Kester Eddy in Budapest -
On Sunday afternoon some 300 refugees, mostly from the Middle East, were camped out on the tiled floor of he spacious underground hall at Budapest's Keleti railway station. True, it was not exactly an uplifting sight, but it was not so wretched as the seething mass of listless humanity huddled here in ragged rows of cardboard and soiled blankets just three days previously.
The spontaneous march on September 4 – in which some 2,000 migrants upped sticks and doggedly walked 20 miles west of Budapest on the main motorway to Vienna – attracted global media attention and did the trick. The government of Prime Minister Viktor Orban - which had been steadfastly holding to the letter of European Union regulations for the past two months and insisting on processing migrants illegally entering its Schengen border with Serbia – suddenly found buses and trains to take everyone to the Austrian border, where more trains waited for the onward trip to Germany. According to Reuters, by Sunday lunchtime, about 8,000 migrants had entered Germany over the weekend.
Not that anyone is fooled that the crisis is over: reports indicate that another wave of refugees is starting to arrive in Subotica, Northern Serbia, ready in the next few days to scale the razor-wire fence now supposedly protecting Hungary's southern border. By 5pm on Monday another 2,100 migrants had crossed in from Serbia at Roszke.
With German officials saying their decision to open the borders was only a temporary humanitarian offer, the whole sorry affair of the past fortnight could be soon repeated, except, Orban has insisted, that this time any marchers will be strictly barred from using – and potentially throttling – the important motorway to Vienna.
The world has looked on in shock, questioning how Hungary – a country from which 300,000 citizens fled, penniless, to a friendly welcome in the West after the failed 1956 anti-communist uprising – could be so cold and heartless to the migrants fleeing war and savagery back in their homelands.
Yet Orban insists he is only upholding European Union regulations – the so-called Dublin Agreement - by holding illegal migrants in Hungary while their applications for asylum are being processed. His hard-line, anti-migrant, policy – which he says is meant to save not just Hungary, but all of “Christian” Europe – also resonates strongly with many Magyars
“It's a good job. We can't take all these people, we're a poor country ourselves,” Joszef, an otherwise apolitical Budapest pensioner tells bne IntelliNews.
Such opinions are nothing compared to those of Jobbik, the radical right party that currently attracts support from 24% of decided voters – making it the second most popular party after the ruling Fidesz party. Jobbik insists that the military, not the police, should be sent to the border, the implication being that they should open fire on frontier violators.
Orban, certainly, does not go that far. Yet he reiterated on Friday that, if Hungary leaves its borders undefended, “tens of millions of migrants will keep coming to Europe”.
Speaking on his favoured morning state radio slot, the former anti-communist student dissident said Hungary should relay the message “to those who would come to Europe in the hope of a better life that they should not set out, because they will not be allowed to enter. Or if they are, they will be sent back home” - this a reference to harsher laws passed on September 4 on illegal migrants that critics say will clash with with EU legislation.
Certainly not all Magyars agree with their prime minister: there have been street protests by liberal-minded groups, many have volunteered to serve the migrants at reception centres, and a few, most notably Ferenc Gyurcsany, the former prime minister and now head of the Democratic Coalition, have invited migrant families into their homes to shelter.
Yet opposition parties – Jobbik aside – have appeared weak and mostly badly prepared for the challenge, Bulcsu Hunyadi, an analyst with Political Capital, a Budapest-based think tank, tells bne IntelliNews.
“The Socialist Party seems undecided on the issue. It criticises the government’s actions and organises donations for asylum seekers, but the party does not really have a clear vision, or policy responses, to the situation. It proposed a five-point solution only on August 27,” he says.
Meanwhile the smaller opposition parties mainly focus on more humane treatment for asylum seekers, along with a common EU solution, with only the tiny Together Party proposing a detailed policy package. Not that it really matters, Hunyadi says, since government dominance of the media means the opposition is largely unable to get its message out to the public.
So far, so good then for Orban and his Fidesz government, since it began its criticism of would-be asylum seekers with references to “scrounging migrants” back in January.
In Hunyadi's assessment, “By using harsh rhetoric, a billboard campaign and by accusing political opponents who support [a more lenient] migrant policy of betraying national interests, Fidesz has been able to stop the steady decrease in its public support and stabilise its voter base.”
However, it may all yet go awry for Orban.
“Although it has been talking since January, it took the government months to react at the practical level. It failed to provide more resources to the police and immigration office, and the authorities failed to organise travel for asylum seekers to reception centres. It was volunteers who started to provide such services at the end of June,” he points out.
If the public takes note, and realises the government has concentrated on communications, preparing stricter legislation that may prove impossible to enact within European Union rules, and an expensive fence that has signally failed to deter migrants – then, Hunyadi argues “this whole migrant issue might well backfire on Fidesz".
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