Hungary Is Winning Its War on Muslim Immigrants

(Bloomberg View) -- To win parliamentary elections last weekend, Hungary's ruling party, Fidesz, ran a single-issue campaign against immigrants. That may seem strange in a country with one of the lowest shares of foreign-born population in the developed world and a fertility rate below even the abysmal European average. But it wasn't a response to demographic facts; it was a cultural crusade that has made Hungary the least refugee-friendly country in Europe.

Hungary isn't really an anti-immigrant country. In 2016, the latest year for which official data are available, 23,803 foreigners moved there, and the numbers have been stable since before Prime Minister Viktor Orban came to power in 2010. Fewer than half of the migrants were European Union citizens.

That's not a large number by rich-country standards, but it's not a small one, either; Portugal — like Hungary, a country of 10 million people — took in only 15,100 foreign nationals that year. Besides, the Orban government ran, until March, 2017, a much-criticized residency bond program targeted largely at Asians. For a 300,000-euro ($370,000) investment in Hungarian government bonds, permanent residency could be obtained, and 20,000 people signed up between 2013 and 2017, helping enrich a group of politically connected individuals who ran officially appointed intermediary firms. 

Orban's Hungary, however, is fiercely against a certain kind of immigrant.

"We've been living next to Islam and with Islam for 500 years and we know it's not going to integrate," government spokesman Zoltan Kovacs told me in an interview this week. "We treat it as a civilizational problem."

According to Kovacs, Muslim immigrants create "parallel societies" in the European countries that receive them, and Hungarians want none of that. Indeed — though it may be the result of relentless government propaganda — according to a 2016 Pew Research study, 72 percent of Hungarians have a negative view of Muslims in their country, compared with the EU average of 43 percent. 

According to Gabor Gyulai, refugee program director at the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, the only group in Hungary that provides free legal assistance to refugees, Fidesz was energized when people from war-torn Middle Eastern countries started pouring across the Serbian border in 2015 on their way to Germany and Scandinavia. "They'd just been re-elected in 2014, but their popularity was going down because of corruption and other scandals," Gyulai said. "So they found this topic, and they've been abusing it ever since."

Gyulai said that government propagandists even coined a negatively connotated word — migráns — to avoid using more neutral, perhaps even sympathy-inducing words like "immigrant" or "refugee." Hungary, after all, had itself produced hundreds of thousands of refugees during the Communist era.

Keeping xenophobia levels high can be a problem in itself. It rubs off, for example, on the local Roma population, which the Orban government is working to integrate. Roma are among the biggest beneficiaries of Hungary's public works program that has given work to more than 160,000 long-term unemployed. The Pew study, meanwhile, shows that 64 percent of Hungarians have a negative view of Roma.

But perhaps the biggest problem with the Orban government's relentless focus on Muslim immigration is the pain it inflicts on asylum seekers. According to Gyulai, the government has completely dismantled the country's asylum system.

Since the refugee crisis began, Hungary has erected a fence on its border with Serbia. Its preferred method of dealing with people who somehow get through is to "escort" them to the other side of the fence from wherever within Hungary the undocumented immigrant has been caught.

This is not a formal expulsion process that leaves a paper trail: You're found without a visa, driven to the fence, pushed into Serbia and that's that. The term the Helsinki Committee uses for this extrajudicial procedure is "pushback"; according to Hungarian police data, 9,136 people were "escorted" to the other side of the fence last year.

Trying to get into Hungary to apply for asylum is increasingly useless. Thousands of people stranded in Serbia would attempt it, but the Hungarian authorities are setting arbitrary daily quotas for asylum seekers allowed to cross to the Hungarian side of the fence. According to Gyulai, the initial quota was 50. Now it's down to one person. "If a family of five is let in, no one else can come in all week," Gyulai says.

Once they're admitted into Hungary, the applicants are detained for the duration of the application process in container compounds surrounded by razor wire. There's nothing for them to do, barely any moving space in the containers, and the temperatures in them can go up to 45 degrees Celsius (113 degrees Fahrenheit) in summer. Media and nongovernmental organizations aren't allowed into the compounds. Conditions are so inhumane that the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees on Wednesday called on European countries not to send any asylum seekers to Hungary under the so-called Dublin system, under which one must apply for refugee status in the first EU country one enters.

In most cases, weeks or months in a shipping container — 101 people live like this in Hungary now, according to the UNHCR — will be wasted. The rejection rate in Hungary last year was 70 percent for Afghans (they're told they can move to safer regions within their own country), 74 percent for Iraqis and 60 percent for Syrians.

Even the applicants who succeed can expect nothing from the Hungarian government. They are given 30 days of rudimentary support in an open reception facility strategically placed near the Austrian and Slovak borders. There are no language courses or employment programs. The Hungarian authorities hope the newly minted asylum recipients will just go away, and they do. Few stay the full 30 days.

The system is designed to last. I asked Gergely Gulyas, head of the Fidesz faction in the Hungarian parliament, why the government was so worried about migrants to a relatively poor country when more attractive destinations are available for them. "Our living standard is about 69 percent of the Western European one," he replied. "When it gets to 80 percent, it'll become a problem, and we don't want it."

The finishing touch is coming, probably in May, soon after the Hungarian parliament reassembles. Fidesz, armed with a supermajority, aims to push through what's been dubbed the "Stop Soros package," which would crack down on nongovernmental organizations that help migrants. The Orban government accuses Soros, the financier and philanthropist, of hatching an evil plan to flood Europe with immigrants to undermine national cultures.

If the legislation takes effect as drafted, the groups will be forced to obtain licenses from the government to "help immigration" — a process Gyulai doubts his group will be able to complete. Even if it succeeds, it'll have to pay a 25 percent tax on all foreign contributions, including not just contributions from Soros charities, but also from EU and UN organizations. The group's lawyers, who helped 234 clients get asylum last year (out of the total of 1,216 who received protection in Hungary), could be banned from the detention camps and even the border area.

Even though various European and international institutions have condemned Hungary, the Orban government is willing to take a stand. To the Orbanites, it's a matter of national sovereignty, the core of their political creed.

I asked Kovacs why the government couldn't make a deal with the EU, relieve the political pressure it faces, and let in a couple of thousand refugees who could easily be absorbed. He would have none of it. "All trouble always looks minor when it starts," he said. "We can't have our ability to decide for ourselves gradually eroded."

I doubt that international pressure can achieve much except provoking Orban step up his anti-refugee, anti-Muslim and anti-NGO campaigns. It won't make Hungarians nicer to the kind of newcomers they do not want.

The only possible solution to the Hungarian refugee issue is political: Not even Orban can hold on to power forever. A more welcoming culture is a matter of political change. Absent such change, the government will keep asserting its sovereignty. Any reluctant concessions it could make to EU governing bodies and courts will be matched by further restrictive measures.

The best other European countries can do is demonstrate that Muslim immigrants can be successfully integrated to society's benefit. It's a long game, but if it goes well, hard evidence will eventually convince those who don't understand yet that, unaided, Europe's aging demographics are unsustainable.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.

To contact the author of this story: Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net.

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