Recent Changes in Refugee-Related Policies in Hungary
Hungary is still a transit country, not a final destination for asylum-seekers.
The government’s approach has been based on securitisation of its policies and rhetoric
The already elevated level of xenophobia in Hungary increased further as a consequence of governmental anti-migrant campaigns and political actions in recent months.
The Hungarian government uses the refugee issue consciously to transform the political system.
The refugee issue according to the data
Changes in the number of asylum-seekers
Hungary is still not a target country for asylum-seekers. Moreover, due to further restrictions under its refugee policy it has become practically impossible to obtain refugee status in Hungary. BÁH (Immigration and Asylum Office) took 210,271 decisions in 2015 and 2016 altogether. 96% of all procedures were suspended primarily because the applicant left the country for an unknown location after the registration. Out of the 8,532 meaningful decisions only 940 were positive, 89% of applicants were rejected. In January 2017 the Immigration and Asylum Office granted international protection to 21 asylum-seekers (8 obtained refugee status, 13 received subsidiary protection), while it rejected 803 applications despite the fact that the majority of applicants (79%) came from areas affected by terror: 16% from Syria, 40% from Afghanistan, 22% from Iraq and 1% from Somalia. 38% of all applicants were children and 30% of them were women.
The dynamics of migratory processes
Hungary witnessed the most serious refugee wave in its post-democratic transition history in 2015, when authorities registered more than 177,000 thousand asylum-seekers. The migratory pressure decreased considerably after the closure of the southern border was completed in mid-October 2015.1
|number of registered asylum seekers2 (change over the same period of the previous year in parentheses)||42,777 (+126%)||177,135 (+314%)||29,432 (-83%)||969 (-63%)|
|number of illegal border crossings3 (change over the same period of the previous year in parentheses)||n.a.||413,043 (n.a.)||19,069 (-95%)||304 (-90%)|
A legislative amendment that came into force on July 5, 2016 has played a large role in the drop in numbers. The law authorises police to forcibly move any migrant caught within 8 kilometres of the border fence to the Serbian side of the border. These individuals cannot submit their asylum-application and thus do not show up in the statistics.
In January and February 2017 authorities intercepted 2,602 individuals in the 8-kilometre-wide lane.4 The number of migrants affected is probably lower, as presumably those taken to the other side of the fence make more than one attempt.
The government’s politics can be categorized in the context of securitisation with regards to both its policies and rhetoric. Tougher migration policies were being implemented during the anti-quota referendum’s campaign. The government repealed the integration benefit in June 2016, which had previously been given to individuals under international protection. The message here is consistent with the government’s explicit campaigns: it considers integration impossible and it does not support the process in any way.
Consequently, the government closed the country’s largest open-door reception centre in Debrecen back in late 2015, decreasing the capacity of the refugee system further from that point forward. In spring 2016, the government closed the reception centre at Nagyfa as well, while the tent camp at Körmend built as a temporary solution was made permanent. In December 2016, the relatively well-equipped refugee camp at Bicske was closed as well.
The government implemented new measures in November 2016: since then, asylum applications may only be filed in the transit zones at Röszke or Tompa, where public offices’ opening hours are observed, therefore asylum-seekers can only file their requests on weekdays. According to the data of the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, an average of ten individuals were allowed to cross the fence each day both at Röszke and Tompa, which practically means that the refugee system has been dismantled.5
The new restrictions in Hungary’s migration policies will lead to further international criticism. Already the European Court of Human Rights had denounced the laws that were in effect before the new one was approved.6 The court in Strasbourg ruled against Hungary because of the restrictive border defence laws introduced in September 2015. The basis of the Ilias and Ahmed contra Hungary case in connection to this is that two Bangladeshi citizens submitted an asylum application in a transit zone on the Serbian-Hungarian border, but the request was denied by Hungarian authorities. Afterwards, the two citizens turned to the court in Strasbourg, the decision of which was deemed “maddening” by the leader of Fidesz’s parliamentary group, Lajos Kósa7, because “Hungary was punished for obeying the Schengen and Dublin regulations.”
The most recently approved measures from March 2017 set further restrictions to migration policies. First of all, the police have been authorised to take any foreigner staying illegally in Hungary to the other side of the border fence, which in effect re-establishes the “8-kilometre-rule” approved in July 2016 to the whole country. Second, asylum-seekers allowed into the transit zones will be kept in custody and can only leave the transit zones “through the exit” in the direction of Serbia or Croatia. All adult refugees, refugees with families together with their children and all unaccompanied children between the ages of 14 and 18 can be kept in custody in the transit zones without any possibility of judicial review. The government referred to the crisis caused by mass immigration as the reason for the implementation of these rules, although currently there are barely 400 asylum-seekers in the country8.
Fidesz’s approach is highly questionable as neither the Schengen nor the Dublin regulations demand or even allow for the illegal detention of an individual of any nationality. Additionally, the Hungarian Helsinki Committee warns9 that the newly enacted regulation does actually question whether Hungary fulfils its obligations conferred upon the country by the abovementioned regulations: expelled invidudals are not screened in any way, they are not registered in any system, their data are not recorded at all and it is not checked in any database either.
Violence against migrants on the Serbian-Hungarian border
Several humanitarian and human rights organisations10 claim Hungarian authorities beat, assault and sometimes cause serious injury to migrants. Migrants say that Hungarian uniforms protecting the border often beat them, use rubber truncheons or let their dogs loose to chase after asylum-seekers near the Serbian border. According to media information, doctors in Belgrade have had to treat more injured persons who say they got their injuries from the Hungarian police since the end of February 2017. Hungarian authorities rejected these allegations, the government claims these are political attacks intended to discredit Hungarian border protection efforts. No substantial investigation has ever been launched to verify the claims.
At one point a far-right paramilitary organisation self-admittedly had an active role in attacking asylum-seekers in the border area. The leader of the organisation called Army of Outlaws (Betyársereg), Zsolt Tyirityán, can be heard on a tape from July 2016 talking about the inability of mainstream political leadership to “handle the migration crisis” and the necessity of the Army of Outlaws’ participation11. According to the leader, those in power “approached them personally”. However, as barely any migrants were able to move around freely on Hungarian territory, members of the organisation primarily spent time around Ásotthalom, the settlement led by Jobbik-affiliated mayor László Toroczkai.12 Later, authorities rejected allegations that they were contacting the organisation, but finally even the Army of Outlaws admitted the cooperation.13 It is unlikely that any government institution commissioned the Army of Outlaws because Hungarian secret services have paid special attention to the organisation – especially during the refugee crisis. Moreover, in September 2015 László Toroczkai tried to prevent members of the organisation from beating refugees near the southern border, but this obviously does not mean that the Army of Outlaws or other extremist groups could not attack migrants before or after that point in time.14
The effect of the refugee crisis on public opinion
In the Standard Eurobarometer survey of May 2016, 28% of Hungarians believed immigration was one of the two most important issues facing Hungary – respondents had 13 options to chose from.15 With this result immigration was ranked the third most important issue after health/social security (37%) and unemployment (29%). In November 2016, after half a year had passed, 30% of Hungarians still considered immigration to be a pressing issue for Hungary, moving it to second place, only trailing health issues by 3 percentage points. The perception of the issue of terrorism also changed with immigration. 4% of respondents had considered terrorism to be among the two most important issues for Hungary in May 2016, but 8% did so in November 2016.
Strong prejudices against minority groups are characteristic of the Hungarian public according to every domestic and international survey. Among other factors, this is primarily connected to Hungarians’ strong perceptions of social threats. The generally high level of xenophobia in Hungary increased further as a consequence of the refugee crisis and the associated governmental anti-migrant campaigns and political actions, including the anti-quota referendum held on the 2nd October, 2016. Yet the one and a half year-long political campaign, the most expensive ever in Hungary, was not enough for a valid referendum. The 40% voter turnout shows that the campaign considerably underperformed the governing party’s expectations, the importance of which representatives had been speaking about before the start of the last week of the campaign. In terms of public law, not even a valid referendum16 could have overwritten a decision made by the European Union. The invalid referendum could serve as a warning to the governments of the Visegrád Group regarding how much one can gain by focusing on anti-immigration policies.
The role of the strongly biased pro-government media offering highly subjective coverage to viewers during the campaign cannot be understated. The news programme aired by the publicly owned M1 channel in peak times during the night, for instance, supported the government’s stance 95% of the time according to a survey conducted by the international organisation Democracy Reporting International (DRI).17
With regards to long-term trends, Tárki’s survey found that by early 2016 the level of xenophobia had risen to record levels in Hungary and the share of people in favour of immigrants had practically fallen to zero.18 More than half of Hungarians (53%) responded that the country should not accept any asylum-seekers at all. These data show that general feelings of fear and uncertainty were replaced by a specific “enemy” in Hungary: the “migrant”. This tangible “enemy” is paired with characteristic fears, for instance, terrorism and crime.
The importance of the migration issue in terms of the political system
The Viktor Orbán-led governing party’s political strategy is to polarize society along political fault lines. The main principle of this strategy is that the governing Fidesz party divides the political field into “national” and “anti-national” camps, and contextualizes every political topic according to this division. If someone contests Fidesz’s viewpoint, they are almost automatically put into the “anti-national” group regardless of their arguments, because in the view of Fidesz the Orbán-government is the only voice of Hungarian national interest.
The conflict between the protection of minorities and minority opinion, the unconditional acknowledgement of human rights and the politically constructed will of the majority – on a national, ethnical or cultural basis - has systemic importance. In the name of the government’s capability to act it can refer to the democratic will of the public and some sort of “special state” in order to relegate human rights and procedural norms considered to be the foundations of liberal democracies to secondary roles. Therefore, the Hungarian government uses the migration issue consciously to transform the political system.
Some of the NGOs put themselves in the crosshairs of the government by criticising Hungarian authorities and the government’s migration policy. Civil society organisations attempted to minimize the negative effects of the refugee crisis and assist refugees with their daily challenges, or tried to make the governments’ decisions and their results more transparent. Consequently, they deviated from the governments’ definition of ‘acceptable society’. Several civil society organisations were consequently labelled “foreign agents” attempting to steal the sovereignty of the country in the interest of foreign powers and the “international political elite”. As such, the government expanded its scope of securitisation to now include civil society organisations as well.
In conclusion, the politics of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán are built on the logic of perpetuating conflicts rather than creating some kind of constructive national consensus. This strategy is applied to both the domestic and EU levels to set the political agenda and consolidate domestic political support.
(This analysis was first published on the website of Globsec Policy Institute)
 See more here Political Capital: The special case of Hungary in the European refugee crisis. Available online at http://www.politicalcapital.hu/hireink.php?article_read=1&article_id=324
 Statistics of the Bevándorlási és Menekültügyi Hivatal [Immigration and Asylum Office] Available online at http://www.bmbah.hu/index.php?option=com_k2&view=item&layout=item&id=177.... Last accessed 29 March, 2017.
 Rendőrség: Határrendészeti helyzetkép 2016. I-XII. [Police: Snapshot of the situation at the border 2016. I-XII.] Available online at http://www.police.hu/sites/default/files/hatarrendeszet_hk_2016._12.pdf. Last accessed 1 March, 2017.
 ORFK Kommunikációs Szolgálat: Országos összesítő, 2017.03.01. [ORFK Communication Service: National Summary, 2017.03.01.] Available online at http://www.police.hu/sites/default/files/illegalis_hataratlepes_megakadalyozas_atkiseres_szerb_szakasz_2017_02_28.pdf and ORFK Communication Service, 2017.02.01., Available online at http://www.police.hu/sites/default/files/illegalis_hataratlepes_megakadalyozas_atkiseres_szerb_szakasz_2017_01_31.pdf. Last accessed March 1, 2017.
 Magyar Helsinki Bizottság: A MENEKÜLTVÉDELEM JÖVŐJE MAGYARORSZÁGON, 2017. [Hungarian Helsinki Committee. THE FUTURE OF REFUGEE PROTECTION IN HUNGARY, 2017.] Available online at http://www.helsinki.hu/wp-content/uploads/A_menekultvedelem_jovoje_Magyarorszagon_Web_black.pdf Last accessed March 6, 2017.
 Strasbourg: Magyarország megsérti a menedékkérők jogait. [STRASBOURG: HUNGARY IS VIOLATIG THE RIGHTS OF THE ASYLUM SEEKERS] Available at http://index.hu/belfold/2017/03/14/strasbourg_magyarorszag_megserti_a_menekultek_jogait/
A Fidesz megfellebbezné a strasbourgi döntést. [FIDESZ WOULD APPEAL DECISION MADE BY sTRASBOURG] Available online at: https://mno.hu/belfold/a-fidesz-megfellebbezne-a-strasbourgi-dontest-2391838 Last accessed April 3, 2017.
 Magyar Helsinki Bizottság: ‘NEM’ A MENEDÉKKÉRŐK TÖMEGES ELZÁRÁSÁRA!, 2017.03.06. [Hungarian Helsinki Commitee: ’NO’ TO THE MASS JAILING OF ASYLUM-SEEKERS!, 2017.03.06.] Available online at http://www.helsinki.hu/nem-a-menedekkerok-tomeges-elzarasara/ Last accessed March 6, 2017.
 Kettős üzenetet közvetít migrációs ügyben az Orbán-kormány.[Two distinct messages was sent by the Orban-government about migration] Available online at https://pcblog.atlatszo.hu/2017/03/28/kettos-uzenetet-kozvetit-migracios-ugyben-az-orban-kormany/ Last accessed April 3, 2017.
 Catholic Relief Services (CRS, Katolikus Segélyszolgálat), Jezsuita Menekültsegítő Szolgálat [Jesuit Refugee Aid Service] (JRS), Human Rights Watch, Helsinki Bizottság [Helsinki Committee], Orvosok Határok Nélkül [Doctors without Borders]
 „I can say very proudly that the Army of Outlaws played a substantial role in handling the refugee crisis and with those in power approaching us personally. Obviously, this is connected to the fact that they cut back Homeland Defense so severely they needed this self-organised circle of civilian sportsman to be where they were needed when they were needed in a given situation.” http://www.atv.hu/belfold/20160720-tyirityan-a-rendszer-a-betyarsereget-is-megkereste-a-migransvalsag-megoldasara/hirkereso , https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5WFqEjgPcls
 Berágott a Betyársereg Toroczkaira. [The Army of Outlaws is angry at Toroczkai.] 2015.07.13. Available online at http://index.hu/belfold/2015/07/13/beragott_a_betyarsereg_toroczkaira/ Last accessed March 6, 2017.
 Az ATV gyilkossággal vádolja a Betyársereget. [ATV accuses the Army of Outlaws of Murder.] Available online at http://betyarsereg.hu/felharsantak-jeriko-harsonai-az-atv-gyilkossaggal-vadolja-a-betyarsereget/ Last accessed March 6, 2017.
 (1) Crime, (2) Economic situation, (3) The education system, (4) The environment, climate and energy issues, (5) Government debt, (6) Health and social security, (7) Housing, (8) Immigration, (9) Pensions, (10) Rising prices, inflation, cost of living, (11) Taxation, (12) Terrorism, (13) Unemployment.
 The question of the Hungarian migration quota referendum was the following: Do you want the European Union to be able to mandate the obligatory resettlement of non-Hungarian citizens into Hungary even without the approval of the National Assembly?
 Available online at http://hvg.hu/itthon/20161002_vigyazz_magyar_jon_a_migrans_magyar_media_kvotakampanyban Last accessed March 6, 2017.
 TÁRKI: Csúcsot döntött az idegenellenesség, és elfogyott az idegenbarátság, 2016.04.04. [TÁRKI: Xenophobia at record levels and nobody’s in favour of immigrants anymore, 2016.04.04.] Available online at http://www.tarki.hu/hu/news/2016/kitekint/20160404_idegen.html. Last accessed 1 March, 2017.