalist was caught on camera kicking and tripping refugees who were fleeing from police. On Wednesday, Hungarian authorities used tear gas and water cannons on refugees, harming many of them, including children.

And this is all by design: Prime Minister Viktor Orban has said his goal is to discourage refugees from crossing into Hungary, even at the cost of treating them inhumanely.

To understand why Hungary's treatment of refugees has been so bad, I spoke to Kim Lane Scheppele, a professor of sociology and international affairs at Princeton University, and an expert on Hungary.

On the surface, she says, these anti-refugee policies are driven by a competition between Hungary's far-right prime minister and its even more far right opposition.

"You've got a country where a guy is essentially running a one-party state, whose only political challenge is coming from the toxic right. And this is the perfect issue for him to be a strongman on," Scheppele told me. "It's almost like he was given this giant gift of an issue to solidify all the things he cared about in one place."

But the roots of Hungary's treatment of refugees go deeper. According to Scheppele, what we're seeing is tied to a strain of Hungarian anti-Semitism and xenophobia that dates back to the end of World War II. What follows is a transcript of our conversation, edited for length and clarity.


Zack Beauchamp: How bad is Hungary's treatment of refugees, really?

Kim Lane Scheppele: What the state of emergency [which went into effect on Tuesday] allows them to do is arrest everybody who crosses the border without being approved at a checkpoint. On the first day, 250 people were arrested. The government says the adults will be charged with crimes, but the children will not be.

These detention centers have no real facilities. So far, at least, the Hungarian government is giving people minimal food and water. Minimal sanitary facilities. They're guarded 24/7 by guys with guns. It will feel like being in prison without any of the joys of an actual building. People are going to be really miserable.

Zack Beauchamp: What's going to happen to the refugees and migrants that Hungary refuses to take in?

Kim Lane Scheppele: Right now, with the border sealed, the government is letting in some people who will claim asylum. Because of the way the asylum law is written, all of these people will be turned down.

Once the government expels someone from the country, they have the option of putting them into the SIS system, the Schengen Information System. That's a database run by the EU — any country can block someone from getting into any EU country by listing them on the SIS. So suppose someone committed a crime in Hungary, and fled the jurisdiction. You could put out an alert on SIS, and they could be stopped at the border and turned back. Or, in some cases, you could go into the SIS and say "don't let them in anywhere" — and the Netherlands wouldn't be allowed to admit them because Hungary has refused.

hungary migrants arrest

Hungarian police pat down a migrant after border arrests. (Attila Kisbenedek/AFP/Getty Images)

What I've heard now — and I don't know if this is just the people who apply for asylum, or the people who will be convicted of entering the country illegally — that some of the people who are being expelled are being listed in the SIS system, so that no other country can let them in. I've gotten contradictory reports from people who are on the scene, because the law's a little bit more ambiguous about this.

Zack Beauchamp: Why would Hungary do this? Do they hate the idea of immigration everywhere in Europe, or is it just because they want to make Hungary itself as inhospitable as possible, to deter migrants from coming to Hungary specifically?

Kim Lane Scheppele: Certainly the second. Once people see that this is what the Hungarian government does, they will give it a wide berth.

What Hungary wants, most of all, is to have refugees who are coming to the EU enter from some country other than Hungary. That's because, under the Dublin regulation framework, the first country a migrant sets foot in has an obligation to decide whether they're a legitimate refugee and therefore should be granted asylum. In the meantime, that government is supposed to feed them, house them, clothe them; provide medical care, drinking water, give them an opportunity to work.

Hungary doesn't want to do any of that. Hungary wants all of these refugees to go somewhere else. They built a fence with Serbia because that was the only place where refugees could enter Hungary as the first [EU] state. So if they build a fence with Serbia, and make all of the refugees go to Croatia, then Croatia gets the burden — and Hungary is off the hook.

So first and foremost, Hungary wants nothing to do with any of this. And that's why the system is set up to be as unfriendly as possible for refugees.

Zack Beauchamp: Why is the Hungarian government so hostile to refugees and migrants?

Kim Lane Scheppele: Orban has been hostile to everyone who's not an ethnic Hungarian, like Roma and Jews. Many Jews have left the country because it doesn't feel safe.

In Orban's speech about the Roma last week, he said that Hungary can't take in all of these Islamic refugees — the Roma aren't even integrated, and we can't handle another group like the Roma. He's said that Muslim refugees breed faster than Europeans, and so they'll wipe us out. The preamble to the new constitution he pushed through in 2011 says "we, the Hungarian nation" — meaning the ethnic group — "and the people who live among us."

hungary migrants detention Attila Kisbendek/AFP/Getty Images

Migrants sit after Hungarian police arrested a number attempting to cross the border into Hungary. (Attila Kisbendek/AFP/Getty Images)

Orban has, for a long time, stayed pretty clear of saying overtly racist things. But in the past few weeks, he's broken his usual rule of leaving the job of saying those things to the people who are affiliated with him.

The idea is to get the far-right voters in Hungary to feel that Orban's party, Fidesz, is with them. His most potent electoral challenger right now is this far-right party, Jobbik — the second most popular party in Hungary. And it was growing a lot in the fall relative to Orban's party: there was a point where Fidesz's popularity was below 25 percent. And it was just in that moment when Orban seized the immigration issue, and tried to out-Jobbik Jobbik with it.

Zack Beauchamp: There are far-right parties everywhere in Europe now. But why is the Hungarian far-right so much nastier than its peers elsewhere in Europe, why is it able to exert this influence?

Kim Lane Scheppele: Part of it is the way the financial crisis happened.

In Hungary, what caused the financial crisis is that there was a housing bubble, like in the US. And there was lots of private debt, denominated in foreign currency — people took out mortgages in euros and Swiss francs. When the bottom fell out, suddenly people found themselves underwater on their mortgages and mad as hell.

What Orban started saying immediately is "why were the banks willing to lend you this money in currency? It was that the bankers are trying to make money off of you. And who are the bankers?" And then everyone can say, in unison, "Jews!"

In other words, the financial crisis was absolutely linked to anti-Semitism and intolerance in the way that it played in Hungary. And I don't think that happened anywhere else.

Zack Beauchamp: There's anti-Semitism in other European countries too, though. What's different about Hungary that made anti-Semitism and nativism more powerful there than elsewhere?

Kim Lane Scheppele: Well, this is a longstanding trope for Hungary — and really, the whole region. All of eastern Europe has anti-Semitism issues, but Hungary has more, perhaps because it has a large Jewish community. Poland has anti-Semitism without any Jews.

Also, in Hungary, anti-Semitism plays into left-right politics. The Jewish population, which is concentrated in Budapest, is overwhelmingly on the left rather than the right. The right wing parties say "well, the Jews brought you Communism."

Have you ever been to the Museum of Terror in Budapest?

Zack Beauchamp: I haven't.

Kim Lane Scheppele: Well, they have this thing, which is a monument to the evils of Communism. Americans go there all the time — they think it's just like Holocaust Museum, only for Communism, which is what the English subtitles at the museum suggest. But if you read the Hungarian, they basically blame Communism on Jews.

And it was true that many of the leaders in the Communist Party after the war were anti-fascists — and much of the Jewish population were anti-fascists. That meant Jews were overrepresented in the Communist Party, particularly in its leadership. And so, if you're going to run as an anti-Communist after [the fall of Hungary's communist regime], one way to do that is to use this coded language about Jewish bankers and Jewish communists. Which is weird, because it says Jews are responsible for capitalism and communism [an anti-Semitic trope dating at least back to the Nazis].

So there's this longstanding anti-Semitism that's coded to the right. And for a while, Orban avoided personally engaging in it — that was one of the things that separated him from Jobbik. But after dropping in the polls, he started really doing this in earnest. His assistants have been making anti-Semitic speeches; his government has been erecting statues to fascists; they've revamped the national school curriculum, and are assigning many authors who are overt fascists.

The more Jobbik has nipped at his heels, the more overt about this he's becomes. It's a fairly scary thing.

And Hungarian political language, all this stuff is connected: the anti-Semitic stuff is connected to the anti-Roma stuff is connected to the anti-refugee stuff. All of it is about the notion that Hungarians are a small tiny ethnic group which is shrinking in size, that is particularly threatened by all of these groups that seek to masquerade as Hungarians, take away their territory, take their away their jobs — take away everything that belongs to Hungarians. Orban is really whipping this up into a frenzy.

Zack Beauchamp: Is there similar hostility to minorities in other nearby countries?

Kim Lane Scheppele: Yeah. It's a common trope in eastern Europe — Hungary's not actually alone in that regard.

Among the countries in the path of migrants, you may have noticed that Orban was able to unite the Visegrad Four [Hungary, the Czech Republic, Poland, and Slovakia]. Both Slovakia and Poland have said they'll only take Christian refugees, and the Czech Republic said it would take none. So it isn't just Hungary.

But what Hungary has, which the other places don't, is a guy who wants to be a dictator who can't tolerate political opposition. He sees this migration crisis as an opportunity to make back the voters he lost to Jobbik since the last election a year ago.

Zack Beauchamp: Orban's authoritarianism seems like another important angle here. How much, exactly, does he want to curtail Hungarian democracy?

Kim Lane Scheppele: Orban started his career as a libertarian. He's still a libertarian. He just doesn't believe in constraints on himself, which is why he's eliminated checks and balances in the constitution.

Moreover, election rules make it extremely hard to form a new party that does anything but fracture the political left. The only way the left can win is if they're unified, but the Socialists, the traditional party of the left, are massively unpopular. And they won't lead or go anywhere.

I don't think Hungarians really want to vote in an anti-democracy. The 2010 election, when produced this stunning victory for Orban — the Socialist government had just had the entire economy fall apart on their watch. And they were corrupt, they weren't nice guys.

And it's functionally a two-and-a-half party system: it's either the Socialists or it's Fidesz [Orban's party], or it might be Jobbik, but nobody thinks Jobbik is actually going to win an election. So if nobody's going to vote for the Socialists, they either vote for Orban or they don't vote.

And when he gets this election victory, I don't think they were voting for him to shut down democracy in Hungary, but functionally that's what he's doing. If you look at polls, "doesn't know/wouldn't say" is actually more popular than any Hungarian party. What they're saying is "a pox on all your houses;" nobody likes the political parties:

Hungarian opinion polls, 2010-2015.

(Kim Lane Scheppele)

There's really a great opportunity for a new party to come in, and wipe out both Orban and the Socialists — but no party can form because there's no money. Anyone who tries to start a party, something happens.

Orban isn't living off of popularity. He's living off of the unpopularity of everybody else. I don't think the Hungarians are stupid, anti-democratic, or xenophobic. To the contrary: if they could vote for a good government, they would. But there's no party that would produce that.