Donald Trump wants to “Make America Great Again,” but Viktor Orbán, the Prime Minister of Hungary, says he can do better. He can make the whole continent of Europe great again. How? By preventing non-Europeans from settling in Europe.
Mr. Orbán has been building Fortress Hungary for some time now. I got a glimpse of his shenanigans while in Budapest in the fall of 2016 as the George Soros Visiting Chair in Public Policy. A couple of weeks after my arrival, he called for a referendum and asked Hungarians a simple question: “Do you want the European Union to prescribe the mandatory settlement of non-Hungarian citizens in Hungary without the consent of the National Assembly?”
Voter turnout was poor. A mere 39 percent Hungarians voted, far short of the 50 percent participation required to make the referendum valid under Hungarian law. Never one to let facts get in the way of politics, Orbán, whose Eurosceptic Fidesz party has more support than all opposition parties combined, said in a televised speech:
The European Union’s proposal is to let the migrants in and distribute them in mandatory fashion among the member states and for Brussels to decide about this distribution. Hungarians today considered this proposal and they rejected it. Hungarians decided that only we Hungarians can decide with whom we want to live. The question was ‘Brussels or Budapest’ and we decided this issue is exclusively the competence of Budapest.
Orbán, the Viktator, as he is called by the opposition, decided that the 3.3 million Hungarians who voted “No” in the referendum speak for the whole country of 10 million Hungarians. After his speech, there were fireworks over the Danube River in the colors of the Hungarian flag.
The EU asked Hungary to find homes for 1,294 refugees who fled war. But rather than accept it, the Hungarian Government spent 16 million euro on a xenophobic anti-immigrant campaign. This is over 12,000 euro per refugee! This amount would have gone a long way towards providing refugees with livelihoods in a country where people live on about 257,000 HUF or $857 a month.
Viktor Orbán is ahead of Donald Trump in building his wall. He erected a more than 100-mile-long four-meter-high razor-wire topped fence on Hungary’s southern borders with Serbia and Croatia to keep refugees out. Hungarian border police, guns in holsters, swagger in pairs alongside the fence in a scene reminiscent of the Cold War. Somehow this is not enough. The Hungarian police are recruiting 3,000 “border-hunters” to join the 10,000 police and soldiers already patrolling the fence built to stop refugees.
The recruitment posts are scattered all over Budapest, including the Keleti Railway Station that became a de facto refugee camp for tens of thousands of people fleeing violence in the Middle East and Afghanistan in the summer of 2015. A Facebook page called Budapest Seen provided daily photo documentation of the arrival of refugees at Keleti. Ten thousand police and three thousand “border-hunters” to deal with fewer than 200 refugees that are reaching Hungary’s southern border with Serbia every day.
Keeping refugees at bay is one strategy Mr. Orbán is deploying; closing down existing refugee camps is another. Just before my return to the United States, I visited the refugee camp in Bicske, a small town outside Budapest. A few days after my visit, Bicske, which has been operating as a refugee facility for over two decades, was shut down as part of a government-mandated wave of camp closures. The Budapest Beacon reported that the refugees were relocated to a camp in Kiskunhalas in southern Hungary, some two and a half hours by train from Budapest. The Bicske camp’s location, a short train ride away from the capital, offered its residents opportunities to access a variety of educational and recreational activities. Some refugees commuted to Budapest to attend classes at the Central European University or language courses provided by NGOs, and to meet with Hungarian mentors from groups such as Artemisszió Multicultural Foundation and MigSzol. Christian refugees were bused to an American church each Sunday morning. Moving the residents to Kiskunhalas deprived them of these opportunities.
Human rights advocates and some NGOs believe that the Fidesz government’s decision to close the camp is not simply a matter of allocation of resources but part of a broader political strategy to push refugees out of Hungary.
Orbán is promoting his strategies among leaders of the other Visegrád Four countries: Poland, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia. Anti-immigrant sentiments and xenophobic rhetoric are on the rise in Poland where Mr. Orbán’s friend, Jarosław Kaczyński, the Chairman of the ruling Law and Justice party, spews the same hatred of Muslim refugees.
Sadly, EU institutions, including the European Commission and Council, have remained virtually silent on the hate campaigns spreading in Central Europe. Civil society groups and scholars, including anthropologists, have been much more vocal. The Migrant Info Point in Poznań, Poland has spearheaded a campaign with a slogan “Together We Build One Poznań” to raise the local community’s appreciation of and support for the increasing diversity in the city. On November 23, 2016, the Institute of Ethnology and Cultural Anthropology of the Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań organized a national summit that brought together anthropologists from all universities around the country with the explicit purpose of issuing a manifesto against xenophobia, racism, and hate speech. These are small steps—albeit in the right direction.
Elżbieta M. Goździak is Research Professor at the Institute for the Study of International Migration at Georgetown University.
Naor Ben-Yehoyada and Jessica Robbins-Ruszkowski are the contributing editors for the Society for the Anthropology of Europe.