Journey to Justice

Refugees in Hungary

by Dr Nora Berend

‘The people decided: the country must be defended’. This is the claim of a new poster, displayed as part of the latest government campaign in Hungary. True to government promises, police started to defend Hungary at the newly built wire fence on the Serbian border, where refugees, including children, were subjected to water guns and tear-gas. An Associated Press journalist reported that police forced him to delete the film he took of a police dog attacking refugees. Police denied that such an event took place. Members of a Serbian TV crew also complained that Hungarian police beat them up.

Earlier posters exhorted would-be immigrants not to take the jobs of Hungarians. All the posters are in Hungarian. The refugees who had flocked through Hungary and are now stranded at the closed border do not understand Hungarian. Nor had they ever intended to stay. They do, however, need help. Sometimes the need food, sometimes information, and sometimes just kindness. A segment of Hungary’s population understands that; volunteers brought food, clothing and toys to refugees before the border was closed. Opposition politicians, such as Ferenc Gyurcsány, and well-known humanitarians, such as Gábor Iványi, have been active in providing much-needed aid.

The government, however, has relentlessly fomented hatred and hysteria, presenting the refugees as malicious ‘economic migrants’ and a danger to Hungarian society. The government lead is followed by the Catholic Church. Would the church harbour refugees? In response to a journalist’s question, the archbishop of Esztergom and Budapest claimed that the church would be guilty of human trafficking in this scenario. The Roman Catholic bishops issued a statement expressing concern for their coreligionists in the Middle East, but at the same time emphasizing that every state has a right and duty to defend its citizens. They had not a word to say about their concern for human beings who happened not to be coreligionists. Some individuals joined in the hate campaign with gusto. Images of camerawoman Petra László tripping up a father holding his child and kicking children travelled the world.

The government’s stance is all of one cloth. Fomenting hatred against various minorities to garner support has become part of political culture. It is no accident that in trying to justify his anti-refugee policies, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán declared that he was not asking to distribute Hungary’s Roma population in Europe; a statement that instantaneously branded Hungarian citizens as unwanted aliens. Orbán’s party has been dismantling democracy within the country over the last five years. While during that time many in the UK paid no attention to what was happening in Hungary, the true face of the regime is now on public display. Internal and foreign policy are intimately linked. Those Hungarians who recently demonstrated in Budapest called on Viktor Orbán to be ashamed of himself for his role in both. The gravest danger to what was most valuable in European civilization over the past centuries came from within Europe, not from outside. So far, the twenty-first century promises to be no exception.

Dr Nora Berend is Reader in European History at Cambridge University

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