AT THE HUNGARY-SERBIA BORDER – The wildlife corridor in southern Hungary has been cut off. The wooded areas near the Serbian border are crowded with large herds of deer that normally would have already migrated south to cooler climes. They aren’t the only ones whose life route has been cut off.
Less than three years ago, the newly harvested fields around a sleepy frontier town on the Hungary-Serbia border were full of men, women and children walking along the old railway line connecting Belgrade and Budapest. The world knew them as “Syrian refugees,” but the hundreds of thousands crossing Europe came from war-torn Afghanistan and Iraq as well. Their destination was Munich, where they had heard that German Chancellor Angela Merkel was prepared to give any refugee shelter.
In the knowledge that they would not be sticking around, the countries on the route – which included Greece, Macedonia, Serbia and Austria – were all allowing them swift passage through their territory.
All but one country. Upon entry into Hungary, they were chased down by police, who tried to corral the migrants into “registration camps.” Beatings, water cannons and tear gas were often used against the weary refugees.
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Those who made it to Budapest were forced to remain there for days, at the Keleti train station, which had become a refugee camp overnight. The Hungarian government had decided to close the border with Austria and stop trains traveling to Vienna.
For days the world’s attention was directed toward Budapest, as tens of thousands of refugees remained stuck in Hungary. Then the government relented and the refugees were swiftly bused to the Austrian border. Prime Minister Viktor Orbán had made his point: Hungary was defending the borders of Christian Europe from the Muslim hordes.
Had the violent reaction of the Orbán government been planned, or was it just incompetence and unpreparedness? “Let’s say they didn’t try to make it any less chaotic,” says Márk Kékesi, a sociologist from the nearby University of Szeged who since September 2015 has become a full-time refugees-rights activist.
The message from the government to Hungarians was that refugees meant chaos and terror. It has been the message of a political campaign ever since – a campaign that has reaped unexpected dividends for Orbán, who will be making his first official visit to Israel on Wednesday.
Not only did it help his party, Fidesz, to a third consecutive landslide victory in the April election. It has also made Orbán, the leader of a country of 10 million, the figurehead of the wave of populist politics sweeping Europe, and a cherished partner and ideological soulmate of both Benjamin Netanyahu and the Trump administration.
This summer, the fields around the small community of Röszke are devoid of people. There are still tens of thousands of refugees not far away, stuck in miserable camps in Serbia, but they have almost no prospect of making it through and continuing on to Germany.
As soon as the buses began transferring migrants in September 2015, construction teams began work on a makeshift fence at the border nearby. First it was long coils of barbed wire, with a boxcar topped with barbed wire used to block the rail line itself. Then a more permanent fence was erected, followed by a patrol road and a second electric fence.
Ultimately, all 175 kilometers (109 miles) of Hungary’s borders with Serbia and Croatia, once open rural land over which local farmers passed at will to sell their wares and visit relatives and neighbors, were fenced off.
“Orbán says the fence stopped the stream of migrants and saved Europe,” Kékesi says. “But it was really the agreement between the European Union and Turkey, to stop the refugees from sailing to Greece, which did that.”
And while the Balkan route through Hungary has largely been shut off, refugees already in Europe are now trying the more circuitous route through Croatia and Slovenia.
While constructing their own fences, Hungarian officials inspected the ones built by Israel in the West Bank and on the Egyptian border. Israeli surveillance systems were purchased as well.
But on closer inspection, the Hungarian fence is smaller and less formidable than its Israeli counterparts. Its foundations are shallow, and at some places there are holes in the soft mud where people seem to have gotten through.
Serbian criminal gangs offer to swiftly cut refugees a passage through and transport them all the way to Vienna for 3,000 euros ($3,500) per head. But the fence has still reduced the flow down to a trickle – and the Hungarian barrier has a couple of unique features.
Immediately behind the fence, the old white border stones can be seen a few meters away. This is no coincidence. It means that beyond the gates in the fence, there is still a very narrow strip of Hungarian territory.
“Anyone caught without a visa is driven by police straight to the Serbian border and pushed out of one of the gates. Without even time to contact a lawyer,” says András Léderer, advocacy officer for the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, a group that focuses mainly on refugee rights.
Technically, this means the refugees are still inside Hungary, even though they have nowhere to go but to Serbia. And that the Hungarian government is technically not breaking international law by forcibly deporting asylum seekers before their claim is processed.
‘Savior of Europe’
The other feature of the new fence is that it includes four “transit camps,” two on the border with Serbia and two inactive ones on the Croatian border. These camps, a cluster of blue shipping containers, hidden in forests and isolated by the fence and wide dirt roads that prevent photographers from seeing what’s happening inside, are the only place the Hungarian government processes asylum applications.
“Journalists and NGO workers are not allowed inside,” Léderer says. “Only lawyers and visits by the United Nations refugees agency.”
Tens of thousands of asylum seekers may be waiting across the border in Serbia, but each camp has a capacity of only 200, and even then less than half that number are currently in the camps, since the Hungarians are working at the pace of one application per day – and not on weekends or holidays.
Hungary is proud of its tough asylum policy. It claims it “has saved Europe,” and the Orbán government is demanding that the EU reimburse it for part of the billion euros it claims to have spent on the fences and “transit camps.” But whatever the efficiency of the fence complex, it’s obviously also a prop in the government’s political campaign at home.
Strangely, the government began a strident anti-migrant campaign already in April 2015, five months before the major wave of refugees began. The campaign in its early stages consisted mainly of posters (in Hungarian, which few if any refugees understand) saying that migrants would not be welcome in Hungary. There are various explanations for the government’s clairvoyance; for example, this effort could have been targeted originally at the much smaller numbers of migrants arriving from Kosovo.
The government’s critics believe that the effort was simply an attempt to incite nationalist voters during a period when the government’s popularity was waning. The actual wave of refugees that arrived five months later was just a lucky break for Orbán.
“We simply had good intelligence,” says Zoltán Kovács, the main government spokesman, described by Politico Europe as Orbán’s “veritable alter ego.” “You should be asking why other countries in Europe weren’t prepared as we were.”
Some officials in Budapest theorize that Hungary had intelligence from Turkey and Israel, two countries with which Orbán has worked hard to improve relations, on the impending wave.
No less intriguing is the fact that nearly three years since the refugee crisis, the government’s migrant policy is still the central plank of its propaganda. It remains the main subject in both the government and private media, much of it controlled by businessmen with close ties to Fidesz. Even the government-owned television channel that broadcast every World Cup game featured a 60-second news bulletin at halftime, most of it always devoted to migrant-related “news” such as footage of troops patrolling the border fence and reports on violence and chaos related to foreigners elsewhere in Europe.
“The migration hysteria is useful to the government to crack down on civil society and the opposition,” Léderer says. “The government says that migrants equals terror equals national security, and people buy into it,” even though refugee-rights groups estimate that currently there are no more than 4,000 asylum seekers in Hungary, with virtually no new refugees arriving for at least the last six months.
But the fact that Hungary doesn’t face any real “migration threat,” hasn’t stopped Orbán from weaponizing the issue. The fear of being “overrun” resonates deeply with a small nation like Hungary, with its own unique language and culture, once hemmed in on all sides by the Germans, Slavs and Ottomans. Over the course of its history, it has experienced occupation by all three.
“Two-hundred-thousand people were crossing through our country, and you can’t control it. This touches on so many historical traumas,” says György Schöpflin, a member of the European Parliament representing Fidesz.
Despite the fact that Hungarians have a tiny chance of ever meeting an asylum seeker in their country, the government’s policies have been wildly popular. A September 2015 poll found that 79 percent favored even tougher measures.
Hungary’s Muslim community is one of the smallest in Europe, yet a Pew Research Center survey in 2016 found that 76 percent of Hungarians feared a terrorist attack by refugees, the highest proportion in all of Europe. It’s no coincidence that once it latched on to the issue, Fidesz, which between October 2014 and the start of its anti-migrant campaign six months later had been losing popularity amid corruption scandals, didn’t let go. Since then the party has climbed back to record levels of support.
Ever since 2010, when Fidesz returned to power (it was first in government in 1998-2002), Orbán has been on a relentless campaign to erode liberal democracy and ensure that Fidesz consolidates its hold on power for the foreseeable future. This has been done through the appointment of party cronies to every influential post in the civil service. The defenestration of the independent media has been done partly through legislation, but much more effectively through economic pressure by hostile takeovers and denying advertising. The constitution has repeatedly been rewritten and the court system restructured to minimize judicial review and allow gerrymandering of the electoral process.
But in the 2014 election, Fidesz only just won the two-thirds of parliamentary seats necessary to make constitutional changes, and by mid-2015 was in jeopardy of losing that majority. Orbán’s grand plan of transforming Hungary into an “illiberal democracy,” as he promised in a famous speech following the election, was at threat. The migrant crisis had reversed the party’s downward trend in the polls, but to sustain the recovery once the migrants had moved on toward Germany or remained behind the fence in Serbia, the campaign needed a face.
On October 30, 2015, in his weekly radio broadcast, Orbán supplied the face. It was of a man whose agents “support everything that weakens the nation-state” – the Hungarian-born billionaire and Holocaust survivor George Soros, “who maintains and finances the European human rights activism which encourages the refugees [to reach Europe].”
Soros’ Open Society Foundations has indeed been financing some of the nongovernmental organizations working on refugee rights. But that’s only a small part of what he has been doing in Hungary and other post-communist countries. For the last three decades, the Open Society Foundations has spent around $12 billion on promoting liberal democracy through education and activism. Some of the earlier beneficiaries of his support were Orbán himself and many other Fidesz members, who as young men studied abroad on Soros scholarships.
Soros was the perfect choice as a Mephistophelean hate figure – a man with unimaginable riches who makes no attempt to hide that he’s trying to use his money to influence the destiny of the country of his birth. The government and its media call him a “global capitalist.”
Soros’ presence is felt right at the center of Budapest, where the Central European University (or as the pro-Orbán press prefers to call it, Soros University) he founded and funds, is situated. Soros’ pictures can be seen at the entrances to the CEU buildings – at one of them is also a quote of his – “Reality has the power to surprise thinking, and thinking has the power to create reality. But we must remember the unintended consequences – the outcome always differs from expectations.”
Soros, the financial wizard who founded his fortune on his ability to anticipate and precipitate changes in the global currency markets, certainly didn’t intend that his investment in Hungarian liberal democracy would be manipulated against him in order to erode that democracy.
Many Jews, in Hungary and elsewhere, believe that another reason has made Soros such a devastatingly effective totem for all Orbán’s incitement against liberals at home and abroad. Soros conforms to a much older stereotype than the capitalist plutocrat. He’s the Jewish banker, the puppet master pulling the world’s strings from behind the screen.
The government’s spokespeople deny this charge vehemently. Not only do they insist that there is not a scintilla of anti-Semitism in their criticism of Soros, but they say a chief reason they oppose Muslim migrants entering Hungary is to defend the local Jewish community from terror attacks.
The great majority of Hungarian Jews don’t buy this. To them the way Orbán and his tame media describes Soros is all too familiar, right down to the way the angle of his pictures in the anti-Soros campaign posters makes his nose look slightly-enlarged. Even if the government never mentions his Jewishness, Jews constantly feel it’s there. But not all Jews. At least one very prominent Jew is prepared to give cover to the anti-Soros campaign – Orbán’s host this week, Netanyahu.
Netanyahu and Orbán are so close on so many policies that Netanyahu’s anti-refugee policy could have been concocted in Budapest – and not just the new border fence with Egypt (which was originally built in response to a major terror attack in August 2011 but was quickly used by Netanyahu for political purposes and an obstacle to prevent the entrance of refugees).
Netanyahu also grasped the refugee issue at a moment that was politically beneficial (though asylum seekers had been in Israel for years), and his spin doctors tried to convince the Israeli media that these migrants were both dangerous and only “economic migrants,” not refugees – just like in Hungary. The main difference between the two countries is that civil society and the courts in Israel are still strong enough to prevent an illegal deportation plan.
The relationship with Orbán is so important to Netanyahu that he was willing to give him cover, despite the barely concealed anti-Semitic nature of the Soros campaign. In July 2017, Israel’s ambassador to Hungary, Yossi Amrani, at the request of the leadership of the Hungarian Jewish community, issued a statement urging the Orbán government to drop the anti-Soros campaign.
The very next day, in an unprecedented slap down to an ambassador, Netanyahu ordered the Foreign Ministry to retract Amrani’s statement and issue a clarification saying that it was “in no way meant to delegitimize criticism of George Soros, who continuously undermines Israel’s democratically elected governments by funding organizations that defame the Jewish state and seek to deny it the right to defend itself.”
Not only had Netanyahu publicly undermined his own ambassador, he had broken all precedents by backing the leader of a foreign country against the local Jewish community. The shock waves of Netanyahu’s backing of Orbán, his guest this week in Jerusalem, are still shaking Hungarian Jewry.