The Atmosphere of Fear Taking its Toll in Hungary
By: Daniel Gyollai and Umut Korkut | Glasgow Caledonian University
The Syrian-born Canadian author and refugee activist, Danny Ramadan has been reported to be physically and verbally insulted due to his assumed Roma ethnicity at Sziget Festival in Budapest on 16th August 2018. The news perhaps comes with a shock to the general audience of the Festival, that is widely known for its cultural openness, the tolerance and respect for national diversity above all else. The assault may, nonetheless, be less surprising for those who are familiar with the current socio-political atmosphere of Hungary. The Fidesz government’s firm anti-immigrant stance and “hate campaign” brought a landslide victory for the governing party at the April 2018 General Election. Since that election the propaganda seems to have become incorrigible as the legislative machinery further curtails the rights of asylum seekers, targets civil society organizations, and threatens to dissipate the voice of dissent against the government. The most recent legislation creates a new criminal offence (‘Facilitating Illegal Migration’) that provides for the imprisonment of individuals, who extend legal assistance or humanitarian support for those third country nationals seeking asylum in Hungary. Notwithstanding the protest of a plethora of civil society organizations, including Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and the European Council on Refugees and Exiles, the Hungarian Parliament adopted the so-called “Stop Soros” Bill and the Seventh Amendment to the Constitution on June 20, World Refugee Day.
While the government has sought the opinion of the Venice Commission on the draft proposal for the legislation, spectacularly in the end the government has passed the Bill without even waiting for that very opinion. The Venice Commission, however, approached the Hungarian authorities to withdraw the new Bill eventually as it establishes criminal liability for advocacy activities, threatening members of civil society organizations who provide lawful assistance to asylum seekers. In doing this, as per the opinion of the Venice Commission, the law not only constitutes a violation of the right to freedom of association and expression, but also criminalizes the initiation of an asylum procedure on behalf of migrants. Furthermore, an earlier draft proposal of the bill, submitted in February, included a 25% tax on foreign-funded civil society organizations. While this tax was later dropped from the draft Bill, the Finance Ministry was still outspoken to impose the special tax on civil society organizations whose activities involve “organising migration”. They have asked for the introduction of this tax as a separate piece of legislation. According to the Ministry, the tax is necessary as the fight against illegal migration puts an “extra financial burden” on the state.
There have been a series of amendments to the Hungarian Constitution some of which referred to the issue of migration. The most recent, the Seventh Amendment of the Fundamental Law went further than the previous one to ascertain that “no alien population would be settled in Hungary”, and it would be the responsibility of all public authorities to protect the “constitutional self-identity” and “Christian culture” of the state. As of now, it is unclear whether the EU is considering imposing sanctions of any sort against the new provisions of the Fundamental Law. According to its critics, however, the Amendment contradicts EU Law, and undermines human rights and the rule of law. Moreover, it provides that asylum seekers arriving at Hungary through the territory of a country “where they would not be exposed to persecution or a direct risk of persecution” shall not be entitled to receive asylum in Hungary. The Amendment further provides for the establishment of administrative courts. The new court system would fully substitute for the authority of regular courts in administrative cases, including asylum issues, and the President of the Administrative High Court shall be elected by the Parliament. This leaves the new court system to be monopolised by the government as it holds a two-thirds majority in the Parliament.
The EU has not been complicit with the developments in Hungary adversely affecting human rights of asylum seekers and the functioning of NGOs assisting asylum seekers. The most recent infringement procedure against Hungary by the European Commission is a response to the “Stop Soros” Bill and its incompatibility with the EU law, including the Treaty on the Functioning of the EU and the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights. (N.B. further infringement procedures are ongoing against Hungary due to its non-compliance with, inter alia, the Asylum Procedures Directive, Return Directive and the Reception Conditions Directive.)
To make matters worse, those civil society organisations and activists who stand up for migrants’ rights are becoming increasingly under attack in Hungary. In June 2018, Hollik István MP, member of the governing coalition from KDNP Christian Democratic People Party, openly incited against Amnesty International right in front of its offices in Budapest. The politician marked the entrance with stickers, an action similar to when the Refugee Centre where the Jews lived during World War II was “signed” with a yellow star.
While at fieldwork in Southern Hungary in June 2018, we came across the impact of the fear and hatred campaign on everyday life. During our visit to Szeged, a county capital in Southeastern Hungary, we witnessed the complete oblivion of the locals of their proximity to the transit zone where asylum seekers are kept since September 2015 and the asylum seekers’ experience within. What is even more startling is that Szeged and the surrounding villages used to be at the forefront of the management of the 2015 refugee crisis, given its close proximity to the Western Balkan route across the Serbian border. During our visit many people expressed their relief that the city was no longer “occupied” by asylum seekers.
In conclusion, it looks as if despite the 2016 refugee quota referendum being inconclusive, the government has achieved its goal to foster a general feeling of fear among the public. While, on the one hand, the general public opinion on the European Union remains positive in Hungary, the anti-immigrant propaganda that has simultaneously bolstered anti-EU sentiments resulted in a victory for Fidesz, on the other. Witnessing these dual trajectories, we, therefore, raise the question, whether the conflicting attitudes towards EU policies are symptoms of the emergence of a new concept of Europeanisation that privileges the pursuit of certain conservative principles as opposed to those core liberal values the EU was founded upon and is to stand for.