AMSTERDAM, June 24, 2015 – This summer’s trend? Walls, it would seem. Last week, Donald Trump as candidate for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination proclaimed, “I will build a great wall on our southern borderland. I will have Mexico pay for that wall, mark my words.”
The next day, Hungary’s foreign affairs minister announced plans to erect a 13-foot wall along the country’s Serbian border, a drastic measure meant to stop the influx of immigrants seeking asylum in the European Union.
Trump’s sensational promises were easily a ploy for attention, but Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán is evidently looking to please far-right voters in a knee-jerk reaction to the EU’s immigration crisis. Orbán has been in office for five years now and, as Hungarians become weary of foreigners, it seems that targeting immigrants is the key to upholding political popularity.
Over the last few months billboards have gone up sporting messages such as “If you come to Hungary you mustn’t take work away from the Hungarians!” Orbán made his opinion clear with a government-issued and nationwide survey titled “Immigration and Terrorism,” asking citizens whether they agreed that the two were linked.
According to the European Asylum Support Office, in 2014, 42,775 people sought asylum in Hungary – a very high number for a population of almost 10 million. The large majority of these immigrants came from the Middle East, displaced mostly from Syria and coming in through the Serbian border. Immigrants searching for economic relief, like the Kosovars, are not likely to have asylum granted at all, and only 550 of those displaced because of war were officially given refuge.
The Serbian prime minister stated that Serbia, despite being a passageway to the EU, “will not isolate itself” and is “shocked” that Hungary would chose to do so.
Hungary’s plans are doubtlessly a sign of impatience in the face of the European Commission’s struggle to confront the rise of incoming immigrants, highlighted by the shocking number of deaths on the Mediterranean this year. Orbán’s government has decided not to wait for the EU to find long-term solutions that will fit its national standpoint; a move that many say is ill advised.
A U.N. report published on Thursday revealed that 60 million people, half of which are children, are currently displaced because of war, the largest conflict-driven migration since 1945. This number, being almost equivalent to the population of France, takes into account only persecuted refugees and not economic immigrants.
Borders, both physical and virtual, are tightening even with the United Nations’ emphasis on humanitarian emergency. Just as Orbán unveiled his new project, Italy confronted France for stopping people at its borders, Australia’s prime minister has vowed to turn down any immigrant boats and Trump targeted outsourcing and immigration, blaming Mexico for “not sending us the right people.”
In response to this crisis and the pressure felt by European countries, Federica Mogherini, the EU’s foreign affairs and security representative, has proposed Eunavfor Med – a military operation in the Mediterranean looking to thwart boats smuggling immigrants. This operation still needs approval from the U.N. Security Council, but it appears to be generally popular with governments and will also attempt to stop immigration at its source, appealing to the internal politics of departure countries, notably Libya.
In contrast, the endeavor that appears highly unpopular in Europe is the European Commission’s proposal to redistribute 40,000 immigrants currently seeking refuge in Italy and Greece, as well as an anticipated further 20,000; Orbán promptly called this idea “insane.” So far, the few countries agreeing with this scheme are those who would gain relief from it. The EU’s proposition involved giving governments money for every refugee taken in, but the complexity of the EU’s foreign policy and that of each individual country renders decision-making near impossible. For instance, immigrants placed in a country within the Schengen area would be able to cross freely into another country and establish themselves there.
It remains a state’s sovereign right to reinforce its own borders; however, this can impede the fundamental human right to seek asylum. One of Orbán’s responses to those opposing his plans was the existence of other similar walls around the world. For the same reasons, Greece and Bulgaria both have closed borders with Turkey. However, Hungary’s decision comes as a surprise mainly due to its previous role in history; it was the first country to physically take down the iron curtain in 1989 and open its border to Austria, becoming a bridge between East and West ahead of anyone else.
Hungary’s participation in a worldwide “fortress mentality” by choosing to build a barrier a foot higher than the Berlin Wall is nothing less than a regressive step of a government that is shamelessly showing its populist conservatism.
Ironically, on April 22 this year, at a EU summit in Riga, Jean-Claude Juncker, the Head of the European Commission, jokingly hailed the Hungarian prime minister as “Dictator.”
If Orbán’s “illiberal democracy” fails to materialize in Hungary, perhaps Donald Trump will have a seat saved for him instead. In a bizarre coming of minds, Orbán on Trump’s ticket is still more plausible than Oprah Winfrey, whom, as confirmed in an ABC news interview, he’s had his eye on for a while now.