In June, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán announced that his government would build a fence along the Serbian-Hungarian border to keep illegal immigrants out of the country.
The xenophobic campaign in Hungary has recently shifted into turbo mode. At the beginning of June, the government came out with a billboard campaign suggesting that immigrants were taking jobs away from Hungarian citizens. Soon after the launch of the posters, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán announced that his government would build a fence along the Serbian-Hungarian border to keep illegal immigrants out of the country. Meanwhile, the government’s anti-immigrant campaign has led to unprecedented unity among the opposition: a joke party and a blog started fundraising for their joint counter-campaign and raised more than HUF 30 million (EUR 100,000) from small contributions in only five days, and there were days when they received HUF 1 million (EUR 3,333) per hour.
“If you come to Hungary, you cannot take jobs away from Hungarians” was the sentence that started an avalanche a month ago in Hungary. At the beginning of June, news portal Index.hu reported on the government’s planned poster campaign aiming at informing immigrants about what they cannot do if they set foot in the country. Of the three planned poster signs, the news portal only showed the one regarding work, but even this was enough to evoke strong reactions. Opposition party Együtt (Together), for instance, immediately announced that it would organise a movement to tear down the posters as soon as they appeared.
A much criticised pan-European anti-immigrant questionnaire preceded the giant poster campaign in Hungary. The document, titled “A National Consultation about Immigration and Terrorism”, was sent out to 8 million Hungarian voters in May. The twelve questions it contained depicted immigrants in a degrading manner—for instance, by referring to them as terrorists.
“If you come to Hungary...”
Several EU politicians declared the questionnaire to be manipulative, shocking, and unacceptable. The document received extensive publicity but did not live up to the government’s expectations. After a month, only 200,000 filled-in questionnaires had been received, which is significantly less than the response rates for the previous “national consultations”: the questionnaire addressing the government’s social policy was returned by one million citizens within a month, the questionnaire on the new constitution generated 800,000 responses, while the one regarding the creation of new jobs received 368,000 responses within one month.
It is possible that the government’s reason for implementing the billboard campaign was to generate additional responses to the current questionnaire. This theory is supported by the fact that the devastating response figure of 200,000 was announced at the same time as the campaign was launched (and, moreover, that both the questionnaire and the responses have been made available online).
Besides the posters reading “If you come to Hungary, you cannot take jobs away from Hungarians”, the government has ordered two additional signs. One reads “If you come to Hungary, you have to observe our laws”, while the other reads “If you come to Hungary, you have to respect our culture”. At the beginning of June, 333 billboards bearing these texts appeared across Hungary.
Police arrest many activists for damaging posters
Activists of the Együtt party kept their promise, and began damaging the posters right away. To their surprise, the police reacted quickly as well, arresting many of them. Based on the details of their interrogations, it has become clear that the fast reactions by the police were only possible because the billboards were being monitored. According to the proceedings, the police were ordered to secretly observe the posters of the national consultation while “not revealing their role as police”. In addition to the police who arrested the activists, at least two additional units were ordered to observe the posters. The National Police, however, have denied that the posters were guarded.
The number of activists arrested has been growing steadily nonetheless. Activists have been taken away from their homes in handcuffs at 5 a.m. and searched for at their families’ homes after publishing photos on Facebook showing them in the act of tearing down posters. Several activists decided to turn themselves in voluntarily, and walked into police stations after their acts.
Tearing down billboard posters is an offence in Hungary, and if incurred damages exceed a certain amount it can even be considered a crime, so the police have acted lawfully. However, damaging billboards is not a new thing in Hungary, and it was unprecedented for the police to take DNA samples, but even this has happened In the case of the national consultation.
An outstanding action with an outstanding result—this may be the shortest adequate description of a joint action by joke party Kétfarkú Kutya Párt (The Two-Tailed Dog Party), and the Vastagbőr blog. The two organisations announced their campaign after the first few activists were arrested. The joke party and the blog started a public fundraising campaign with a target of HUF 3 million (about EUR 10,000) in order to launch their own counter-posters, claiming that “the government’s hate-campaign has gone too far; we have to do something”.
“We believe that it is our duty to show the world and ourselves that we are not as primitive as our government,” stated their call for support which led to unprecedented civic unity.
Within only one day, HUF 9 million (about EUR 30,000) arrived in the bank account they had opened specifically for this purpose—an amount three times more than they had asked for. For a short while, they were receiving HUF 1 million per hour, even though the two organisations only accepted donations from private persons and with a limit of at most HUF 150,000 (EUR 500) per person. After five days, they had received ten times their target, HUF 30 million (EUR 100,000). This is an exceptional success, as it is very uncommon in Hungary to see private donations in such high amounts offered for political use. Parallel to the civic action, socialist party MSZP has also started to put up counter-posters. Their local organisation in Szombathely placed 24 posters with the following text:
“If you come to Hungary, you could bring us a sane prime minister!”
An iron curtain along the Hungarian-Serbian border
Meanwhile, the governing Fidesz-KDNP (Christian Democratic Party) coalition’s politicians have started making more and more extreme statements concerning immigrants. A local government politician from Szeged, for instance, stated at a press conference that local inhabitants are afraid of immigrants who have different skin colours and are dressed shabbily. KDNP President Zsolt Semjén has stated that these immigrants, coming mostly from Afghanistan and Syria, are hardly or not at all able to integrate into society and pose a threat to local inhabitants.
Closing off the borders as an option to prevent immigrants’ from entering Hungary has also come up with increasing frequency. Prime Minister Viktor Orbán first mentioned the possibility of closing the country’s southern border at the same time as the posters started to appear on billboards in public spaces. Later on, however, Fidesz politicians denied that Orbán had meant a physical closure of the borders. Given this, it came as a genuine surprise when in the middle of June the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Péter Szijjártó, announced plans for a 4-metre high, 175-kilometre long iron curtain along the Hungarian-Serbian border.
Critics are divided regarding the use of the HUF 20-25 billion project, and it is still unclear why the government has come to this decision right now. According to the Minister of Foreign Affairs, the reason behind the decision to build the fence was that among all EU states, Hungary is under the greatest pressure from immigration, and must protect its citizens while waiting for a unified European solution to the problem, which is taking too long and is very complicated.
The number of illegal crossings at the Hungarian-Serbian border could reach 120,000 by the end of the year, and the country really cannot handle such a large number of immigrants. Experience shows, however, that this would not even be necessary: the majority of immigrants do not stay in Hungary, but continue their journeys to other EU states. It is also unlikely that most of these people will be sent back to Hungary. The Helsinki Committee has recently drawn attention to the fact that last year only 827 asylum seekers were sent back to the country, and this year’s figures do not show a large increase, as during the first four months only 522 cases were registered.
Construction by soldiers and police
The border closure proposal received harsh criticism immediately after it was announced. The prime minister of Serbia said he was surprised and shocked by the news. Aleksandar Vučić stated that Serbia would not follow the Hungarian example; “we will not raise walls and will not live in Auschwitz”.
Nils Muiznieks, Commissioner for Human Rights at the European Commission, considers the fence inconsiderate and said that emphasis should be placed on better access to asylum rights rather than on limiting requests.
The spokesperson for migration at the European Commission, has also commented on this issue, stating that the Commission does not question Hungary’s right to protect its borders with a fence, but nor does it find this a good solution or recommend that such measures be implemented. “Only a few years have passed since the demolition of the last walls, and it would be a pity to rebuild these now,” Natasha Bertaud said.
Nevertheless, the prime minister of Hungary has remained uncompromising. After the summit of EU leaders at the end of June, he admitted that he sees no other solution. The fence has to be built; “if we do not build it, then soon hundreds of thousands or even more immigrants will probably be arriving in, or passing through, Hungary. I do not think this should be imposed on the country,” Viktor Orbán stated.
It is still unclear when the construction of the fence will start. Thus far, the government has only revealed that the work will be done by soldiers and police.
Proofreading by Evan Mellander