Driven by domestic politics: anti-immigration policy in Hungary

Refugee march in Hungary, September 4, 2015
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Refugee march in Hungary, September 4, 2015

Xenophobic sentiments are traditionally high in Hungary but the reasons for Fidesz’ harsh stance on immigration are domestic.

Hungary has never experienced a refugee influx on the scale of that seen in 2015. The number of migrants arriving in the country peaked during the third quarter of 2015, when more than 100,000 asylum seekers arrived in Hungary. After the closing of its southern border the inflow dropped to near zero. In the first three months of 2016, the number of asylum applicants grew slightly. Since early May 2016, the average number of daily illegal border crossings into Hungary has been around 130.

It is also true that these asylum seekers submitted applications in Hungary only for formal reasons and, almost without exception, then moved on to Western Europe, Germany being their primary destination. In the early 1990s, during the Balkan Wars, there were more genuine asylum seekers in Hungary but these stayed for an extended period.

Between January 1st 2015 and March 31st 2016, the Office of Immigration and Nationality handled 186,260 cases. Some 98 per cent of these were terminated because the applicants had left the country right after they had registered and of the 4,423 decisions taken, only 660 (15 per cent) were positive.

Decisions made by the Hungarian Asylum Authority, 2015/01/01 – 2016/03/31
Type of decision Number of decisions Proportion of total decisions Proportion of positive decisions
Acknowledgement as refugee 185 0.1% 4.2%
Acknowledgement as subsidiary protected person 465 0.2% 10.5%
Acknowledgement as person authorised to stay 10 0.0% 0.2%
Refusal 3,763 2.0% 85.1%
Terminated 181,837 97.6%  
Total 186,260 100.0%  








During 2015 there were major shifts as to the asylum seekers’ countries of origin. In the first two months of the year, migrants from Kosovo were in the majority but starting in the spring, the number of migrants arriving from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan increased dramatically. In the period between January 1st 2015 and March 31st 2016, the top four source countries were Syria (36 per cent), Afghanistan (26 per cent), Kosovo (13 per cent) and Pakistan (9 per cent).

Background to Government policy

Xenophobic sentiments are traditionally high in Hungary. The ‘Demand for Right-Wing Extremism’ Index,  (subcategory ‘Prejudices and Welfare Chauvinism’), which measures the level of anti-immigration sentiment and homophobia in a society, lists 45 per cent of the Hungarian population as strictly opposed to immigrants in 2013. Based on this fact, the Hungarian government has taken a harsh stance on migration from the very beginning, in order to exploit fear and anti-immigrant sentiment for domestic political purposes. The topic of the refugee and migrant crisis has been framed and presented to the public as a series of threats that migration allegedly brings, (e.g., diseases, crime, terrorism, economic downturn, cultural repression). The debate on migration has become polarised and there are no grey areas; you are either pro or contra.

Hungarian PM Viktor Orbán and his ruling Fidesz party launched a communication campaign well before the refugee and migration crisis had even reached Hungary but it was geared to its own political ends. The Charlie Hebdo attacks in France in January 2015 gave Orban the opportunity to speak out against immigration into the EU and Hungary on the grounds that it caused terrorism in Europe. The campaign against refugees, migrants and the ‘welcoming policy’ of German chancellor Angela Merkel and the EU has continued, becoming ever more strident: In April 2015, a National Consultation on Immigration and Terrorism was launched; followed by a billboard campaign in June; Parliament passed stricter asylum regulations in July; the situation at the Keleti train station in Budapest escalated  in August due to the inefficiency of the Hungarian authorities; and finally there was the completion of the border fence between Hungary and Serbia in September. Even though there are hardly any refugees and migrants now in Hungary, efforts to make political capital out of it continue.  Fidesz is trying to keep the topic at the top of the public agenda with plans to hold a referendum against binding EU quotas (for redistribution of refugees) most probably in October 2016.

The rhetoric used by Fidesz politicians including PM Viktor Orbán includes all the elements that are usually part of the toolkit of far-right forces: instead of using the word ‘refugee’ they label all migrants ‘economic migrants’ or ‘subsistence immigrants’; they link migration to criminality and terrorism; promote cultural fears by contrasting Christian Europe with Muslim migrants; play on conspiracy theories claiming that migration is organised by unseen powers and George Soros himself;  they exploit  anti-establishment feeling by presenting Viktor Orbán as the only leader within the EU who listens to the people and dares to say what other leaders dare not; and finally, they play on Euroscepticism, blaming the EU (Angela Merkel personally) for the crisis.

Fidesz’s stand on migration rooted in domestic politics

The reasons for Fidesz’ harsh stance are solely rooted in domestic politics. Fidesz has been weakened and forced onto the defensive as a result of corruption scandals, internal conflicts and unpopular policy decisions. The refugee crisis has been a golden opportunity to regain the political upper hand, recapture the political initiative, steal the show from the far-right Jobbik party and eliminate all other issues from public discourse that could damage party interests. Current developments, however, look beyond the race with Jobbik and involve a broader objective. Viktor Orbán and his party have once again implemented the tried and tested strategy of dividing the political arena into national and anti-national camps and insisting on treating all issues along this fault line. Anyone questioning a position taken by Fidesz is automatically relegated to the anti-national camp and becomes an agent of ‘foreign interests’. This means that the entire opposition on the left, as well as civil society organisations and human rights activists critical of the government are defined as "traitors” or “pro-foreigner". Fidesz’ efforts have paid off as it has managed to increase its support by 5-6 percent, while its major challenger from the right, Jobbik, has been unable to exploit the migration issue and has even lost support. The opposition on the left has been forced into an unpopular reactive role and its popularity has essentially stagnated.

This article is part of our dossier "Crossing borders – refugee and asylum policy in Europe".

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