“What crime did we commit for 40 police officers to surround us? It’s like they think we are terrorists or criminals,” 48-year old Khatoon, a Yazidi woman from Iraq who had several family members who were murdered or taken hostage by ISIS, told me. For a month, she had been forced to wait in the mud at the Hungarian border to file her asylum application.
Khatoon’s analysis is spot on. Over the past two years, I have documented abysmal conditions in camps, detention of children, abusive legal changes designed to deny asylum seekers access to protection, and brutal pushbacks at the Hungary-Serbia border. The authorities are undoubtedly hoping the abuses will deter others.
Throughout this period, the Hungarian government has stirred up xenophobic sentiments against refugees and migrants and has gone to great lengths, and cost, to spew hateful messages nationwide. Along with restrictive new laws making life difficult for asylum seekers and refugees, anti-migrant rhetoric by decision makers and high-ranking politicians is commonplace.
Asylum seekers and refugees are called, “intruders,” and “potential terrorists,” all bent on destroying Western civilization, burying Christianity and the Western culture. Prime Minister Viktor Orbán himself in July referred to migration as “poison.”
The government refuses to participate in a binding EU agreement requiring member states to relocate asylum seekers equitably across the Union. Hungary, a country of some 10 million people, has been asked to accept a mere 1,294 asylum seekers, but the government has railed against even this small number and is trying to overturn the deal in the EU Court of Justice.
Prime Minister Orbán has called a national referendum for October 2, asking Hungarians whether they want the EU to impose refugee quotas in Hungary without the consent of the Hungarian parliament. A nationwide, government-financed billboard campaign began in July with messages including, “Did you know that since the beginning of the immigration crisis more than 300 people died as a result of terror attacks in Europe?” and, “Did you know that Brussels wants to settle a whole city’s worth of illegal immigrants in Hungary?” and “Did you know that since the beginning of the immigration crisis the harassment of women has risen sharply in Europe?”
This state-sponsored disinformation campaign of xenophobia costs Hungarian taxpayers the equivalent of over $18 million – or approximately $13,500 per asylum seeker Hungary has been asked to take. Imagine if this money had instead been spent on improving conditions in reception centers and establishing integration support programs for refugees and asylum seekers in line with Hungary’s EU obligations and shared EU responsibility.
The government’s anti-refugee propaganda has been amplified by pro-government media. MTVA, the state-controlled TV station, used newsbreaks during the European Football Championship, in June and the Olympic Games in August, to devote frequent airtime to anti-migrant “news” items, depicting asylum seekers and refugees as criminals, terrorists and people who come to mooch on Western welfare systems.
The horrors these desperate people are fleeing – war and oppression - are rarely, if ever, mentioned in the context of the European refugee crisis, neither in the media, nor in political discourse.
Instead, the chorus of anti-migrant voices is growing. Recently, Gyorgy Schopflin, a ruling party member with a seat in the European Parliament, suggested on Twitter that pigs’ heads should be placed on the border fence with Serbia to deter Muslim refugees from entering Hungary.
Laszlo Toroczkai, vice-president of the far-right Jobbik party, who is also the mayor of Asotthalom, a village on the Hungary-Serbian border, proudly posts pictures on his Facebook page showing images of asylum seekers and migrants lying face down on the ground with hands zip locked on their backs, captioning pictures “Hungary vs Intruders” and then a score.
Hungarian civil society initiatives and alternative media are doing their best to counter the hate. The Two Tailed Dog Party, a group that has registered as a political party to spread its views through satire, opened a counter-campaign mimicking the government campaign with its own messages like, “Did you know that the average Hungarian sees more UFOs than refugees in a lifetime?”
The EU has so far been silent on the current xenophobic anti-refugee campaign, as well as Hungary’s brutal beatings at the border.
Khatoon, whose name I changed for her protection, is still waiting in the mud to file that asylum application. She has been made to wait there by a government that spares no expense to deter people from entering Hungary. Their approach has created a miserable and legally unsound situation for those lining up for months to file an asylum claim and untenable conditions for the few who get protection. She has the odds stacked against her.