This weekend the Hungarian government held its anti-migrant referendum, asking people if the European Union should be able to require it to house asylum seekers from overwhelmed Greece and Italy.
The country had been asked to find a home for 1,294 people who’ve fled war—a miniscule number considering its population of 10 million. But rather than accept it, the Hungarian government called a referendum and spent millions trying to whip up sentiment against migrants and asylum seekers.
In the lead-up to the vote, the government spent 16 million Euros of taxpayers’ money on a four-month long hate campaign, including thousands of billboards nationwide, booklets sent to 4 million households, and TV and radio ads spewing out both distorted facts and outright lies.
But still the government didn’t win. While those who did vote chose almost unanimously to reject the EU deal, many people heeded a boycott call by opposition groups and fewer than 40 percent of the electorate bothered to turn up at polling stations. This left Hungary without the necessary 50 percent turnout required for the referendum to be valid. Despite the months of propaganda, many Hungarians appear not to have bought the government’s argument.
Never one to let facts get in the way of politics, Prime Minister Viktor Orban quickly took to the airwaves in a live television speech to the nation, spinning the defeat as an “outstanding victory” and saying he’s now determined to amend the constitution to reflect “the will of the people.” After his speech, there were fireworks over the Danube River in the colours of the Hungarian flag.
Some are now asking what the referendum result means for a continent that appears unable—or unwilling—to deal with the refugee crisis on its doorstep.
From a legal perspective, the referendum was a meaningless exercise to start with. Even if voters had supported the referendum and turned up in sufficient numbers, it would have had no legal impact on the EU relocation deal, which is binding on all member states. An attempt by Hungary to challenge the deal at the EU Court of Justice, begun in December, is still pending.
More troubling is the possibility that another EU government could seek to emulate Hungary and concoct a moot referendum of their own to justify months of state-funded xenophobic rhetoric and whip up sentiment against asylum seekers and migrants in their territory.
EU institutions, including the European Commission and Council, have remained virtually silent on the Hungarian government’s hate and disinformation campaign, the referendum, and the abuses committed against asylum seekers and migrants on Hungary’s border with Serbia. The Commission has taken a first step on enforcement proceedings on some aspects of Hungary’s abusive asylum system, but it’s unclear whether it will follow through.
Despite the positive outcome of the referendum, it’s unlikely to improve the situation of asylum seekers and migrants in Hungary.
During the campaign for the referendum, Orban and his government spent months relentlessly stirring up xenophobic sentiments, casting asylum seekers and migrants as “intruders” and “potential terrorists.” Billboards warned — falsely — that sexual abuses against women in Europe have skyrocketed since the migration crisis began, while a booklet spouted the preposterous claim that European cities with large migrant populations have “no go” areas which police cannot control.
The government has made it painfully clear that asylum seekers and migrants are not welcome in Hungary. This means that the current practices of denying people fair and efficient access to asylum will continue. The situation on Hungary’s borders, where border officials show outright hostility to people trying to move to safety, is also unlikely to improve. Asylum seekers and migrants have been beaten, kicked and doused with pepper spray trying to cross the border into Hungary. Hungary’s actions undermine EU solidarity and make it less likely that asylum seekers trapped in miserable conditions in Greece will be transferred safely to another EU country.
And those who do manage to reach Hungary safely, despite the razor wire fences and the tortuous procedures, can be in little doubt about the reception they will receive. The government, through repressive policies, is bent on making life as miserable as possible for them, seemingly hoping that they might take up and leave.
Amid all the terrible rhetoric, there were some small positive moments in the referendum. Consider the activists who began their own counter-campaign with the slogan: “Stupid questions get stupid answers,” encouraging voters to spoil their ballot papers. Some 220,000 people did just this—many of them in creative and subversive ways.
We can take comfort that so many Hungarians roundly refused to be drawn into the referendum and the anti-migrant poison that came with it. It is now time for the many Europeans who agree that people fleeing war and human rights abuse deserve protection and humanity to make their voices heard.