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Hungary’s rightward shift fuels harsh refugee policy

Analysis: Response to asylum seekers hardens as center-right government competes with far-right opposition

Thousands of refugees from Syria and other war-torn countries are entering the European Union every day, and states to the south and east of Europe, entry points for many migrants, are facing the brunt of the refugee crisis. Hungary has taken an exceptionally hard line: Authorities shut down Budapest’s biggest train terminal on Tuesday to keep refugees from traveling to Germany and will decide Friday whether or not to deploy the military to its border with Serbia.

Hungarian officials have used severe rhetoric when speaking about asylum seekers, at times suggesting they could threaten the existence of a free Europe. “Would we like our children to grow up in a United European Caliphate?” said Antal Rogan, parliament caucus leader for the ruling Fidesz party, while speaking to the local Hungarian press on Tuesday. “My answer to that is no.”

Public officials in other European states have issued similarly dark warnings about the refugees, but few other EU countries have responded to migration so aggressively. In addition to shutting down Budapest’s Eastern Railway Terminus, the Hungarian government launched tear gas at refugees attempting to cross the Serbian border, erected a razor-wire fence across the same border and detained hundreds of thousands of incoming asylum seekers.

That response reflects a broader rightward slant in Hungarian politics, said Mitchell Orenstein, a professor of Central and Eastern European Politics at the University of Pennsylvania.

“This refugee crisis very much plays into the xenophobic politics of the governing Fidesz party, and the even more xenophobic politics of its right-wing challenger, the Jobbik party,” Orenstein said.

Fidesz is often identified as “center-right” in the international press, but the party’s leadership has taken a harder line over the past few years in the face of competition from Jobbik, an opposition party more frequently identified with far-right nationalist groups such as Greece’s Golden Dawn and France’s National Front. Jobbik is the third-largest party in Hungary’s parliament, with the social democratic Hungarian Socialist Party narrowly taking second.

With Jobbik gaining ground, “higher public officials from Fidesz have shifted further and further right,” said Amnesty International human rights researcher Barbora Cernusakova.

“It’s not all members of Fidesz, but there are some quite high-ranking members of Fidesz who make statements that would be easily attributable to Jobbik members,” she said.

Those high-ranking members include the prime minister, Viktor Orban, who has been remonstrated by other European leaders for making apocalyptic statements regarding the future of Europe and even suggesting that refugees could be placed in internment camps.

“There is no way back from a multicultural Europe,” he said to a domestic audience in June. “Neither to a Christian Europe, nor to a world of national cultures."

When Orban announced in April he would poll Hungarian citizens on proposals such as the creation of internment camps, Belgian politician Louis Michel described the move as “ethically untenable.”

Yet Orenstein said he believes that the refugee crisis can only benefit Orban and Fidesz, at least in the short term. That’s because it allows him to tap into a longstanding fear of besiegement.

“These are countries that have long histories of dealing with invasions from the south,” said Orenstein of Hungary and other EU border states. “Hungary is full of former mosques because it was taken over briefly by the Ottoman Empire. It was liberated via the Hapsburg Empire in the 1500s. So these things have very deep resonance in countries that are more the borderlands of Europe."

That symbolic resonance may be more important for Hungary than the practical consequences of migration. Comparatively few migrants end up settling in Hungary, preferring instead to seek refuge in Germany, Sweden or other countries further west. However, migrants who are deported from other European countries get returned to whichever EU state they first passed through, a risk Hungary may not want to accept.

By closing the train station, Hungarian leaders can cut off a transit route for refugees to reach Germany. Without that access, Orenstein explained, asylum seekers may enter the EU at a different point.

Orban’s real concern about migrants, he added, “is having them move on to wherever they’re moving on to.”

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