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Orban's immigration manifesto: sweeping away democracy

"We do not want to see a significant minority among ourselves that has different cultural characteristics and background. We would like to keep Hungary as Hungary," Viktor Orban, the Hungarian Prime Minister, expressing the government's stance about immigration to the State Television in the wake of Paris Attacks. Strangely reminding the slogan of the Front National – the french extreme right wing party - “France to the French”, the conservative Hungarian PM doesn't mince words regarding the ongoing immigration issue that has been particularly pressuring Hungary recently. 

Victor Orban in European Parliament during the debate on the political situation in Hungary. Source: European Union 2012 EP/Pietro Naj-Oleari

Yet, Hungary was the first former soviet satellite to ratify the Refugee Convention and the Refugee Protocol (March 1989) and took in thousands of refugees after the break up of Yugoslavia in the 1990's, but since 2010 – Orban's second mandate as the PM of Hungary - the country is clearly no longer a welcoming land.

For 5 years now, the Prime Minister has put an emphasis on spreading out his conservative and nationalist ideals that question the place of Hungary among the rank of liberal democracies. Leading a politics of intimidation, Orban's radicalized prospect for Hungary could drown the country into the authoritarian limbos. While keeping a democratic surface and a so-called pluralism, he granted himself the revision of the constitution in order to be guaranteed the two-thirds majority on the constitutional court which aimed at undermining the independence of the judiciary. In addition, the government is progressively controlling and ruling over media, NGO's and civil society organizations – what he calls “political activists attempting to promote foreign interests” - bringing about self-censorship and tackling down dissident voices. He notably suggested that “it is very apt that a committee was being formed in the Hungarian parliament that deals with constant monitoring, recording and publishing foreign attempts to gain influence, so that all of us here, you as well, will know who the characters behind the masks are.”

He has also launched a campaign to nationalize banks that would now belong for 50 % to Hungarian people, and he demands some lands detained by “wealthy westerners” to be given back to Hungarians. Benefiting from the EU when he needs to, especially when it comes to receiving European funds, Orban disregard towards Western and liberal democracies is significant and far from being tacit. He expressly said in an infamous speech in Romania in July 2014 that he seeks to reform the whole country and 'upgrade' it to a nation-state, an illiberal state; “we have to abandon liberal methods and principles of organizing a society. The new state we are building is an illiberal state, a non-liberal state”. He also praised regimes that are not known for supporting democratic values such as Singapore, China, India, Turkey and Russia, viewing their leaders, and especially, Erdogan and Putin as political references.

In contrast with these countries that hide behind the label of democracy an authoritarian regime, Orban is proud to call publicly for the establishment of an illiberal state. Fareed Zakaria, published “The rise of illiberal democracy” (Foreign Affairs Journal) in 1997 , an article which serves as a reference trying to depict whether or not a country is taking the path of an illiberal democracy. To fulfill the essence of democracy, as understood in the West, a liberal democracy – free and fair elections, rule of law, separation of powers, and protection of basic liberties - he adds that it should be combined with “Constitutional Liberalism”. While democracy itself is about promoting political liberties, “Constitutional Liberalism” is about protecting civil liberties. Considering the governmental authority, he says that “Constitutional liberalism” aims at limiting the power of the central authority, whereas democracy is about accumulating and using the power of, by and for the majority, therefore, as Tocqueville would say, a risk of a “tyranny of the majority” exists. As regards to Zakaria's analysis, Orban's government has progressively swept away the “Constitutional liberalism” aspect of the Hungarian democracy, disbanding civil liberties and the check and balances system that is supposed to limit government actions, so that the transition towards an illiberal state would be made easier.

Orban seems to have embraced the definition of a realist state, using the rhetoric of the national interests top priority with a strong emphasis on the preservation of the Hungarian identity and nation, and 'Statism', concept in which the well being of the state prevails and it must concentrate a significant power to fulfill its national interests. Nonetheless, a 'self-help' ambition cannot be achieved considering Hungary's dependence on the EU and a lack of internal capabilities. Orban's megalomaniac and paranoiac tendencies with a strong polarized view of the world (still using the Cold War rhetoric of a “Western World” vs an “Eastern World”) has changed the set of alliances of Hungary. Not only that he attempts to be a free rider within the EU, as he stated “I don’t think that our European Union membership precludes us from building an illiberal new state based on national foundations”, he is challenging EU politics by building closer ties with Russia, China, Azerbaijan or Kazakhstan, boosting trade and diplomatic relations.

(Anti) Immigration policy

More recently, he defied Brussels and pointed out the inefficiency of the measures taken by the EU to deal with immigration, considering that “Hungary must follow his own path as Brussels has failed to address immigration appropriately”. No sooner said than done, he made a point of honor drafting an anti-immigration manifesto, in which he defines Hungary's new wanted enemies: illegal migrants. Orban's reluctance towards immigration is actually consistent with his ideal of an Hungarian illiberal democracy in the making, and the economic crisis has done nothing but worsen the disregard towards economic migrants, and even more if they are in an irregular situation. As many nationals suffers poverty (in 2012, 14,3 % Hungarians live below the poverty line), the government – and somehow the population - needed to find a scapegoat to blame for the bad economic conditions, and economic migrants happen to be an easy target, recently.

In such a tensed climate in which the lower class needs to be reassured, nationalism and populism usually flourish, and Orban understood that since his roadmap from the beginning – under the scope of conservatism - is to praise christian and family values and support the “work society”. As the economic situation is not necessarily getting better, the suffering Hungarians are no longer difficult to convince that there shouldn't be funds allocated for migration quotas instead of social care and that there is no room for these people in the Hungarian workplace, or even worst, that the foreigners are stealing jobs from the nationals. While the migrants flows are intensely on the rise at the Hungarian borders, Orbans anti-immigration policies are intensified, and a shared feeling of antipathy towards illegal migrants, or migrants in general, is slowly gaining the population thanks to the government's nationalist rhetoric.

Hungary: a privileged stop on the Balkan route exodus

Since the beginning of the year, Hungary has been increasingly popular for illegal migrants fleeing from the Eastern Balkans or Middle East and Central Asia. The country now stands at the second position, behind Sweden, that counts more refugees per capita among the EU members; 46 000 people in 2015 against 2 157 in 2012. Kosovars, Syrians, Afghans, as the main asylum-seekers currently for this area, arrive in Greece, cross Macedonia or Bulgaria and then reach Serbia and Hungary. These latter are usually only transit countries; refugees aim at reaching more prosperous states such as Austria or Germany, but the large majority of them don't even have the time to set foot on these soils. The Balkan route is now the top one destination for illegal migrants due to intensified regulations on the Mediterranean route, and it turns out to be a safer, a quicker and a cheaper option and it directly enters the Schengen zone. Since Greece has been quite permissive with migrant flows, contrary to the EU rules such as not registering refugees, the responsibility to examine the asylum application goes to secondly reached countries like Hungary.




01–05 2015

Number of people detained while illegally entering the EU via the Western Balkans.





Number of people applying for refugee status in Hungary, including:




ok. 46000

- those granted refugee status





- those granted additional protection





- those holding tolerated stay permits





Source: Frontex, Hungarian Statistical Office, and the Hungarian Office of Immigration and Nationality

Challenging EU regulations

Before 1998, Hungary was altering the Geneva Convention, imposing a geographical limitation on the way to handle migrants: the authorities were only responsible for asylum-seekers coming from Europe, and non-European were placed under the care of the UNHCR. After the restriction was lifted in 2000, the Ministry of Interior established the Office of Immigration and Nationality (OIN) which since then, is in charge of asylum applications and determines who must be detained or accepted. Since Hungary acceded the European Union in 2004 and the Schengen zone in 2007, it has to comply with the EU regulations and laws regarding the management of migration flows and asylum-seekers. Under the Dublin II regulation - whose objective is to “identify as quickly as possible the Member State responsible for examining an asylum application, and to prevent abuse of asylum procedures” - if Hungary is designated responsible, it must take charge of the application process as well as the applicants.

However, as a recent case in point, Hungary attempted to infringe this rule by suspending the EU regulations in the area since Germany and Austria suggested that people who first applied to Hungary should be sent back there. After some protests, Hungary finally revised its decision. As of 2010, the combat against the illegal migrants has intensified, the asylum procedure is more and more restricted while the number of people attempting to cross the Hungarian borders soars. According to FRONTEX statistics, last year the ratio between applicants in Hungary and the number of people who were granted either the status, protection or stay permits was a little more than 1 %, whereas in 2012 it was 21,4 %. Combined with the government discourses increasingly disfavoring immigration, the statistics themselves show that the asylum application policy has been harshly reduced in only 2 years. The figures embody the government's establishment of a strong Hungarian identity, progressively undermining a semblance of multiculturalism.

Furthermore, Hungary recently rejected the mandatory distribution of migrants quotas imposed by the EU authorities considering the country was already overwhelmed by the situation; “we insist on the right to come to a voluntary decision based on individual legislation and we are not prepared to take on added burdens since we are already overburdened compared to other countries”10, the Hungarian PM said. Brussels in fact recognized that Hungary is under a growing pressure, overtaking Italy or Greece, therefore it will be granted a special status and won't have to compulsorily comply with the refugee redistribution system.

Migrants detention: the rule, not the exception

According to the UNHCR position paper 'Observations on the situation of asylum-seekers and refugees in Hungary', Hungary is in the top 3 of the EU countries that the most systematically detain asylum-seekers for irregular border entry. In its report, the UNHCR reveals that asylum-seekers are coming for detention on a daily basis, on average 93 per day, and in 2011, two-thirds of all asylum applicants were put in detention centers, with among them numerous families with children.

The right to asylum is enshrined in Hungarian Fundamental Law and the 2007 Asylum Act and Aliens Act has been set up to regulate the entry and stay of persons and their family enjoying the right to free movement (Free Movement Act) and of third country nationals (Aliens Act). However, when Orban took office in 2010, he enacted some amendments regarding asylum legislation that worsen the refugees' status and conditions. The changes mainly consisted of an increase in the maximum length of administrative detention from six to 12 months; and the detention of families with children up to one month. While the director of the asylum directorate at the OIN affirms that the detainees staying for a maximum of 6 months were the “rare odd-one outs”, many of them actually remain in jail for that long in intensely degrading conditions.

The Commission recently gave the country 8 millions euros to help it in the implementation of a migration policy, but instead of improving the detention conditions and human rights protection within those asylum centers, the government put an emphasis on security and law enforcement, allocating more resources to the administrative detention regime.

In 2012, started a series of complains that led the European Court of Human Rights to judge Hungary guilty of violating the article 5 of the European Convention on Human Rights – ratified by the country in 1992 - which says that “Everyone has the right to liberty and security of person. No one shall be deprived of his liberty save in the following cases and in accordance with a procedure prescribed by law”.

Given the harsh treatment of detainees, the UN working group on Arbitrary Detention led an investigation on site, and in October 2013, stated that‘the situation of asylum seekers and migrants in irregular situations need robust improvements and attention to ensure against arbitrary deprivation of liberty’. Hungary was urged by the UNHCR and the ECtHR to amend the 2007 Asylum Act and Alien Act in order to cope with European and International human rights standards. Therefore, according to the directive of the European Parliament and the Council of 26 June 2013, Hungary amended the Asylum and Alien Act, introducing some positive changes.

The UN Working Group acknowledged the following efforts: “the asylum detention is now based on individual assessment”, it has been introduced other “alternatives to detention such as bail”, and asylum-seekers benefit from a “separate legal regime (from immigration detention) so-called “asylum detention”. However, the UN team who was on site still deplores the detention methods that jeopardize individuals' liberty. The investigation revealed an increasing number of pretrial detainees and the arbitrary prolongation of their detention.

The OIN is allowed to keep asylum seekers for a maximum of 72 hours, then the decision to extend the detention goes to judicial authorities, whereas many detainees remain in jail without a judicial decision or a fair trial. Even though a refugee wouldn't have a criminal record he would be treated in the same conditions as in a penitentiary, with a severe lack of rights protection and of effective legal assistance. According to some testimonies, detainees confessed they suffered intense verbal and physical abuses by guards, locked in cells almost all day long, or even escorted on leash to the court hearings. The UNHCR report pointed out several deportations to Serbia, where refugees were expelled from Hungary without even considering the in-merits procedure.

Even with the recommendations to render detention a last resort, or for the shortest time possible and in improved conditions, Hungary still seems to treat refugees who only claim their asylum rights, like criminals.

Illegal migrants : a “threat to the European Civilization”

“There is no chance, we will send you back, this continent will not become your new homeland, you have your home, this is our home, we have built”, Orban, argued.

In the wake of the terrorists attacks, the Mediterranean migrants tragedy, and given the lack of crisis resolution from Brussels, Hungary took advantage of such an unstable climate to stand out and implement his own anti-immigration policy. For several months, Orban's government has turned the country into an illegal migrants bully, with an escalation of anti-immigration measures that will undoubtedly reduce refugees' chances to find safety in Hungary. Combating illegal migrants flows may well be a valid preoccupation for states, the way Hungary is handling the issue and the asylum procedures is more than questionable, as the 'propaganda' does not only prevent illegal migrants from entering the country but intentionally triggers xenophobia among the Hungarian civilians.

National consultation on immigration and terrorism

To gain people consent and support, and to spread the propaganda which brings about the amalgam immigrants-terrorists, the government launched a national consultation on immigration (and terrorism), which consists of a 12 questions survey, sent to about 8M Hungarian citizens. The questions following the diktat that sees economic migrants as a national threat overpass ethics and encourage xenophobia. Among them: “Do you agree that economic immigrants endanger the jobs and livelihoods of the hungarian people?”, “There are some who think that mismanagement of the immigration question by Brussels may have something to do with increased terrorism. Do you agree with this view?”, “Would you support the Hungarian Government in the introduction of more stringent immigration regulations, in contrast to Brussels’ lenient policy?”, “Do you agree with the Hungarian government that support should be focused more on Hungarian families and the children they can have, rather than on immigration?” “Did you know that economic migrants cross the Hungarian border illegally, and that recently the number of immigrants in Hungary has increased twentyfold?”.

Through this questionnaire, Orban clearly seeks to legitimize a tighten, stricter immigration policy. Indeed, with people consent and the power of the majority that gives the illusion that masses can have an impact in the decision-making process, it is made easier to break the EU law standards, even more if it's meant to boost the Hungarian leader's own popularity.

The relation between immigration and terrorism is explicitly approached; Orban not only calls for conservative and nationalist values – especially family values - but triggers people's fear of the “foreigner” that steals jobs, brings instability or even terrorist threats. In his letter accompanying the questionnaire, Orban points out clearly the EU inefficacy, linking again the Paris attacks with immigration matters; “this inconceivable monstrosity also demonstrated that Brussels and the EU cannot handle the immigration issue appropriately”.

Choosing his words carefully, he labels the increased flows of economic migrants as a “new type of threat”, insisting on the uncanny, on the evasive character that represents migrants; perceived as strangers. The results were expected on July 1st (but no results have been published so far), hoping that the mass opinion has coped with the government willpower to keep the security door shut to illegal economic migrants.

“Don't take our jobs!” billboards

To continue with this momentum and as part of the government propaganda, an 'awareness campaign' has been launched displaying billboards throughout Hungary that say “If you come to Hungary, don't take the jobs of Hungarians!”, or “If you come to Hungary, respect our culture”. Not so much about warning refugees to step back from the Hungarian soil insofar as the signs are in Hungarian, the strategy of this campaign is once again to influence people's opinions and win support on immigration law enforcement.

Behind these elementary stereotypes is also hidden a political game plan which is to use the same radical stance about immigration as the far right party Jobbik - the third party in the Hungarian parliament - in order to collect some backing from its extremist and racist voters. With this quite hatred call, he provoked the left which is more liberal and open to the question of immigration , triggered a huge controversy among the international community and brought about the retaliation of opponents and human rights defenders. In reaction, MEPs have passed a non-binding resolution suggesting that Hungary should be put under close control for “abuse on human rights and the rule of law”.

The United Nations expressed serious concerns as well and prepared a 'counter-offensive', drafting billboards of successful migrants that have settled in Hungary for several years. Following the same initiative, opponents satirically retaliated and made the exact same signs but with messages “Welcome to Hungary” or even “Sorry for our Prime Minister”.

Hungarian's “physical firewall”

The spokesperson of the UNHCR Kitty McKinsey said in an interview with Euronews “Any wall or fence would be a barrier to asylum, and people have the right to seek asylum; this is enshrined in the Hungarian constitution, it is a universal right. We want to make sure that Hungary keeps its borders open and for the people to be able to seek asylum and have their claims heard”. The government doesn't seem to have heard Kitty McKinsey's statement since it approved the construction of a border fence with Serbia that would cover the bordering territory all along 175 km.

Source: Délmagyarország/Schmidt Andrea, CC BY-SA 3.0

The first pieces of the 4 meters high sample section have been erected on July 13th and should be completed by the end of November. A “temporary” measure, said the government, that would serve as a physical obstacle preventing illegal migrants - from the balkans or further east - from crossing the green boundary. The wall is being built nearby the village of Subotica, 10km away from the Hungarian border, a critical point which asylum seekers who managed to go through Greece, Serbia and Macedonia on their journey from Kosovo, Syria or Afghanistan, seek to reach. Subotica has overtaken Lampedusa since the early 2015 in terms of illegal entries to Europe. Therefore, as the government spokesman Zoltan Kovacs claimed, the fence is a legitimate response to the “unprecedented migratory pressure” on Hungary.

The Serbian PM, Aleksandar Vucic, however, doesn't share the same standpoint at all, as he said “Building walls is not the solution. Serbia can’t be responsible for the situation created by the migrants – we are just a transit country . . . Serbia will not close itself in, we will not live in Auschwitz.”

Orban's decision might indeed freeze the relationships with his close neighbor but it doesn't seem to bother him as long as the country is immune to refugees. Yet, Serbia may well be blaming Hungary for taking such hard measures, the country hasn't been able to manage its own borders and let huge flows of people in. A balance between a tight control and an lack of border management must be found, if the two countries want to agree on a common policy.

The whole construction project will cost to Hungary 20.9m euros, a quite big amount of money if we consider the measure temporary, as it is meant to be demolished “if the situation get better”, in other words, if the refugees deviate their route from Hungary. May be not to scare its neighbours with such protectionist measures, the government insists on the temporary characteristic, but it sounds euphemistic as it seems more like Orban is designing a golden prison for Hungary. By closing the Hungarian's borders and introducing the image of an intrusive foreigner among the population, as some kind of threat - economic or even terrorist - the government is once again justifying the establishment of a budding illiberal democracy.

The Hungarian PM has gone even further in his anti-immigration plan, suggesting that internment camps for illegal migrants should be build outside of the EU, with mandatory work. The comparison with Auschwitz by the Serbian PM could actually be relevant...

What future for a Borderline Hungary?

Considering the anti-immigration rhetoric currently well in place in Hungary, Orban and its party succeeded to build a Manichean and cleavage society in which two ideals collides: liberalism and multiculturalism and illiberalism and conservative nationalism. Obviously in Orban's ideal-type society, the latter trumps the former; given the anti-democratic measures that have been taken recently and the great nationalist momentum hollowing out a semblance of cultural diversity.

On one hand, the Prime Minister praises the establishment of a uniformed “work society” with Christian and strong family values, so that he could rally support from workers and traditional Hungarian families. On the other hand, undermining multiculturalism, the government has been treating minorities and migrants as the pariah of the society and intensified the sense of a dual Hungarian community with both outcasts and 'good citizens' . Therefore, at the image of Orban's personality, the society is more polarized than ever. Embracing the 'divide and rule' dogma, Fidesz, the governing party, has pointed out the “persona non grata” : illegal migrants.

While the EU has been outraged by Jobbik's positions, the Hungarian extreme right wing party, it turns out that Fidesz is no less dangerous than its radical counterpart since it has incited xenophobia among a population that is already facing discrimination issues (e.g 1/4 of Hungarian have anti-Semitic viewpoints). Jobbik has been mastering moderation in its discourses in order to sound less extreme and as a result, the party is gaining credence on the political and civil scene. If Jobbik became the next governing party in 2018, it wouldn't be surprising insofar as Fidesz has prepared the ground for Hungary to host hard-line policies. Let's just hope that the opposition will be strong enough to avoid such a scenario.

As regards to the question if whether or not Hungary is anti-democratic, we could say that it gladly hasn't reached yet the point of an illiberal democracy. The institutions of the constitutional state are still in power, although limited, and the independence of the judiciary is weakened, which undoubtedly jeopardizes the upholding of fundamental rights and freedoms. However, the country is unlikely to change dramatically and become an authoritarian regime since the opposition and the civil society, backed up by the international community, has still a certain weight in limiting Orban's thirst for power.

Since 2010, Hungary has been threatened multiple times to face judgement at the European Court of Justice for infringement to EU laws and for not respecting democratic standards since the revision of the Constitution. The EU is closely observing Hungary's steps in its anti-immigration momentum, yet, the referee role of Brussels doesn't seem really effective to calm things down. When Orban defended the country's right to reintroduce the death penalty, it rose huge concerns within the international and European community which warned the country that it would faced sanctions if it actually reinstituted the capital punishment. Orban later revised his comments saying he didn't plan to reintroduce it but it should be put on the European agenda and the governments should be able to “debate about it”.

This borderline behavior that has done nothing but intensifying contentious relationships with the EU, and it could be the last straw. The EU has tolerated for a long while Hungary's downward spiral, and considering the increasing series of complaints, action should be taken in order to at least alleviate Orban's authoritative Hungary. Since his anti-immigration plan is ongoing, we don't have enough distance to predict what comes next, but one thing is sure, the near future of Hungary doesn't seem bright...

About the author:

Juliette Descamps was an intern at Institute of International Relations in Prague