Orban on Defensive as Hungarian Asylum Data Prompts Backlash

(Bloomberg) -- Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who regularly refers to refugees from Muslim countries as “invaders,” was forced onto the defensive after comments by a high-ranking official pointed to a jump in accepted asylum requests.

Jobbik, the most popular opposition party, on Monday accused the government of “theater” by repeatedly rallying against immigration while granting asylum to roughly the same number of refugees as sought under the European Union’s quota system. The Socialist Party called on Orban to appear before parliament to explain his policy.

Hungary admitted about 1,300 asylum seekers last year, the most in more than a decade, according to United Nations data. The figure was little-publicized to protect refugees’ safety, Kristof Altusz, a Foreign Ministry state secretary, told the Times of Malta last week, calling Orban’s “invaders” reference “political language.” In a weekend briefing in Budapest, Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto said accepting refugees under the Geneva Convention was different from accepting them under the EU’s relocation program, which Hungary opposes.

The controversy threatens the government’s credibility on a campaign issue that’s helped keep Orban’s Fidesz party the favorite to win a third consecutive term in elections in April. The premier has been tough on refugees, building a border fence to repel asylum seekers from countries such as Syria, organizing an anti-immigration referendum against the EU’s relocation plans and using a billboard campaign to target Hungarian-born billionaire George Soros, whom Orban has accused of funding pro-immigration groups.

‘Lumping Together’

The government -- which has rarely differentiated between refugees fleeing conflict and those arriving for economic reasons, frequently linking them to the threat of terrorism -- is now asking voters to make distinctions, according to Erno Simon, a spokesman for the UN Refugee Agency, or UNHCR.

“What we’ve seen from the government’s campaign on this issue is the lumping together of these groups and categories, which has misled the Hungarian public and damaged the interests of asylum seekers,” he said.

Hungary accepted 1,291 asylum seekers in 2017, more than three times the previous year’s intake and the most since at least 2007, according to the UNHCR. Afghans comprised the biggest share of asylum seekers arriving in Hungary last year, followed by Iraqis and Syrians, according to data through November from Hungary’s Immigration Office.

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