Hungary’s hypocritical migration policy

Demonstration against the National Consultation
Teaser Image Caption
Demonstration against the "National Consultation" the government has launched about the topic on migration

"We’d like to retain Hungary as Hungary", said Victor Orbán in January 2015. Overt and hidden xenophobia are significant in his country. How a multicultural and multi-ethnic society became a mono-ethnic and closed one.

Hungary had a multicultural society for a millennium. The Hungarian “migrants” who came from beyond the Urals in the ninth century mingled with the already settled population. In 1015, Hungary’s first Christian King, Stephen I, in instructions to his son reminded him of the importance of immigration:

"Guests and immigrants are so useful that they deserve to be mentioned in the sixth place in these Instructions. Even the Roman Empire … became famous because of the many noble and wise people who came from different parts of the world…. Because, as they come from different regions and provinces, they bring different languages and traditions, different examples and armaments, and all these decorate your country, increase your court’s splendour, and prevent the haughtiness of foreigners. Because a country that has one language, one tradition, is weak and fallible. Therefore, I order you, my son, to be benevolent and to value those who come into your country, so that they should want to live in your country rather than somewhere else."

Thereafter, throughout history, the provinces which belonged to the Hungarian Crown incorporated the most varied ethnic groups, many of whom arrived at the king’s invitation or simply migrated into the territory, such as Serbs escaping the expanding Ottoman Empire.
According to a census in the late eighteenth century, out of Hungary’s then 9.3 million inhabitants, 1.5 million were Romanian, 1.25 million were Slovak, 1.1 million were German, 0.8 million were Croatian, 0.6 million were Serbian, and 0.3 million were Ukrainian and Ruthenian, not to mention smaller groups of Armenians, Greeks and others. The 3.5 million Hungarians constituted 37% of Hungary’s population.

Modern Hungary is largely homogenous

In 2015, Hungary has 9.8 million inhabitants. The 2011 census found a total of approximately 700,000 persons who considered themselves as belonging to another ethnic group or who used a native language other than Hungarian. Modern Hungary is an ethnically largely homogenous country in which resident foreign nationals constitute less than 2% of the population.

This state of affairs has two major roots. First, the Treaty of Trianon, which concluded the First World War in 1920, reshaped Hungary’s boundaries, ceding more than two-thirds of its territory to its neighbours. With this territory went more than half of the population, although 7 million of the 10 million former inhabitants now living outside Hungary were not ethnic Hungarians. Second, Socialist rule between 1948 and 1989 maintained what was essentially an anti-migration policy which severely restricted—and in certain periods completely prohibited—both immigration and emigration.

So the question arises: have the return to democracy in 1990 and membership in the European Union since 2004 led to the development of a coherent migration policy responding to global population movements affecting all of Europe and also reflecting domestic processes? The short answer is no, the long answer is no, and the situation is deteriorating.

Migratory processes are normally divided into three major subsets (often overlapping, but conceptually distinct): regular migration, and two versions of irregular migration—asylum-seeking and “illegal” migration. In the context of the EU, a further division may be suggested: that of regular intra-EU movement ("mobility") and movement between the EU—or more precisely its member states—and third countries.
Let us take these up one by one and reflect on the present situation.

Regular migration to and from Hungary

The number of third-country nationals who live in Hungary is fairly small, as immigration from outside the EU is minimal. Statistics published by the Office of Immigration and Nationality and by the National Statistical Office differ substantially, as they use different methodologies and cover different data. According to the National Statistical Office the number of foreigners residing in Hungary with long-term purposes was 140,536 on 1 January 2014. The largest groups of third-country nationals were Chinese (12,716) and Ukrainians (8,317). US and Serbian nationals follow, each numbering between 3,000 and 4,000. The rounded total number of non-Chinese Asians was around 16,000, 4,500 Africans lived in Hungary and the Americas were represented by 2,000 non-US nationals, while 500 foreigners were from Australia and Oceania. Most of the immigrants, therefore, were EU nationals, of which Romanians (31,000), Germans (18,500) and Slovaks (8,000) formed the largest groups.

So the sheer numbers do not justify any concern, especially if we consider that most of the Romanian, Serbian, Slovak and Ukrainian nationals had in fact been members of the Hungarian minority in those countries and therefore speak Hungarian and share most cultural patterns with the inhabitants of Hungary. Nevertheless, overt and hidden xenophobia are significant. In 2014, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán poured oil on the fire by introducing anti-immigration and anti-refugee rhetoric, culminating in April 2015 in a government proposal to launch a "national consultation" on migration. In a speech delivered to an assembly of the Hungarian diplomatic corps on 25 August 2014, Mr Orbán promised "rock-hard official and domestic policy not supporting immigration at all". His various statements during 2014 still distinguished between intra-EU mobility and the entry of third-country nationals, as well as between regular and irregular migration. By the spring of 2015, however, all such differentiation had vanished, and the rhetoric is now clearly anti-immigrant and subtly anti-refugee.

In a less-than-elegant manner, Orbán chose the day on which the commemoration of the attack on Charlie Hebdo took place to announce on Hungarian television that

“[e]conomic immigration is a bad thing in Europe. One should not regard it as useful because it only brings trouble and dangers to the European people, therefore it has to be stopped—this is the Hungarian position." Orbán then continued, claiming that "we do not want to have significant minorities with different cultural traits and backgrounds; we’d like to retain Hungary as Hungary."

Soon after, on 20 February 2015, a political debate was held in the Hungarian parliament entitled "Hungary does not need subsistence migrants" (the term in Hungarian is "megélhetési" which is a pejorative expression usually referring to someone who pursues a profession without vocational drive, i.e. merely to earn money). Speakers from the governing parties — Fidesz and the Christian Democrats — constantly confused the three types of migration, and the tirades had little merit beyond engendering xenophobic and anti-refugee sentiment.

The background for the debate was a sharp increase in the number of Kosovars and other migrants who crossed the Serbian-Hungarian border in late 2014 and early 2015. This will be discussed below, but three final points on regular migration (or so the government frames it) are worth mentioning:

  1. In connection with the new EU Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund, the Hungarian government commissioned the preparation of a migration strategy. The 2013 document (Confirmed (but not published) by Government resolution 1698/2013)—which is hardly mentioned in the public debates—is one-sided, as it remains silent on emigration. In the context of regular migration, it stresses that immigration for economic purposes and by those who bring knowledge should be increased "for economic and demographic reasons". After listing measures which could enhance immigration by investors, low- and high-skilled employees, as well as students and researchers, it even mentions improving Hungary’s image as a welcoming and integrating country!
  2. Emigration from Hungary to other EU countries and to North America has increased rapidly in recent years. Whereas accession to the EU in 2004 did not trigger a major exodus, the economic crisis starting in 2008 and the deteriorating mood in the country has led to a major wave of emigration. Figures are widely debated, but a conservative estimate would put the number of Hungarian citizens living abroad at 280,000 to 350,000. One has to add to this figure those who emigrated earlier and were naturalised in another country. The tendency is illustrated by official German statistics, which counted 65,000 Hungarian nationals in 2010, 90,000 in 2012 and 114,000 in 2013. Estimates are widely divergent; the Ministry for National Economy believed in 2013 that 300,000 Hungarians may be employed in the United Kingdom alone, to which 100,000 in Germany and 50,000 in Austria must be added.
  3. In May 2015, the government intends to send a questionnaire to each adult citizen to enquire about their views on matters of migration. This is called a "national consultation"  and it has met with fierce resistance by professional researchers in the field because the questions confuse asylum-seeking and regular migration, and are deeply prejudiced. The accompanying letter states that “subsistence migrants cross the border illegally and while they pretend to be refugees, in fact they come for work and social services”. Absolutely biased questions follow, linking migration with terrorism, claiming that "according to some, Brussels’s policy on immigration and terrorism has failed; therefore a new approach is needed", and asking whether the respondent agrees. Question number 12 is no less outrageous: "Do you agree with the Hungarian government, according to which Hungarian families and children yet to be born should be supported instead of immigration?” The four dozen migration researchers who signed a protest letter rightly claim that these questions are “devoid of any professional or moral basis".

Seeking international protection in Hungary

Taking up the second type of migration, i.e. seeking international protection, one may observe that the situation has several discouraging features. Before listing them, here are the figures: in the decade before 2013, the annual volume of asylum applications fluctuated between 1,600 and 4,600; 2013 brought 18,573 new asylum-seekers, while 2014 saw an even higher number — 42,777 — and the trend continues in 2015.

The disheartening elements are the following:

  1. There are a large number of disappearing persons (never returned under the Dublin system of identifying the EU state responsible for refugee status determination). Whereas roughly 60,000 applications were registered in 2013–2014, the number of decisions on the merits was in the range of 9,500 with 15,685 cases pending at the end of 2014. This entails at least 35,000 cases (appearing as terminated in the statistics) in which the applicant did not wait even for the first instance decision, but moved on, presumably to another EU country.
  2. Recognition rates are extremely low. In 2013, the need for some form of protection was recognised in 360 cases (as opposed to 4,185 denials); 2014 ended with 503 positive decisions against 4,553 refusals.
  3. Asylum-seekers are detained under conditions verging on inhumane treatment. A special form of detention for asylum-seekers was introduced in July 2013, allowing for the total restriction of their freedom of movement. This replaced the much criticised aliens police detention system, but still has numerous detractors. Occasionally, leading German and other courts have suspended the return of asylum-seekers under the so-called Dublin regulation enbecause of the conditions in detention.
  4. The administrative procedure consists of only one level, against which there is only one appeal to a court. This minimises the chances of correcting any mistakes made by the authority.
  5. The integration of those recognised as being in need of international protection (refugees and beneficiaries of subsidiary protection) is generally not successful. Language barriers, lack of employment opportunities and a generally unfriendly atmosphere prevent most protected people from integrating. Instead, many move on to other EU countries and either re-apply or choose to remain undocumented.

The surge in asylum applications, starting in 2013 came unexpectedly, especially after the re-introduction of the detention of large numbers of asylum-seekers (especially single men). Half of the new arrivals were Kosovars, whose numbers dropped in early 2015 when German border police began to assist the Serbian authorities in policing the Serbian-Hungarian green border. Syrians, Afghans, Iraqis and other non-European asylum-seekers, however, still seem to have practically unhindered access to Hungarian territory.

These processes have certainly contributed to the above-mentioned anti-immigrant rhetoric, as the government was unwilling to admit that most of the people coming from conflict zones were in need of some form of protection. Instead, the government targeted the Kosovars—most of whom were indeed neither refugees nor eligible for subsidiary protection.

Undocumented (illegal) migration

Undocumented migration has a peculiar profile in Hungary. The number of irregular border crossings and apprehensions is quite significant, even by European standards. Most of those detained apply for asylum. Others agree to be returned to Serbia in hopes of crossing Hungary undetected next time.

The number of "classical" illegal migrants, i.e. those who live in Hungary and may be engaged in illegal employment is minimal, however, compared to the number of border-crossers. The number of such migrants expelled from Hungary in 2014 by the aliens police authority or the courts was less than 2,000.

Hungarian migration policy is hypocritical in many ways

In the context of regular migration, the 2013 strategy encourages migration for work in both the low- and high-skilled sectors. It acknowledges the need to fill jobs with immigrants due to Hungary’s extremely low domestic birth rate and ageing population. The recent government rhetoric denies its own strategy, however, and seeks to impede both the immigration of third-country nationals and the mobility of EU citizens. It is never mentioned, of course, that the communitarian argument—according to which those who already live in a country are entitled to exclude foreigners—is fundamentally flawed, as it fails to explain which moral principle may justify such exclusion. Nationality and the related right to live in Hungary is seen as a feudal privilege, derived from the will of God, not subject to sharing with the world’s poor, who were born unluckily to the wrong place/family.

In the area of seeking international protection, documents assert that Hungary is fulfilling its international and EU obligations, but in practice—again—the government is using terminology which stigmatises every asylum-seeker as an abuser of the system and—in its recent plan to circulate a questionnaire among the entire population—it intends to generate xenophobic sentiments, not least by linking asylum-seekers with terrorism and domestic unemployment.

Illegal migration into Hungary with a view to stay and work clandestinely is minimal, as those crossing the external border of the Schengen area in the Serbian-Hungarian section either apply for asylum, and thus become documented, or move on sooner or later to other countries.

Is there hope? Not as long as Mr Orbán is eager to attract far-right voters in order to stabilise his waning popularity. But his rule is not eternal and the return of a centre-left or enlightened conservative government could take past lessons and the present demographic situation seriously. It ought to acknowledge that a country which has sent so many refugees abroad should remain accessible to those fleeing unspeakable suffering in Syria and other crisis areas, and that the diminishing size and growing age of Hungary’s population calls for an orderly, controlled immigration policy—lessons which the entire EU could appropriate as well…