Migrant phobia in Hungary eclipses concern as vote nears

Government critics fear victory for Orban and a crackdown on foreigners entering country

Children play with toys yesterday at a makeshift refugee and migrant camp close to the border between Serbia and Hungary. Photograph: Getty Images

Children play with toys yesterday at a makeshift refugee and migrant camp close to the border between Serbia and Hungary. Photograph: Getty Images


Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban hopes a referendum this weekend will strengthen his nation’s role as a bulwark against asylum seekers, but just a year ago many of his compatriots played a very different role in Europe’s refugee crisis.

As Orban inveighed against hundreds of thousands of people crossing Hungary en route for Germany, volunteers of all ages and backgrounds rallied to help them with everything from food and shelter to medicine and children’s toys.

Now their voices are drowned out and their actions widely vilified, as Hungarian society takes heed of Orban’s warning that the mostly Muslim migrants are a “poison” that threatens the security, culture and identity of Europe.

“Last year, many people wanted to help refugees and donated lots of things,” said Zsuzsanna Zsohar, who was a co-ordinator for one of Hungary’s most prominent volunteer groups, Migration Aid.

“Now, people want to shoot refugees at the border. They are seen as a faceless crowd, a demonised public enemy. This makes the situation easy to handle,” for the government, she added.

Always wary

That was when Budapest’s main train station briefly became a squalid camp for thousands of stranded migrants, and Orban erected security fences and deployed soldiers along the country’s southern borders to stop more people transiting its territory.

On Sunday, Orban wants all Hungarians to join him in rejecting a German-led quota scheme to distribute refugees among EU member states.

The referendum will ask voters: “Do you want the European Union to be able to mandate the obligatory resettlement of non-Hungarian citizens to Hungary even without the approval of the National Assembly?”

His government has spent €16 million on its No campaign, most visibly on media adverts and billboards emblazoned with message such as: “Did you know? Since the start of the immigration crisis, more than 300 people in Europe have died in terror attacks”, and on leaflets that include the outlandish claim that immigrants have created 900 lawless “no-go zones” across Europe.

“People are overwhelmingly in favour of not having any migrants here,” said Marta Pardavi, co-chair of the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, an advocacy group.

“These very simplified and hate-mongering messages are resonating with lots of people, including many who would not otherwise agree with Orban’s policies. Lots of people who say they hate the corruption, or are worried about their finances or health care or education, will add that this is one thing that they agree with.”

No major opposition group has mounted a serious challenge to the ruling Fidesz party’s campaign, largely because anti-migrant sentiment is so widespread.

Satirical response

Perhaps the most effective response to Orban’s campaign has come from the mocking posters of the satirical Two-Tailed Dog party.

“Did you know? The average Hungarian is more likely to see a UFO than a refugee in his lifetime,” declares one of the group’s billboards, while another reads: “Did you know? There is a war in Syria. ”

The No campaign is poised for a crushing victory on Sunday, but it is not clear if turnout will pass the 50 per cent required to legally validate the vote.

Whatever the official outcome of the referendum, Orban has pledged to tighten Hungary’s borders even further, to help Balkan states to the south seal their frontiers to migrants, and to challenge any EU refugee quota system in court.

Inside Hungary, these are unsettling times for those who dare to criticise the government’s treatment of refugees and migrants.

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Szilard NemethGeorge Soros

“Merely not voting No in the referendum is seen as an act of treason,” said Pardavi of the Hungarian Helsinki Committee.

“And we see a very strong sentiment that groups like ours and the Two-Tailed Dog party – which call for solidarity with people driven from their homes by war or persecution – are depicted as voices that are to the detriment of the Hungarian nation.”