Returning home to Hungary after a year in the US, the first thing I did was get on a train and travel to my hometown to see my parents. I spent my last few weeks in America trying to fit my life into two suitcases, while reading the news about the refugee crisis. I was eager to get home to see the situation with my own eyes and start reporting on it. But I decided to give myself a few days off first, to eat my mom’s food and catch up with all my cousins.
That turned out to be impossible. Everyone I met was talking about the refugee crisis. “I hear the refugees have started throwing Molotov cocktails in Budapest,” said my grandmother’s friend. I felt obliged to tell her this was not true. One family member did not understand why refugees were coming to Hungary in the first place, so I talked to her about the civil war in Syria.
But there were other questions that I was not prepared for. One person suggested that the refugees were financed by the United States and that their aim was to crash the European economy. Another asked why they did not stay back in Syria to fight the Islamic State. Some people asked why they look so well fed and have good shoes. They thought that refugees should look much worse than the people actually arriving at the southern border of Hungary. A friend’s mother was worried about me taking the train alone; she thought that the possibility of meeting refugees would be dangerous.
All this took place in Kiskunfélegyháza, an idyllic small town of about 30,000 people in the Hungarian countryside, where people have never met any refugees. It is homogeneous; everybody speaks the same language, eats the same food and looks the same—white. The town sits on the highway that refugees use to get to Budapest from the Serbian border, but they bypass it. They have no reason to stop.
The people here have never met a refugee, but they watch TV, read the news and listen to what the government says about the people arriving in their country. And the government of prime minister Viktor Orbán has had one message for months: the people arriving from the Middle East are not refugees, but illegal immigrants seeking European prosperity. Hungary’s leaders and state-financed media suggest that the country is under attack by a wave of migrants who want jobs, bring disease, do not respect European culture, attack women and who have terrorists among them. The fact that this is false for the majority of the refugees—that they do not even want to stay in Hungary—does not reach people, as Hungarian media has been dominated by Orbán’s narrative.
I have no idea what Orbán thinks about Syrian refugees. He might not be a xenophobe; he might sympathize with them to some extent. He has shown many times that he can be a pragmatist; in the 1990s, he turned his liberal Fidesz party into a populist conservative organization because that is where he found a niche in Hungarian politics.
But Orbán knows that many Hungarians are afraid of the refugees arriving at the border because they are different from them—alien. According to a summer public opinion poll by the polling institute Tárki, 39% of Hungarians would not let any refugees into the country, while 56% would consider their application—only 5% think that Hungary should accept all asylum seekers. When asked about ethnicity, 76% said they would not let any “Arabs” into the country and 53% would not let anyone of the “Pirez” ethnic group into the country. This latter group does not exist; it was made up by the pollsters to measure xenophobia.
Orbán knows that Hungarians are looking for a strong leader who will protect them from the wave of migrants, something that many here perceive as akin to a natural disaster. Orbán is strengthening the deepest fears of voters, so that he can be the savior that they crave. Instead of treating the refugees humanely and educating Hungarians about the true nature of the crisis, he is using the chaos to create a siege mentality. This allows him to to strengthen his image as the protector of the country.
Hungarians are used to father figures. It started in the 19th century with Austro-Hungarian emperor Franz Joseph I, then continued with admiral Miklós Horthy, regent of the Kingdom of Hungary between 1920 and 1944. The communist era brought another such figure, János Kádár who led the country for 32 years. He is still referred to as “Father Kádár” by many people.
The arrival of democracy and free market capitalism at the beginning of the 1990s did not bring the prosperity that many people expected. Heavy industries collapsed, people lost their jobs and suddenly they were expected to compete with the labor force on a global level. Many people became frustrated and disappointed. It seems almost inevitable that they turned to a politician who promised to be a father figure who would take care of them.
Orbán promises to protect Hungary from the outside world—from multinational companies, from rising oil and gas prices, from the bureaucrats in Brussels, and now, from the refugees. At the same time, he is returning citizens their pride by engaging in nationalistic rhetoric centered on how special Hungarians are and how great Hungary is. He offers ready-made answers in a confusing world.
Now Orbán is putting pressure on the military to finish the razor wire fence on the border with Serbia and to guard the border crossings. A new law has now criminalized illegal entry, leading Orbán to vow to return migrants to Serbia or imprison them.
He is gambling; if he manages to stop the flow of refugees into Hungary with his tough response, he will strengthen his popularity and his image as a strong leader. It is a ruthless and inhuman game, playing with the lives of people fleeing one the worst conflicts in the world, for a little political gain.