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The country that helped tear down the Iron Curtain in 1989 is building a new one. On June 17, Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s government announced its plans to construct a four-meter-high fence on its 175 kilometer border with Serbia.

Iraqis wait as they are detained by Hungarian police after crossing the Hungarian-Serbian border illegally near the village of Asotthalom, Hungary, June 18, 2015. Hungary says almost 60,000 migrants have entered the country illegally so far this year, and on Wednesday announced it would throw up a 4-metre high fence along its 175-km (110 miles) border with non-European Union member Serbia. © 2015 Reuters

The proposed fence is the culmination of a several month long anti-migrant campaign by the government, which includes a national consultation on “migration and terrorism,” delivered through a questionnaire addressed to eight million Hungarian citizens that contains leading questions suggesting that everyone crossing into Hungary is an economic migrant, a terrorist – or both. The European Parliament adopted a resolution on June 10 condemning the national consultation and the questionnaire, calling on the Hungarian government to withdraw it.

The government has also launched an anti-migrant billboard campaign with messages, in Hungarian, saying things like, “If you come to Hungary, you can’t take the jobs of Hungarians” and “If you come to Hungary you must respect our culture.” Since few refugees and migrants understand Hungarian, these messages appear to be aimed more at Hungarian voters.

The move comes at a time of increased asylum applications in Hungary: double in 2014 compared to 2013, putting it in second place behind Sweden for the most asylum applicants per capita among European Union member states. Half came from Kosovo, followed by Afghans and Syrians. But they are not particularly welcome: only 9 percent of applications for asylum are accepted on the first attempt – the lowest rate in the EU.

Building fences is not the way to address Europe’s immigration and refugee demand. It will have no impact on the conflicts, human rights abuses, and poverty that drive people to try to reach EU territory. But it risks trapping people in Serbia, where Human Rights Watch documented serious abuses against migrants and asylum seekers by Serbian police and flaws in the asylum system. UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency, has described the fence as a “barrier to asylum” a statement echoed by the UN high commissioner for human rights who in a June 19 press briefing note said that the fence “may prevent asylum seekers … from accessing Hungarian territory.” The Council of Europe commissioner for human rights tweeted that the fence is “ill-advised.”

It’s also tragically hypocritical that Hungary, from where about 200,000 Hungarians were forced to flee in 1956 to obtain protection from Western countries, is currently closing its borders to those fleeing their countries for similar reasons.

Hungary should honor its human rights obligations and indeed its own history and keep its borders open to allow people to present their claims for asylum in a fair and transparent procedure. 

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