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Hungary to fend off ‘terrorist migrants’ with 175-kilometre-long border fence

A group of illegal immigrants rests in high grass near an abandoned brick factory near the northern Serbian city of Subotica on June 16, 2015
A group of illegal immigrants rests in high grass near an abandoned brick factory near the northern Serbian city of Subotica on June 16, 2015 Andrej Isakovic / AFP

Hungary on Wednesday announced plans to build an “anti-migration” fence on its border with Serbia, a move experts say is a direct spurn to the EU and a symptom of the country’s increasingly xenophobic tendencies.

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The announcement comes just as the European Union seeks to solve one of its worst migrant crises in decades by trying to persuade its 28-member states, including Hungary, to share the burden of the influx of migrants fleeing war and conflict by crossing the Mediterranean.

EU leaders are scheduled to meet in Brussels on June 25-26 to discuss a European Commission proposal to redistribute Syrians and Erytreans who have arrived in Europe.

But Prime Minister Victor Orban, whose right-wing government claims that Hungary is already taking on a disproportionate share of the hundreds of thousands of migrants who have entered Europe via the Balkans and the Middle East, has called the plan ludicrous and “bordering on insanity”.

On Wednesday, Hungary openly defied the EU’s calls for a more unified and humanitarian migrant response by instead presenting its own migrant-stemming solution: a fence reminiscent of the Cold War-era barriers that separated communist East Europe from the capitalist West.

“The EU countries seek a solution… but Hungary cannot afford to wait any longer,” Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto told at a news conference in Budapest. “We are talking about a stretch of border 175-kilometres-long, whose physical closure can happen with a four-metre-high fence.”

‘Paralysed with fear’

Experts, officials and activists have reacted to the news with outrage. Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic said he was "surprised and shocked" by the fence plan, adding there was a need to "discuss this decision with our Hungarian colleagues".

Thomas Huddleston, the program director of Migration and Integration at the Brussels-based Migration Policy Group, told FRANCE 24 by telephone from Budapest that: “Practitioners on the ground are paralysed with fear when it comes to where this country is heading in terms of its migration policies.”

“The migrant has become a pawn in Orban’s political fight with the EU. The rhetoric is extremely virulent and xenophobic where the refugee is being portrayed as a terrorist who is going to take the Hungarians' jobs, livelihoods and welfare,” he said.

“But the truth is, Hungary doesn’t even really have a migration problem. It actually has among the lowest numbers of non-EU citizens in Europe. So there’s no rational reason for this stance.”

While the Hungarian Office of Immigration and Nationality estimates that some 54,000 migrants have illegally crossed into the country this year, up from 43,000 last year, the United Nations’s refugee agency (UNHCR) in May put the number of asylum-seekers at just 13,000.

Paris attacks blamed on migration

Although Orban’s ruling Fidesz party has long been accused of flirting with the far-right for political support, experts say it has veered even further into the extremist fray after it lost a by-election in May to the radical nationalist party Jobbik.

Last month, the government also came under fire for sending out a nation-wide questionnaire that clearly linked migrants with terrorism.

The 12-question “National Consultation” asked whether Hungarians agreed that “the mismanagement of the immigration question by Brussels may have something to do with increased terrorism?” and whether “economic migrants jeopardise the jobs and livelihoods of Hungarians?”.

The survey came with a letter signed by Orban where he, among other things, blamed the terror attacks in Paris on migration.

“This incomprehensible act of horror also demonstrated that Brussels and the European Union are unable to adequately deal with the issue of immigration,” he wrote.

“Economic migrants cross our borders illegally, and while they present themselves as asylum-seekers, in fact they are coming to enjoy the welfare systems and the employment opportunities our countries have to offer,” he continued. “This represents a new type of threat – a threat which we must stop in its tracks.”

The UN immediately slammed the questionnaire.

“We are deeply concerned by the way the government increasingly vilifies people who have fled from war zones like Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq and who desperately need safety and protection in Hungary,” Montserrat Feixas Vihe, UNHCR Regional Representative for Central Europe based in Budapest said in a statement.

“[The] UNHCR believes the questions intentionally attempt to confuse refugees and asylum-seekers with so-called “economic migrants” and wrongly blame refugees for a number of purported threats to Hungary and Europe,” she said.

‘Don’t take our jobs’

Last week, the government went a step further and launched an anti-migrant billboard campaign that carried slogans such as “If you come to Hungary, you cannot take Hungarians’ jobs”.

Incidentally, the launch coincided with a UNHCR-sponsored pro-migrant poster campaign which showcased the benefits of welcoming foreigners to Hungary.

“It’s a very special coincidence that these two campaigns happened at the same time. Our aim was not to react to government measures but to show that refugees living in Hungary are the same as we are, that they want to live in peace and can contribute to the country,” Erno Simon, a UNHCR spokesman in Hungary told FRANCE 24.

Simon said that for migrants who have learned to speak and understand some Hungarian, however, the government campaign is very intimidating: “They are concerned about what the future will bring for them.”
 

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