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'Fight to the death' over refugees

Dan Nolan, BudapestSeptember 14, 2016

Hungary's upcoming referendum on EU quotas has kept migrants in the news, which suits Viktor Orban as he envisages a further fence. Critics say the government's anti-migrant drive is a diversionary tactic.

Hungary's border fence to Serbia
Image: DW/A.V. Pal

Hungarian border police, guns in holsters, swagger in pairs alongside the razor wire-topped fence in a scene reminiscent of the Cold War. However this is Roszke 2016. Hungary's four-meter high fence on its border with Serbia has been in place for a year now, and the drama of the refugee crisis is mostly gone, but not forgotten, in this sleepy corner of Europe.

"In the eyes of many, it still resembles the Iron Curtain," one resident of Szeged, Hungary's third-largest town, 13 kilometers (eight miles) from Roszke, told DW. "But most of those people would also say they understand 'the need' for the fence, even if it does not look good - physically or philosophically."

It was the far-right mayor of a nearby Hungarian border town who first suggested an anti-migrant barrier in late 2014. Then it seemed implausible that Hungary - a key player in the dismantling of the Iron Curtain - would consider putting fences back up. However the Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has a history of adopting the policies of Hungary's far-right, and as the EU struggled to coordinate a common policy, he took the most anti-refugee stance in the bloc.

The anti-migrant rhetoric has chimed well with Hungarian voters. In August Orban's party, Fidesz, had 47 percent support amongst decided voters, with the far-right Jobbik and the Socialist Party trailing behind on 18 percent and 17 percent respectively, according to pollster Republikon.

Now Orban has been publicly touting another barrier. "One fence is not enough," he said in late August. Another "very serious fence" will be built along the southern border, as well as facility to hold "hundreds of thousands of migrants," Orban added.

Refugees enter at a trickle

However, Orban's assertion is not currently in evidence at the border. The number of migrants being apprehended has fallen to pre-crisis levels, and even hit zero on several days earlier this month. That is a stark contrast to the height of the refugee crisis in September 2015, when as many as 10,000 migrants were apprehended on some days.

Migrants wait in line at a transit camp for food donations
The number of migrants crossing into Hungary has fallen dramaticallyImage: DW/A.V. Pal

Now "transit zones" at the border stations of Roszke and Tompa allow entry into Hungary to 30 migrants a day. Mostly Afghans and Africans these days, the migrants are transported to the open camp at Vamosszabadi near the Austrian border. Open camp facilities ostensibly house migrants waiting for asylum applications to be processed, although they are free to leave whenever they want. Orban's posturing as the protector of Europe is also cast into doubt with a closer look at the numbers: Vamosszabadi's capacity is only 204, meaning that it would fill up in days, unless - as the Hungarian authorities admit is the case - many migrants quickly disappear from the facility.

If Hungary is now a minor transit country for migrants, the recurring theme of the government's PR campaign for the upcoming referendum on the EU's migrant quota system is of a strong government repelling a national invasion. On October 2, Hungarians will vote on the question: "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?"

Migrants collect food donations from volunteers, watched by a police officer
Volunteers bring food several times a day for those waiting at the borderImage: DW/A.V. Pal

The accompanying 16-million-euro government information campaign has sent some 4.1 million anti-migrant booklets to Hungarian homes, while government messages have been plastered across thousands of bus stops, lampposts and billboards. Poster slogans read: "Did you know that nearly one million immigrants want to come to Europe from Libya alone?" and "Did you know that the Paris terror attacks were carried out by immigrants?" Hungarians living in other EU countries have received "personal letters" from Orban, in which he urges them to vote no in the referendum: "I'm asking you not to risk the future of our children," Orban writes.

Istvan Ujhelyi, deputy leader of the opposition Socialist Party, said at the weekend that Orban's "hate mongering" is paving the way for Hungary to exit the EU. The Hungarian campaign increases hatred "not only against migrants but against Brussels and the EU" and serves to divert attention from the government's failure to resolve issues around the twin crises of health and education in Hungary, Ujhelyi added.

Orban is certainly on safer ground with the migrant topic, as his government's centralization of Hungary's education and health systems prompted mass protests from employees of both professions over the summer. Chronic underfunding left Hungary's hospitals owing their suppliers and service providers a record HUF 71 billion (229 million euros) in 2015. Thirty-two percent of Hungarians consider healthcare to be the country's most pressing issue, compared to 17 percent who point to migrants, according to a Zavecz poll released on Tuesday. Meanwhile the delivery of new curricula just one day before the new school year began on September 1 has added to widespread anger among teachers.

Recruitment drive for 'Border Hunters'

Hungarian police are now recruiting a 3,000-strong force of "Border Hunters." Under the new scheme, after six months of training, civilians will be deployed to the border with guns, pepper spray and batons. After a trial period, they will receive salaries of around 220,000 forints a month. By way of comparison a starting teacher can earn just over 100,000 forints per month in Hungary, and a new doctor in Budapest 140,000 forints.

Migrants wait around in a transit camp
Refugees in the transit camps have little to do but waitImage: DW/A.V. Pal

One year on from the completion of the border fence, Orban has said a referendum win will mean the beginning of a "fight to the death" against EU plans to distribute migrants across the bloc.

Back at the border, hundreds of commuters still cross from Serbia to Hungary daily, while thousands of students make the trip on a weekly basis.

"The fence does not affect them," the Szeged resident told DW. "When you see something every day, your perception develops a sort of blindness.