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Hungarian voters weigh in on refugee quotas

Hungarians have begun voting on the EU's refugee quota in a referendum likely to reject EU quotas. Hungary has barely accepted any refugees and has been a leader among European nations rejecting any EU-wide resettlement.

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Polling opened at 6 a.m. (0400 UTC) Sunday and will remain open until 7 p.m. local time as Hungarians are asked to weigh in on the EU's migrant quotas designed to distribute migrants more evenly around the EU bloc.

The "Yes" or "No" question voters are being asked is, "Do you want the European Union to be able, without consulting the Hungarian parliament, to decree the compulsory settlement of non-Hungarian citizens into Hungary?"

The "No" camp is expected to win comfortably but the result would be invalid if less than 50 percent of eligible voters turn out.  A poll published Saturday by the Publicus Institute found that only 46 percent of 1,000 respondents said they would vote, down from 54 percent last month.

Hungarian premier doubles down

Prime Minister Orban repeated warnings Saturday that mass migration was a "threat... to Europe's safe way of life" and that Hungarians had "a duty" to fight the failed "liberal methods" of the "Brussels elite."

"We can send a message to each European... telling them that it depends on us, European citizens, to bring the EU back to reason, with common effort, or let it disintegrate," Orban wrote in the right-leaning Magyar Idok newspaper.

The EU proposal - spearheaded by Germany and approved last year by most of the 28-nation EU bloc - is aimed at easing pressure on Italy and Greece, the EU's main entry points for hundreds of thousands of people mainly fleeing war in Syria. It would also take some pressure off Germany, which has absorbed the largest number of migrants.

Opposition parties and human rights groups held protests ahead of the vote, accusing the Hungarian government of stoking xenophobia given the lack of asylum-seekers in the country.

"This referendum is an effort to mobilize fear and hatred," economist Tamas Bauer told the AFP news agency at a rally in Budapest on Friday.

The plebiscite also threatens to further split the EU, already weakened by its worst migration crisis since post-World War II and the UK's decision to leave the EU.

Flüchtlinge Migration Kroatien Grenze Ungarn (picture-alliance/AP Photo/P.David Josek)

A group of migrants, seen through razor wire, crosses a border from Croatia near the village of Zakany, Hungary, on September 26, 2016. Rallying cries against migration have dominated the debates ahead of a government-sponsored referendum seeking political support for the rejection of any future mandatory EU quotas to accept refugees.

Hungary led anti-migrant backlash

Hungary was the first country to erect a wall on its border and ban migrants, including refugees, from entering its territory, with several other countries later following its example. In December it and Slovakia also filed a legal challenge to the EU quota plan.

More than 400,000 refugees, mainly fleeing war and strife in Syria and Iraq, transited through Hungary toward northern Europe in 2015 before Hungary sealed its southern frontier with razor wire and enacted tough anti-migrant laws. Other countries on the overland Balkan route followed, stranding some 60,000 migrants in Greece, who are now languishing in refugee centers.

An EU-Turkey deal struck in March halted much of the influx, but its future remains in doubt following a summer coup attempt and increasingly strained relations between EU leaders and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

jar/ (AFP, dpa)