bne IntelliNews -
The Hungarian government has decided to build a fence along its border with Serbia to stop the flow of illegal migrants, Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto said on June 17. The move is the latest lurch to the right by the Fidesz government in its bid to shore up sliding support.
The move comes as little surprise. Despite Hungary primarily being a transit country for migrants seeking to head further north, Prime Minister Viktor Orban has been railing against immigration for months. He suggested in early June that Budapest is considering all options to keep out migrants, including effectively closing its southern border. Brussels expressed alarm over the growing extremism of Hungary's approach around the same time.
"Illegal immigration presents serious difficulties for the entire European Union," Szijjarto told a news conference, according to a statement on the government's website. "The EU countries are looking for an answer but the road to a joint response appears to be long and time-consuming .... Hungary cannot afford to wait any longer." Budapest had been discussing the immigration issue with Belgrade, and plans were in place for a summit with Serbia in July. It now appears Hungary has taken matters into its own hands.
The Fidesz government plans to build a four-metre high fence along the 175km border. Interior Minister Sandor Pinter has been tasked with preparing a plan by next week.
Szijjarto insists building the barrier would not break any international treaty, and noted other countries such as Bulgaria and Greece have recently opted for similar projects on their borders with Turkey. According to estimates by Portfolio.hu, the fence could cost HUF30bn (€96mn).
Last year, Hungary received more refugees per capita than any other EU country except for Sweden, with the number of illegal immigrants surging to nearly 43,000 compared with just 2,000 in 2012.
So far this year, some 54,000 migrants have entered Hungary, and the figure is forecast by Budapest to reach 130,000. However, it's unclear According to official data, 95% of illegal entries are made across the Serbian border. Data from Hungary's Office of Immigration and Citizenship suggests, however, that the majority then look to head to the richer EU states to the west.
The closure of the Serbian border comes amid a large-scale anti-immigration campaign recently launched by the government. Billboards bearing slogans such as, "If you come to Hungary, you cannot take Hungarians' jobs," have popped up across the country, while last month, it sent a survey to 8mn Hungarian voters with questions linking migrants with terrorism.
Orban, who recently called migration a threat to "European civilisation" in another step to the right, has firmly stated his opposition to the European Union's proposal for migrant quotas, describing it as "bordering on insanity".
In recent months Orban has stepped up his populist rhetoric, in an attempt to stem a slide in support for his government and cater to voters wooed by Jobbik. The far right party is riding high in the polls, and thus strengthening Fidesz' already "patriotic" policy stance is clearly tempting for a PM that has often proved a successful populist strategist.
As it is across much of the EU, immigration is a hot topic in Hungary. A poll in April suggested xenophobia in the country has reached a 14-year high. The Council of Europe urged Budapest in a recent report to take decisive action to fight prejudice and rising racism.
However, while EU states across Central and Eastern Europe have uniformly rejected Brussels' recent push to set quota's for asylum seekers in recent weeks, none have seized upon it with such gusto as Hungary.
Security experts suggest to local media that Hungary will have to erect a complex system of physical defences and barriers to create an effective fence to keep out migrants. It appears Budapest sees no irony that almost 26 years to the day that the country began dismantling the fence that had cut it off from Austria for so many years during its time in the Soviet bloc, it has decided to build another barrier dividing Europe.
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