How the Hungarian border fence remains a political symbol

Beginning in 2015 a great wave of migrants flooded Europe. Hungary built a fence to keep everyone out. In part four of our series, Walking the Border: Walls That Divide Us, Nahlah Ayed visits the Hungarian border that divides the country from Serbia and Croatia.

Nearly 5 years after the barrier was built, the migrants are gone but it still stands

Hungary began building a barrier along its border with Serbia in an effort to defend the country from what Prime Minister Viktor Orbán described as a Muslim invasion that threatened Europe’s Christian identity. (Nahlah Ayed/CBC)

*Originally published on February 27, 2020.

In 2015, as hundreds of thousands of Afghan, Iraqi, Sudanese but mostly Syrian refugees fleeing their respective war zones landed in countries around the world, Hungary was one of several European countries that erected barriers to stave off illegal migrants. 

Nearly five years later, those migrants are gone. But the fence remains. 

Zoltán Kovács, Hungary's secretary of state for public diplomacy and relations, tells IDEAS' Nahlah Ayed that the Hungarian border fence is a necessity to protect Europe. (Attila Kisbenedek/AFP via Getty Images)

It may not have much of a functional use anymore — but for some it remains a potent political symbol; and for others it's become a pillar of Hungarian identity.

Populist leaders across Europe said that barriers are needed to safeguard their countries from irregular migration, as well as criminals and possible terrorists.

Hungary, in particular, quickly built a fence to implement a promise by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán to defend the country's borders against what he eventually called a Muslim invasion that threatened Europe's Christian identity.

Zoltan Kovacs, Hungary's secretary of state for public diplomacy and relations, told IDEAS that the fence is a necessity, even though it isn't necessarily ideal. He says the fence helped stop the flood of migrants over the Hungarian border.

"This is not about dividing a natural unit," he said. "But this is defending Europe defending itself against a global phenomenon and that is a global mass migration issue."

When it went up in 2015, it was a razor-wire fence. It's now taller and more reinforced. Cameras have been added, and it's electrified in some parts. Police monitor the fence and loudspeakers have been mounted with warnings in several languages against illegal entry.

While many Hungarians approve of the fence, it has been divisive since its inception. 

Symbolic politics

Kübekháza is a village in the south of Hungary, right on the border with Serbia, and up against the fence that separates the two countries.

The mayor of Kübekháza, Róbert Molnár is a former national politician in Orbán's ​​​government. He says migration wasn't an issue played up by any of the political parties prior to 2015, but that all changed when the migration crisis hit. He says that was then when the far right took notice and the idea of the fence came to be. 

Róbert Molnár is the mayor of Kübekháza and a former national politician in Prime Minister Viktor Orbán's ​​​government. (Nahlah Ayed/CBC)

At the time, Molnár says it was about raising the stakes, "saying, 'OK we'll build a fence and we'll claim that we're protecting Hungary.'"

"It's very symbolic and a very good political message saying, 'look Hungarians, we are the ones to protect you.'"

Syrian migrants cross under a fence as they enter Hungary at the border with Serbia, near Roszke, Aug. 27, 2015. (Bernadett Szabo/Reuters)

Spain, Macedonia, and France/U.K. also had similar fences. But Kovacs says that they never claimed that the Hungarian fence was the one that stopped illegal migration. 

"The most successful way of dealing with illegal migration is by our own will, the sovereign will of some member states in cooperation with each other," he said.

Kovacs adds that European officials are far more open to migration, which made it impossible to reach a compromise on how to approach the migrant crisis.

Watch | Nahlah Ayed visits Hungary's border fence in 2015

Hungary's fence on Serbian border

7 years ago
Duration 1:17
Nahlah Ayed reports at the fence Hungary is constructing along its border with Serbia, to keep fleeing refugees out.

Guests in this episode:

A special thanks to our translator and local producer in Hungary, Stella Marti and to Dion Johnstone, who read translations.

* This episode was produced by Nahlah Ayed and Philip Coulter. It is part four of an ongoing series, Walking the Border: Walls that Divide Us. 

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