A calculated non-action miscalculated: Hungary´s migration crisis

The Orbán-government had detailed plans about how to use the migration crisis in domestic politics, and part of this “strategy” meant neglecting preparatory measures all together. However, when the crisis actually hit the country, the lack of preparations backfired and resulted in a series of spectacular failures in the situation’s handling.

Photo: CreativeCommons/fotomovimiento

The present crisis has no way come as a surprise for the Hungarian government, who has confronted immigration issues numerous times leading up to it. First, in 2012’s National Security Strategy, 1the government addressed migration both as a source of demographic and economic benefit as well as a complex security threat. The strategy noted the dominantly transitory role Hungary played for the migrants, and stressed the need for the efficient protection of the Schengen borders. It also particularly emphasized the need to handle migration-related risks through close cooperation with international partners. Hence, general trends and possible risks were known well in advance, though, of course, the strategy did not foresee the massive inflow of tens of thousands of people in such a short period of time.

Second, in Orbán’s August 2014 annual briefing to Hungarian ambassadors he stated that Hungary was going to conduct a ”stone-hard” anti-immigrant policy line, 2 contrary to the immigration policy of the EU, which according to the PM was impractical, hypocritical and had no moral grounds. He repeated similar statements 3 several times in 2014. The anti-immigration sentiments of Orbán and the current Hungarian government are not new at all, and they reflect the dominantly xenophobic attitudes of Hungarian society. 4

Third, the competent Hungarian authorities were well aware of immigration trends in, which lent some foresight to a coming crisis. FRONTEX, the EU agency managing the cooperation of national border guard services, registered the number of people illegally crossing EU borders from Kosovo had grown by more than 4600% (!) in 2015 when compared to the data a year earlier. 5 Moreover, the agency also properly forecasted that the outflow of migrants from Turkey would grow significantly, 6 and that most of them were likely to be from Syria and Afghanistan. Another FRONTEX report pointed out that Syrians typically avoided registration in their EU arrival countries, 7 because they intended to register in Germany or more broadly, in the richer EU member states. Being that Hungary is on the primary land transit route, the so-called Western Balkans route, meant it would obviously be affected by these trends. Budapest authorities were also well aware of the risk by mid-September, when Orbán implicitly hinted to it in a meeting of the Hungary’s governing party, Fidesz. 8

Beginning of the anti-immigration campaign: the attack on Charlie Hebdo

The terrorist attack on the French satiric journal, Charlie Hebdo, on January 7th 2015 was the turning point for the Hungarian government, who right thereafter began a campaign that made illegal immigration the number one topic of domestic discourse. 9 This was illustrated by a January 11th speech Orbán gave in Paris in which he said that economic migration was “bad for Europe,” adding, “that is why it has to be stopped.” 10 However, it is important to stress that the attack did not in any way change the migration challenges Hungary was facing; it was only a casus belli allowing the government to launch its anti-immigration campaign. Following the PM’s speech in Paris, government communications began to stress illegal immigration as a key security threat. The first such communiqué was released on January 16th 2015. 11

Though at the time the PM’s motivation was more obscure, it has now become clear that immigration provided a smokescreen. At the same mid-September 2015 party meeting mentioned above, the PM boasted that the anti-immigration campaign successfully diverted public attention from numerous scandals in early 2015, 12 which had severely eroded domestic support for his party.

Thereafter, the government began constructing a detailed and well-planned anti-immigration campaign that started with warning messages from government politicians from January to February, and peaked with the government-sponsored anti-immigration billboards that appeared from June through July. 13

A calculated non-action strategy

Analysis of government discourse shows a strong correlation to FRONTEX data on illegal immigrant’s composition. While government officials and the government-controlled public media consistently spoke about the need to combat economic immigration (megélhetési bevándorlás), 14 they also stressed that those escaping war were still to be helped and provided with asylum. So while Kosovars were dominantly entering EU territory via Hungary in the first two quarters of 2015, they were not frequently provided asylum, while Syrians, Iraqis and Afghans received it in much higher numbers. Such a communication allowed the Orbán government to show strength at home, while also complying with EU and Schengen regulations.

Thereafter, when Syrians and Afghans started to dominate the crowds illegally arriving in Hungary, the government communication shifted to an increasingly aggressive tone, and the dangers of radical Islam and terrorism began to appear more frequently in government discourse 15.

Meanwhile, though the government possessed detailed information on the waves of illegal immigrants and asylum seekers coming, it did not take any preparatory measures. According to press reports and based on eyewitness accounts from the aforementioned mid-September meeting, Orbán’s motivation was only to make the domestic audience increasingly insecure allowing the government to assume a rescuing role, as they pledged to save them from this threat. 16

So even though the government was indeed aware of the coming crisis  they did not look for possible alternatives, although many options were available. One option could have been to immediately turn to Brussels and employ the emergency response mechanisms of the EU. Budapest could have requested EU assistance, including hotspot setups, increased FRONTEX personnel presence, as well as massive technical and administrative assistance. However, the government refused this option, because they wanted to avoid the creation of refugee camps in Hungary. 17 Another possibility could have been to humanize the situation by calling for the population’s solidarity, while also providing substantial support for humanitarian organizations and NGOs dealing with refugees, etc. Of course, these two options could have easily been combined too – but they were not.

One of the direct results of this non-action strategy was the grave humanitarian situation that culminated in mid-August around Budapest’s main railway stations, where thousands of asylum-seekers camped, often for weeks, 18receiving no support at all from the government. 19 A major humanitarian disaster could have been avoided by employing the committed work of a few hundred volunteers and civil society activists, as well as self-organized aid organizations, such as MigrationAid, among others. 20

Another result, though indirect, but probably equally important for government policy planners, was that the lack of pushback from Hungarian opposition politicians. Many of them thought that the government was seriously overstressing the danger of illegal immigration only to gain domestic political profit. Dozens of opposition 21 declarations criticized the anti-immigrant campaign, claiming that Orbán was simply creating an enemy in order to save Hungary from it thereafter. In fact, most opposition politicians underestimated the severity of the transit situation, until the shock actually arrived in the form of the massive waves of people crossing the Hungarian border.

Non-action backfiring

The fact that all relevant FRONTEX data was publicly available, makes it difficult to understand how the opposition failed to comprehend that transit migration would be a problem. While everything seemed to be in accordance with the government´s plans until late July, it thereafter became more apparent that the government underestimated the severity of the migration crisis.

The first direct indicator is the most emblematic symbol of the whole crisis, namely the fence on the border between Hungary and Serbia. Though the construction of the fence was announced in June, 22 plans were modified many times, even in terms of meaningful details (overall height, composition, etc.), which consequently delayed the project’s completion. Because of this Orbán, rather spontaneously on September 7th, dismissed Minister of Defense Csaba Hende, 23 who oversaw the army units responsible for the fence’s construction. Dismissal of a fully loyal minister could hardly be evaluated as a success.

A second signal were the several changes to crisis management laws, hastily made mid-crisis. The parliament introduced a brand new legal category, the so-called “state of crisis caused by mass migration,” 24 which was utilized to speed up the adoption of legal and field measures needed for handling the crisis. Such a “need for speed” is a strong indication of unpreparedness. A key element of these measures was the September 15th adoption of a set of new laws that criminalized illegal border crossing, making it punishable by long prison sentences. The overall legality of the laws and whether they are actually in accord with the constitution is being questioned and criticized by Amnesty International 25 and many Hungarian lawyers. 26

A third indicator has been the lack of manpower, particularly if one considers the government’s awareness since the beginning of the year that a massive migration wave was coming. Police forces turned out to be so insufficient for guarding the fence that the government had to hastily deploy more than 800 police school students, who have not yet finished their training, to the border. The fact that they were quickly organized into newly created “border hunter units” (határvadász)  added little value, except on the propaganda front.

In order to strengthen manpower, the use of Hungarian Defense Forces (HDF) units also became necessary; however, the legal backing for this has been missing for a while. Though soldiers were already participating in the construction of the border fence from the very beginning in mid-July, 27 they only began participating in guarding the border, patrolling and accompanying refugee transports after the relevant law was passed on September 21st. At present, almost all able-bodied soldiers of the HDF have been deployed to the border zone, which has resulted in the overextension of Hungary’s human resources, so much that even 500 voluntary reservists were mobilized in order to fulfill the “peacetime duties” of those deployed at the border. Better preparations would have more than likely decreased the burden on police and the army significantly.

A fourth clue was the Hungarian state administration’s remarkably unpreparedness in handling the tens of thousands of illegal immigrants and asylum-seekers who came into the country before the Serbian border was sealed on September 15th. The temporary collection point at Röszke was hardly more than an improvised tent camp in the middle of nowhere with almost no facilities, and with basic supplies mostly provided by volunteers, not the state. Even policemen, who were deployed to the border zone, lacked proper supplies, so much so that ordinary people set up a Facebook group, CopSupplier (Zsaruellátó), 28 to collect food, drinking water and other goods for them.

Another sign of the government’s unpreparedness was the violent clash that occurred between Hungarian police and migrants, still trying to enter Hungary after the border was closed on September 15th. Fifteen policemen, approximately 150 migrants, as well as several foreign journalists were wounded as a result. A lack of proper communication both with the migrants and with the competent Serbian authorities reportedly contributed to the situation’s escalation. 29

A fifth indicator, despite the frequently voiced claims 30 of the ruling party, 31 has been Hungary’s inability to completely fulfill its Schengen duties, as the Hungarian government’s international spokesperson, Zoltán Kovács, readily admitted too. 32 One needs to state though that Budapest has been trying hard, and is indeed managing the inflow of people better than, for example, Greece. One of the easiest indicators is that until mid-September Hungary was still able to register most of the hundreds of thousands of asylum-seekers who had already passed Greece earlier without getting registered.

However, despite building the widely criticized fence on the Serbian border, migrants still enter Hungary through the border it shares with Croatia. This could hardly be surprising: the fence with Serbia was criticized from the very beginning for preventing migrants from simply choosing alternative routes, either via Croatia or Slovenia. However, even though many could foresee the shift in the migration wave’s transit direction, the Hungarian government did little to prepare for it. It is difficult to determine though, whether this surprising passivity was due more to a lack of awareness, or simply ignorance, or both.

At present, most migrants who enter Hungary from Croatia are directly transported to the Austrian border and released further westward. On September 21st alone, Hungary shipped approximately 12,000 migrants from the Croatian border to the Austrian one without registering them, 33 massively violating the Schengen rules by pushing the problem to Austria.

Last, but not least, Hungarian diplomacy has seemingly been unable to cope with the international consequences of the crisis. The Minister of Foreign Affairs, Péter Szijjártó, shifted to a surprisingly radical tone when reacting to the criticism from abroad. Szijjártó described critics, such as UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, 34the Chancellor of Austria, 35 the Vice-Chancellor of Germany, 36 the Prime Minister of Romania, 37 the Prime Minister of Croatia, 38 the government of Sweden 39 and several other high-ranking politicians as “liars,” who were “uninformed” or “wrong.” Had Hungarian diplomacy been successful in working together with key partners well in advance, there more than likely would be no need for using such extraordinarily harsh and often personal messaging to defend their inaction. More recently in addition to this, even the European Commission expressed sharp criticism towards the new migration laws and demanded an explanation. 40

A seriously mismanaged crisis

At present, Hungary is unable to completely fulfill its Schengen duties, while police and the armed forces are already overstretched, both in terms of personnel and resources. Diplomatic relations with neighboring countries, such as Romania, Croatia and Austria are also severely damaged; the country´s external image is ruined because of the human rights violations committed against immigrants, and their irresponsible handling of the situation, made apparent by the retroactive state of crisis declarations issued in six Hungarian counties. Meanwhile, illegal migrants continue to enter the country, preventing the government from realizing its goal, i.e. protecting Hungary from migrant’s illegal transit. These are all obviously the symptoms of a seriously mismanaged crisis. Though the popularity of the PM did indeed grow, one may wonder, whether it was worth these costs, particularly because there is almost three years left until the next parliamentary elections.

Until then not much else can be said, except the common sense truth: before opting for a non-action strategy, one should make sure that there really will be no need for action. Otherwise, a lack of preparatory measures can seriously backfire, like it did in this case. One may only hope that next time, the decision-makers in Budapest will not only give domestic political interests primacy, but will take into account foreign and security policy factors as well.


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András Rácz

András Rácz

is Senior Research Fellow of the Finnish Institute of International Affairs (FIIA) in Helsinki, and Member of the Board of the Centre for Euro-Atlantic Integration and Democracy (CEID) in Budapest.