20th Mar 2018

Xenophobia running high before Hungary's migrant referendum

  • Far-right Jobbik demand to "close the camp" where migrants are accomodated in Kormend, near the Austrian border

Laszlo, a resident of the Hungarian town of Kormend, reflects on the government's recent decision to open a camp for migrants nearby: “Ten thousands people live here and we don’t want 300 to determine our everyday life.”

Laszlo's daughter claims her father has become stricter with her since the facility was opened. He doesn't let her walk alone after sunset any more.

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Laszlo replies: “I’m not strict. I'm just concerned about the situation out there.”

Kormend is 10km from the Austrian border. The government built a temporary camp there that received its first residents in early May.

Fear of the migrants didn't take long to rise. From the very first day, residents rushed to buy pepper spray to protect themselves against the newcomers until supplies in Kormend and neighbouring towns sold out.

The local Tesco supermarket urged its female employees not to wear revealing clothes to avoid unwanted attention from the migrants.

A local branch of the Hungarian far-right party Jobbik organised a demonstration against the camp just four days after its opening on 2 May.

Some 500 Jobbik sympathisers chanted “close the camp” during a march in the town.

Jobbik deputy leader Daniel Z Karpat addressed the demonstrators as “indigenous Hungarian brothers” and warned the Fidesz government that it would be held responsible for any crimes committed by migrants in Kormend.

He then stressed that Jobbik’s followers were nevertheless well capable of defending themselves and their homeland.

'The will of the people'

Saib, a university lecturer from Iran, decided to leave for Austria the day he set foot in the Kormend railway station. “People here are scared of us and I don’t know why. We are not terrorists,” he says.

In October, the Hungarian government will hold a referendum on the EU refugee quotas , where the question will be: "Do you want the European Union to be entitled to prescribe the mandatory settlement of non-Hungarian citizens in Hungary without the consent of parliament?"

“European leaders go against the will of their people,” said Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban in June.

“The opposition is growing in numbers and intensity. And as Europe is based on democracy, sooner or later this will lead to trouble.”

According to a recent poll published by the Szazadveg Migration Research Institute, a think-tank close to the government, 73 percent of Hungarians would oppose a new refugee camp in their hometown.

Other results from poll suggest that 63 percent of Hungarians think people recently arrived in Europe are not real refugees but “economic migrants”, and 78 percent think there is a link between the current migration wave and the terror attacks in Europe.

1 percent positive

Endre Sik, a chief researcher at the Hungarian social research institute (TARKI) says that racism and xenophobia in Hungary has reached its highest level since 1990.

In a TARKI survey published in January, only 1 percent of respondents said they had a positive attitude towards migrants and 53% showed clear xenophobic attitudes. In 2015 it was 6 percent and 41 percent respectively.

Funding cuts

According to Sik, xenophobia was high in April 2015 when the government waged an anti-migrant campaign, including nationwide consultations and billboards.

“The ruling party, Fidesz, sought to stop the progressive decline in its popularity it faced at the beginning of 2015. But in July and October last year, when tens of thousands of refugees arrived in Hungary and the media reported on children and disabled people living in precarious conditions, the level of xenophobia decreased," the researcher said.

"Then the refugees left in January, the local media lost interest in this topic and there was nothing to counter the government’s anti-refugee campaign. Hence, xenophobia raised again.”

Within the 1 percent with positive attitude towards migrants is Veronika Kozma, a volunteer for Welcome to Hungary (W2HU) group. Originally an English teacher, she now gives refugees free Hungarian lessons.

“We have beginners and advanced groups and our students come from all over the world - from Georgia to Ivory Coast,” Kozma says.

The classes are held on Sunday afternoons in a basement near Budapest city centre. It is there that, despite the friendly atmosphere, students acknowledge how difficult the Hungarian language is.

While volunteers and NGOs are eager to help refugees to integrate, the Hungarian government thinks differently. In April, it stopped all funding for migrant integration programmes and refugees have seen their monthly allowance cut by almost 50%.

This article is the first in a series exploring the central European reaction to the migrant crisis

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