This piece was published by Open Democracy in September 2015.
While the Hungarian government uses a timeless mix of methods – fences, racism, police force, self-pity and tear gas amongst others – to argue against the right of people to flee war and attempt to gain sanctuary in Europe, we must remember it is not the only country doing so.
Hungary’s attitude reflects the xenophobic rhetoric of the current British government. It takes lessons from Australia, a country that detains its asylum seekers in off-shore processing camps. Calling out eastern Europe for its “crisis of shame” deflects and belittles the inaction of wider Europe and the world, draws attention away from the recent decisions to go to war, and displaces responsibility for refugees to the ‘frontline’ of the Schengen zone.
There is still no joint EU approach for processing the unprecedented numbers of refugees. The next EU summit will not be until October and yet refugees continue to arrive in the poorest countries in Europe by the thousands on a daily basis.
Many crises are manufactured and elongated for purposes that are not immediately obvious. The Hungarian failure to provide basic amenities to refugees as they came across the Serbian border looked a week ago like a tactical move of denial designed to heighten conflict. Refugees at the border were treated like animals in pens at the processing ‘camps’.
The widespread coverage of refugees escaping into cornfields in an attempt to avoid registration was depicted in western media as another sign of Hungarian heartlessness and incompetence; within Hungary, however, it was yet another demonstration of the lawlessness and disorder of refugees. Now, refugees crossing the Hungarian border are arrested. Escalating the impression of conflict served the Hungarian government well: it legitimises the criminalisation of refugees crossing the military-protected razor-wire fence, punishable with three years’ prison. A sad black comedy: refugee camps – no; prisons – yes.
It is unhelpful to speak of ‘democratic European values’ when democracy, let alone European values, have always been half-hearted, distorted and circumstantial in modern day Hungary, as well as partial all over Europe.
The ‘east-west’ European divide is not only an outcome of geopolitical history. It is also the result of an intentional maintenance of European peripheries, whereby post-2004 accession eastern Europe shares only 30% of the EU’s total wealth. Furthermore, this accession has been a painful process between unequal ‘partners’; the transition road to capitalism has seen the death of entire sectors and the hollowing out of welfare and community.
Eastern Europe’s crises of democracy are reflected in the same democratic crises affecting the European project post-2015 Greek bailout: the rise of neo-nationalist parties and sentiments in France, in Austria, in Finland, in the UK and elsewhere.
Rising nationalist sentiments hint at en masse disenfranchisement of workers across Europe, brought about through ever-greater economic precariousness. Hungary is near the bottom of the EU (economic) pile. Its Fidesz government will trumpet its GDP achievements, but they are short-term.
Alongside a new Constitution that took over media stations and reorganised the courts, the past few years have seen an institutionalisation of fear, corruption, racial tensions and intolerance for the homeless and the less well off. High unemployment and low opportunities for well-being have led to upwards of half a million Hungarians leaving the country since 2010 to seek work abroad.
Ironically, from the vantage point of the current ‘crisis’, Hungarians are increasingly prominent modern economic migrants within Europe and the wider world. Thus, responses to the refugees need to reflect the long-standing and continually unfolding Hungarian crisis – one from which there appears no immediate resolution, but rather a long, painful route to ever-growing gaps and recriminations between the elite, the poor, and those leaving the country.
Instead, what we are treated to on a daily basis is the depiction of a barbarian Hungary in the western European media (at the expense of acknowledging widespread civil voluntary efforts from individuals and civil society groups for refugees). Worsening economic conditions means that at the fore of much Hungarian angst is that all echelons of Syrian society are fleeing.
Western European media focuses on the English-speaking doctors, dentists, lawyers and mothers whose life histories have aired daily on such broadcasts as BBC Radio4. Hungarian media, on the other hand, focuses on the unskilled and jobless. There is distrust in Hungary as to who the refugees are: images of Syrians on train tracks screaming at Hungarian police were viewed within the country not as an expression of frustration but as an example of duplicitous behaviour. Videos of how the Syrian family ended up there gained traction instead (theatrically, in protest, self-inflicted).
The BBC emphasises that refugees are poor and desperate. What of the food they refuse, and the shelters, clothing and waste they leave behind? For The Guardian this was a form of protests by the refugees. To local Hungarian news, however, the trash demonstrates that the refugees are not only ungrateful and disrespectful, but also not genuine, as they weren’t ‘desperate enough’ to take what they were given.
CNN was awed at the former Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány’s taking of a dozen refugees into his home to personally cook for them. What does the average Hungarian, knowing Gyurcsány’s questionable acquisition of private wealth, feel when he talks about the mansion that can fit so many? Not the same awe and respect I can assure you.
These responses highlight western Europe’s distance from the realities of the conflicts at train stations and roadsides between refugees and citizens, whether in Greece, Macedonia or Hungary. The stories serve to ‘other’ the concerns of eastern Europeans, to elongate the distance between their reasons and responses, and fail to understand the roots and embedded nature of perceived threats to these Europeans’ way of life.
Contrary to commentators’ allegations that Hungary has a poor memory, its protectionism harks back to being ‘constantly’ invaded through the centuries. Unpopular though it is to learn from history, thanks to the Hungarian education system any 11-year-old will easily tell you about the last Muslim invasion of central Europe. The consequences of the Turkish occupation, even if it was 300 years ago, are still visible on the landscape, as population densities in the Great Hungarian Plain never recovered from that time of massacres.
Do not misunderstand the point I am trying to make here. The Ottoman invasion and the refugee crisis are not the same process or even directly comparable: the point is that slips of the astute Hungarian political tongue find receptive listeners in Hungarian-educated minds, making the comparison seamless and inevitable.
The Hungarian memory of its oft-invaded country has led to a culture that easily sees itself as a victim, forever enduring, and always on the wrong side of history. Social science research has found that Hungarians identify time and again as “sufferers” amongst their European compatriots; the New Economics Foundation found that Magyars have the lowest levels of personal well-being in the EU, and the highest rates of suicide. Modern strident nationalism does the rest, keeping these events of history fresh and threatening.
Modern nation-states and systems are built on the free flow of goods but not of people. We have an international convention on the status of refugees, international humanitarian aid regulations and policies, even domestic ones. However, there is no right to a better life enshrined in our agreements nor in the ways in which we deal with each other.
Rules and regulations, if they are to constrain a Hungarian, should arguably apply to all, and Hungarian officialdom states that it is merely trying to apply the EU’s own rules to people seeking to enter its borders. If we are not happy to relax these rules and re-think the point of nation-states, then we must concede that they are within their rights to register those seeking to cross into the Schengen zone. Admittedly, we must not accept the means by which they are doing so, with the ‘point’ of the fence now appearing as a means to avoid registering any refugee at all.
Hungary is not politically concerned with its lack of humanitarian image. The crux of the Hungarian government’s approach to refugees is to dispute the entanglements of time and crisis. What are refugees along a spectrum of time? They are refugees today. In a year or two, however, those granted asylum will become settled migrants looking and competing for work in a system that is in crisis. We don’t live in a world where issues can be isolated for very long.
Crises bring focus: immediate harm and threat to body and property make the senses coalesce; our hearts beat faster at the immediate need to provide refuge and security to those war-torn and exhausted this minute, tonight, when the temperatures are dropping and people must sleep on the concrete of a train station floor. Viktor Orbán, however, denies this moment as crisis.
Orbán claims that it was two years, six weeks, or whenever it was that a refugee crossed the Syrian border that their moment of crisis stopped. The prolongation of their journey by leaving the camps in Turkey, or Jordan, was a choice, says Orbán. It was a conscious decision to eschew the life of the camps to seek a more prosperous and permanent one in Europe. For Orbán, this makes refugees ‘economic migrants’ in Europe. It is an arbitrary line drawn in the sand, the making and legitimising of one part of the journey as necessity, and the other a flight of voluntary fancy, that underpins the Hungarian response to questioning the ‘right’ of refugees to seek asylum at all.
Many Hungarians feel that they have been relegated to the underside of the European reality for too long – their somewhat displaced vindictive stance on immigration, I would argue, is minted by this simmering anger. The issue is being used to ‘stand up to Europe’.
The acceptance or rejection of refugees is framed as an issue about wider responsibility for the refugee crisis in the first place. The responsibility for the Syrian war is not evenly spread across the EU member states; the mistakes of failed western foreign policy should thus not automatically encumber the east. This argument also points to the unequal diplomatic capabilities, powers and resources within the EU, and to immigration as an issue where money or the promise of it has been unable to buy eastern acquiescence.
The local, cultural and historical all matter to make sense of today. Understanding these must not be confused with a defence of the traditional. Coming to grips with local realities is a precondition of change, and clear-eyed appreciation for these has been almost entirely absent from this debate.
To really give life and meaning to the rally cry “All of us are human beings!” requires the recognition that we are surrounded by rules that are racist, parochial and divisive and that these rules affect and regulate our bodies by virtue of where we happen to be born. These rules in our day-to-day lives are often invisible and so remain unquestioned; they are such a strong part of our societies that they become a part of our identities.
Questioning what has been ingrained by politics and education is not only difficult but is also deeply personal. It is abstract and difficult to contextualise the proportionality of half a million refugees. Whether this number of refugees is insignificant is entirely context-dependent. Rather than belittle these concerns, we need to recognise that the price of being ‘modern’, of being a part of an interconnected world system, is to individually and communally question and make flexible the boundaries of our imagined national communities. All prices are relative.