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“We came from wars and places where governments are threatening people," 20-year old Nasratullah, an asylum seeker fleeing violence in Afghanistan, told me last week. "And then we came to Hungary and police beat us a lot. I want to know why they are doing this to us. We are not animals and we are not criminals.”

I met him days after Hungarian border officials beat him severely in late May, then pushed him back to the Serbian border.  

Nasratullah is not alone. During the past two years, I have documented first-hand Hungary's response to the refugee crisis: the appalling conditions and overcrowding in camps, restrictive laws aimed at making it hard for asylum seekers to enter the country and obtain protection, and policies to make life as hard as possible for those who do.  

Migrants walk along Hungary's border fence on the Serbian side of the border near Morahalom, Hungary, February 22, 2016 © 2016 Reuters

The government doesn't just make life miserable for asylum seekers and refugees. It wants the Hungarians to hate them too. The government has relentlessly stirred up xenophobic sentiments against refugees and migrants by spewing hateful and misleading messages on billboards, in booklets, and on TV and radio nationwide. Anti-migrant rhetoric by decision makers and high-ranking public officials has become commonplace.

Asylum seekers, migrants and refugees are called "intruders" and "potential terrorists," and described as people who don't abide by laws and who are unable to integrate into Hungarian society. According to the distorted government-driven narrative, refugees pose a danger to Hungary's Christian values and traditions. In July, Prime Minister Viktor Orban himself referred to migration as "poison."

This is taking place in a country where, just 60 years ago, persecution drove 200,000 of its citizens to seek — and to find — sanctuary in other parts of Europe and the United States.

On October 2, in contempt of that history, the government is holding a referendum asking Hungarians to reject an EU agreement to share responsibility for asylum seekers. Under the deal, Hungary, a country of some 10 million people, has been asked to take a mere 1,294 asylum seekers, but the government has objected to even this small number and is trying to overturn the deal in the EU Court of Justice.

In the weeks leading up to the referendum, the taxpayer-funded anti-refugee campaign has intensified, with thousands of billboards across the country carrying hateful messages like "Did you know? Brussels wants to forcibly resettle numbers of illegal migrants the size of a city into Hungary," and "Did you know? From the beginning of the migration crisis, abuses against women in Europe have skyrocketed."

In August, the government distributed an 18-page booklet containing factual distortions and outright lies about migration and asylum to over four million Hungarian households. It links migration to increased terrorism and refers to non-existent "no-go" areas in European cities with large migrant populations, including London, Paris and Berlin, where it claims authorities have lost control, and law and order are absent.

The campaign has cost the Hungarian taxpayers the equivalent of over 16 million euros -- or approximately 12,000 euro per asylum seeker that Hungary has been asked to take. This money would be far better spent improving conditions in refugee camps and establishing integration support programs for refugees and asylum seekers in line with Hungary's obligations under international and EU law.

With Hungary's leaders encouraging hostility against asylum seekers, it is hardly surprising that its border officials show little humanity for those they actually encounter at the country's borders.

Those who cross the razor-wire fence that Hungary erected on its border with Serbia in September 2015 stand a very real risk of being pushed back to the Serbian border, often violently, as Nasratullah was. I have interviewed dozens of asylum seekers and migrants, including some women and children, with similar stories. They told me that border officials pummel them with fists, kick them, use pepper spray, and beat them with batons, often laughing all the while, then push them back to the border. The few investigations opened into the abuse have gone nowhere.

The Hungarian government denies that such abuses are taking place.

Nasratullah is now safe in Austria. But instead of fueling xenophobia and treating asylum seekers like him with contempt, Hungary's government should remind the country of its own history and create a more welcoming and humane attitude to those fleeing war and persecution who are seeking safety in Hungary today.

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