Hungary's anti-migrant laws mask more urgent domestic problems

It has been hard to be a humanitarian worker in Europe in recent years, as thousands of migrants and refugees have moved across the continent. But in Hungary, aid workers now face the possibility of prison terms just for doing their jobs.

New 'Stop Soros' laws are tip of the iceberg, given slide to authoritarian rule, possible EU sanctions

The Hungarian government of Viktor Orban has alleged - wrongly - that the American-Hungarian philanthropist George Soros wants to settle hundreds of thousands of migrants in Europe and plastered his face on posters around the country, accompanied by alarmist slogans that have been decried as anti-Semitic. Here, an activist from the Egyutt (Together) opposition party removes one such billboard. (Bernadett Szabo/Reuters)

It has been the hardest time in recent memory to be a humanitarian worker in Europe, as thousands of migrants and refugees have flooded through each country.

But in Hungary, employees of non-governmental organizations are facing the possibility of prison terms just for doing their jobs. The national assembly in Hungary has passed a package of laws called the Stop Soros bill.

"Our own government actually looks at us as a threat," said Gabor Gyulai, director of the refugee program at the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, a human rights organization.

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The bill, among other things, criminalizes helping migrants who are not entitled to asylum or enter the country illegally gain legal standing, either by handing out information about the asylum process or providing financial assistance. It also puts a 25 per cent tax on organizations that favour immigration.

Gabor Gyulai, director of the refugee program at the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, a human rights organization, hopes that new laws the parliament has passed, dubbed the Stop Soros bill, which criminalize certain kinds of help provided to migrants who are not entitled to asylum, won't be enforced as strictly as they are written. (Sarah Lawrynuik/CBC)

"If this law … enters into force in the current format, that will give the possibility to the Hungarian government to actually silence human rights experts, attorneys and lawyers, who don't do anything but just implement European Union law, Hungarian law," Gyulai said in an interview with CBC News this week.

To be sure, Gyulai is hopeful workers won't be jailed, but many questions remain about how the law will be enforced.

Syrian migrants crossing into Hungary from Serbia, near the southern Hungarian city of Roszke in August 2015. Most migrants who crossed into Hungary during the influx of asylum-seekers into Europe in 2015 moved on to wealthier countries such as Germany. (Bernadett Szabo/Reuters)

Who is George Soros?

Prime Minister Viktor Orban led the charge to change the laws. Immigration was his key campaign issue this spring before he secured his third consecutive term in a landslide victory.

His right-wing party, Fidesz, holds a commanding majority in parliament. The opposition is the Jobbik party, which is also right wing. Both parties voted in favour of Stop Soros.

The package of laws is named after Jewish Hungarian-American billionaire George Soros, who became a target in Orban's re-election campaign.

Posters of Soros appeared across the country and the internet with slogans such as "Don't let George Soros have the last laugh," as Fidesz peddled the conspiracy theory that Soros was secretly trying to have immigrants take over Hungary and Europe.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban won his third consecutive term in April of this year. (Tamas Kaszas/Reuters)

"It's a bit like this Orwellian 1984 feeling of this old Jew whom you have to hate although you don't even know if he exists or not," says local historian and tour guide Daniel Draskoczy of the election campaign.

Soros's philanthropic organization, Open Society Foundations, is a network of international charities and NGOs that have helped marginalized populations such as refugees, migrants and LGBTQ people and funded various non-governmental initiatives and civil society groups throughout Central and Eastern Europe in the post-Communist era.

Under heavy fire from the government, Open Society announced in May it was closing its Budapest office and moving to Germany.

Meanwhile, Hungary, a country of around 10 million people, has actually seen a decline in the rate of asylum applications. In the first quarter of 2018, only 325 applications were filed.

The Associated Press reported that, while a large number of migrants amassed at Hungary's borders during the migrant crisis of 2015, as of April of this year, only 3,555 refugees were living in the country, according to Hungarian statistics.

A Hungarian government poster featuring George Soros with the slogan 'Don't let George Soros have the last laugh' at a transit stop in Budapest on July 6, 2017. (Krisztina Than/Reuters)

"It takes a political genius to create from a non-existent issue, a top priority of a country," Draskoczy said.

But at the peak of the migrant crisis in 2015 and 2016, the issue was perfect for Orban to run with. Hungary's government-friendly media repeatedly played video of violent clashes at the border as pundits spoke about the dangers of immigrants.

Who supports Orban?

"This immigration thing is the best possible thing Orban could have hoped for," says Szilard Vilagos, a Fidesz voter.

"It [increased] his popularity, and he didn't have to do anything. He didn't have to care about health care or anything, because people only cared about immigration."

Vilagos is from Szeged, a city of less than 200,000 people near Hungary's borders with Serbia and Romania.

Daniel Draskoczy is a historian and tour guide in Budapest, focusing on historical tours looking at the effects of communism on the country, for example. (Sarah Lawrynuik)

"Two or three years ago, I was really pro-immigration. I was like, 'Yeah, let's let everybody in.' But then I saw a lot of videos of how they behave. I saw some statistics about other countries, how high the criminal rate is. So I changed my mind. I'm on the side now of let's just not let anyone in. It's better."

Vilagos said his vote, as well as those of friends and family were constrained by the fact there were few choices they considered viable. Fidesz used to be a centre-right party before moving much further right on the spectrum. In fact, Fidesz has replaced the opposition party, Jobbik, as the radical right-wing party in the country.

Jobbik has been accused in the past of holding anti-Semitic attitudes and policies but is trying to distance itself from its former reputation to appeal to moderate voters.

Fidesz, the far-right party of Viktor Orban, has held control of Hungary’s national assembly, above, since 2010. (Sarah Lawrynuik/CBC)

There is also the Hungarian Socialist Party, which held power in the national assembly for two terms in Hungary until 2010, before a tape was leaked in which then-prime minister Ferenc Gyurcsany admitted to lying to the public.

Other parties on the left in Hungary have failed to get much of a foothold, none winning more than nine seats.

This month, amid the discussion of the Stop Soros laws, Fidesz is still gaining popularity, according to polling data released by the Budapest Business Journal. Still, undecided or unaffiliated voters outnumber those who support Fidesz.

Outside voices

This week, the European Parliament voted to start a sanction process against Hungary, which could result in the member state losing its EU voting rights.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has also called the law "shameful and blatantly xenophobic."

In defending the legislation, Interior Minister Sandor Pinter said that the laws will help secure the country's borders and that they would serve the desired purpose: "to stop Hungary from becoming a country of immigrants."

Trump, Orban, similar playbook

While U.S. President Donald Trump was still coaxing chants of "build the wall" in North America in his 2016 campaign, Hungary was already building a wall of its own, or rather, a fence topped with razor wire that separates Hungary from its southern neighbour Serbia.

Reminders are present throughout Budapest of Hungary’s painful history of foreign occupation and fascism. These iron-cast shoes are part of a public art piece commemorating the thousands of Hungarian Jews shot along the banks of the Danube River during the Second World War. (Sarah Lawrynuik/CBC)

Trump and Orban spoke by phone this month, ostensibly to discuss the newly appointed U.S. ambassador to Hungary, but the topic of border protection came up and was reportedly something on which they saw eye-to-eye.

They have also used several of the same tactics, including taking swings at the media in their respective countries.

Marton Gyongyosi, leader of Jobbik in parliament, has said his party agreed with what the package is trying to accomplish in terms of securing the country's borders.

Hungarian soldiers keep watch at the Hungary-Serbia border near the village of Tompa, Hungary last June. (Laszlo Balogh/Reuters)

Ultimately, however, he said he felt the package was meant to keep immigration in the spotlight and distract from other domestic issues.

'Illiberal democracy'

"This country is in shambles economically and socially," he said. "I think it's no exaggeration to say that this country has passed a soft authoritarian system."

And it's a point that Orban doesn't even dispute. He has been quoted as saying Hungary is an "illiberal democracy" as far back as 2014, one he thought should be modelled after Russia and Turkey.

Other examples of intolerance are also popping up. This month, the Hungarian State Opera is cancelling at least 15 shows of the musical Billy Elliott after the show was accused in state-friendly media of spreading "rampant gay propaganda." Ticket sales dropped dramatically.

"Today, it is about refugees and asylum," Hungarian Helsinki Committee refugee director Gyulai said. "But tomorrow, it can be any other topic, any other actor. It could be someone who criticizes the horrible conditions of the Hungarian health-care system, for example.…

"If this happens in Hungary, it could happen in Poland, or in any other European country where governments feel unease about democratic checks and balances that control their power."


Sarah Lawrynuik is a freelance journalist who reports on climate change and conflict and is currently based in London, UK. She's covered news stories across Canada and from a dozen countries around the world, including Ukraine, Hungary, France and Iraq. She has also worked for CBC News in Halifax, Winnipeg and Calgary.