Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán was the first foreign leader to congratulate Donald Trump on his 2016 U.S. presidential election victory. With his relentless anti-Muslim, anti-migrant rhetoric, the recently reelected Orbán has long been an inspiration to those in Trump’s circle.
But while Trump faces strong criticism for having separated thousands of migrant children from their parents, Orbán has been able to do something Trump and hard-line, anti-migrant agitators like Stephen Miller could only dream of: He’s made it a crime to help migrants at all.
On Wednesday – World Refugee Day, ironically – Hungary’s parliament passed a series of “Stop Soros” bills to criminalize what it called “supporting illegal immigration.”
Orbán and his right-wing Fidesz party, which won a third straight election victory in April, have long waged a vindictive campaign against Hungarian-born Jewish billionaire financier George Soros. Using what many observers have decried as anti-Semitic language and themes, Orbán and friends have accused the octogenarian of plotting to take over the country and conspiring to bring millions of Muslim migrants into Europe.
Wednesday’s Stop Soros bills criminalize vaguely defined “organizational activities” to help asylum seekers exercise their legal rights – and anyone who helps organize or fund those activities.
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It’s also now a crime to provide legal assistance to asylum claimants, or even provide “information materials” about how to seek asylum.
It has angered nongovernmental organizations and human rights groups in Hungary and beyond. They say Hungary has effectively criminalized acts that are legal – and even required – under both international and Hungarian law.
“Criminalizing essential and legitimate human rights work is a brazen attack on people seeking safe haven from persecution and those who carry out admirable work to help them,” Amnesty International’s Europe Director, Gauri van Gulik, said in a statement.
“In its current format, the law clearly violates European norms,” said Zselyke Csaky, a senior researcher at independent watchdog Freedom House and an expert on European rule of law issues. She added that the penalties included in the law were made much stricter – and much less predictable – than in previous drafts.
Csaky noted that the bills also earned the ire of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and the Venice Commission – the Council of Europe’s advisory body on legal affairs. They warned in a draft analysis that the bills as proposed before being passed “[criminalize] activities that are fully legitimate” and are “not in line with European standards.”
None of this mattered to Orbán and Fidesz, who ignored a request from the Venice Commission – and even the European People’s Party (EPP), the European Parliament grouping Fidesz is a member of – and passed the bill without waiting just two more days to hear the commission’s final report.
“The Hungarian people rightfully expect the government to use all means necessary to combat illegal immigration and the activities that aid it,” Interior Minister Sándor Pintér wrote in a justification attached to the bills.
“The Stop Soros package of bills serves that goal, making the organization of illegal immigration a criminal offense,” Pintér added. “We want to use the bills to stop Hungary from becoming a country of immigrants.”
But Hungary is hardly about to become a country of immigrants. Official Hungarian data show that, as of April, there were fewer than 3,600 asylum seekers living in a country of just under 10 million people, and fewer than 300 asylum claims have been approved so far this year.
However, some immigrants to Hungary don’t appear to be such a problem for Orbán and Co. Between 2013 and 2017, over 24,000 foreign citizens – mostly from China – obtained permanent or temporary residency permits through Hungary’s “Golden Visa” program before it was suspended due to allegations of corruption.
While the laws are nominally about migration, they appear to be yet another in a long line of Orbán-driven attacks on civil society – and, of course, Soros – and an attempt by Orbán to intimidate his critics and further consolidate power in the country.
Márta Pardavi, co-chair of Hungarian Helsinki Committee – a human rights watchdog – feels the intention of the bills, and the vagueness of the wording within the bills, is to further intimidate organizations like hers and to have a “chilling effect” on their work.
“It’s yet another instance of a symptom of a much larger, very dangerous phenomenon,” Pardavi told Haaretz, referencing the long line of attacks that organizations like hers have faced from Orbán and his allies.
It’s a phenomenon that observers believe could serve as an example for other illiberal politicians in Europe and beyond.
Freedom House’s Csaky worries that the “taboo-breaking nature” of the Stop Soros legislation is something that might serve as an inspiration for other leaders.
“Unless there is a forceful counterreaction,” Csaky said, “I definitely expect it to have an effect on the wider region – but also perhaps on Western European countries as well.”
But will there be any forceful counterreaction? A great deal of criticism has been directed at the EPP, which some observers have accused of protecting and enabling Orbán and helping launder far-right ideas into the European political mainstream.
“The EPP should respond by finally drawing a red line and telling Fidesz to stop criminalizing support for immigration and immigrants, as well as roll back other illiberal laws, or face expulsion from the EPP,” University of Georgia political scientist Cas Mudde told Haaretz by email.
However, Mudde – who studies populism and the far right – doesn’t think this will happen, least of all because the EPP is worried about what Orbán might be planning: He has floated creating his own right-wing, non-EPP European Parliament coalition ahead of next year’s European elections.
Pardavi thinks many EPP members “have been confronted with a dilemma,” especially as Orbán has ignored the EPP’s request to hold back on the legislation – and even floated creating his own right-wing, non-EPP European Parliament coalition ahead of next year’s European elections.
“It’ll be an opportunity for them to express concern and opposition,” said Pardavi, who hopes that EU institutions will take legal action against Hungary, including initiating Article 7 proceedings to suspend Hungary’s EU voting rights.
Csaky expects infringement proceedings to be launched against Hungary at the European level, but isn’t convinced things will go much further.
“Unless the bill on the 25 percent ‘special tax’ passes,” said Csaky, referring to a proposed bill to place a levy on organizations the Hungarian government says support illegal migration, “and unless there is movement in Poland, I don’t expect the EU to launch Article 7.”
Article 7 or not, the passing of the Stop Soros bills shouldn’t come as a surprise. A few weeks before the April election, Orbán made a fiery speech in Budapest that attacked “Uncle Georgie” Soros and “his network” – which, in Orbán’s mind, includes organizations like Amnesty International and the Hungarian Helsinki Committee.
“After the election, we will of course seek amends – moral, political and legal amends,” Orbán said in the official English translation of that speech.
But the precise word he used in Hungarian that was translated as “amends” – elégtétel – isn’t easy to translate into English. Some have translated it as “revenge” or “vengeance,” while others say the phrase implies “getting back” at someone perceived as being guilty of a wrong. Nonetheless, observers interpreted Orbán’s words at the time as a “grave threat,” and some even compared it to the speech of a dictator.
It’s clear, though, that those “amends” – or however we want to translate it – are indeed being made.