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Hungary’s parliament rejects migrant block – but is it a win for refugees?

Anti-migrant sentiment in Hungary persists, but analysts say the country is split on how to remedy these feelings. 

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    Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, center, votes on the amendment of the constitution during the plenary session of the parliament in Budapest, Hungary, on Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2016. Hungary's prime minister has failed in his attempt to push through constitutional amendments to oppose any future plan by the European Union to resettle asylum seekers among members of the bloc.
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Hungary’s Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán, saw his plan to reject a European Union refugee quota fail in the country’s legislature on Tuesday, as he continues to fight with the EU over its program to redistribute asylum seekers fairly across the bloc.

Mr. Orbán and his conservative Fidesz party narrowly missed the 133 votes needed to pass a proposed constitutional amendment to ban the relocation of refugees to the country, falling just two votes short of the two-thirds majority it needed in the 199-seat assembly. The main opposition to the vote was the far-right Jobbik party, which pledged to support the amendment only if Orbán scrapped a program that allows foreigners to buy their way into Hungary through the purchase of at least 300,000 euros (about $331,000) in bonds.

Analysts consider the defeat of the amendment simply an administrative setback for Orbán, as he seeks to validate an October referendum to reject Brussel’s ressetlement program. Though more than 3 million Hungarians rejected the EU program, the referendum failed to become legally binding because of low-voter turnout.

The one-two punch of the failed referendum and the amendment is a loss of leverage for Orbán as he tussles with Brussels. However, the anxiety and fear many Hungarians feel towards migrants lingers, says Natalia Banulescu-Bogdan, the assistant director of the international program at the Washington-based Migration Policy Institute. Led by Orbán, the Hungarian right has seized on this Euroskepticism and disillusionment at how the EU has tried to address the migrant crisis. 

“They’re tapping into a pervasive fear of newcomers, a fear of minorities, and a fear of refugees that has been building for a long time now,” Ms. Banulescu-Bogdan tells The Christian Science Monitor in a phone interview on Tuesday. “It’s not something that happened overnight. It’s not something that appeared on the political scene in Hungary as a result of the European migrant and refugee crisis. It’s just become more visible in the wake of the crisis and the policies that have cropped up around it.”

“These anti-immigration positions have gained strength in parts of the country that now have a more tangible connection to refugees,” she adds. “People feel like their lives really could be affected, whereas before it was a more abstract fear and, perhaps, more concentrated at religious and national minorities rather than immigrants.”

Over the past year, much of this frustration has been directed at the quota the EU has set to resettle 1,294 refugees in Hungary, a country of about 10 million. Across Europe, 160,000 migrants would be more fairly redistributed across the bloc.

About 1.4 million migrants have entered the continent since 2015, most hailing from war-torn countries such as Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq.   

Orbán has been one of the chief opponents of Brussels and its redistribution scheme. He has painted the issue as a matter of national sovereignty that boils down to “whether a foreign population can be imposed on the people of an EU member state against its will.” Of the 1.3 million migrants that applied for asylum in Europe in 2015, Hungary received the most applications per 100,000 people, at 1,770. Germany, the most populous member-state in the EU, received 540 applications per 100,000 people.

Orbán has also linked migrants to terrorism, telling Hungarians before last month’s referendum that “the more migrants there are, the greater the risk of terror.”

While the defeat of the referendum and the constitutional amendment appears like a loss for Orbán, public support for his party remains high. In fact, the ruling Fidesz party widened its support to 32 percent from 30 percent, according to the latest poll by research center Tarki, according to Reuters. 

Still, anti-migrant sentiments in Hungary are "far from monolithic," wrote the Christian Science Monitor’s Sara Miller Llana following the referendum in October.

As Attila Tibor Nagy, a political analyst in Budapest at the Center for Fair Political Analysis, told Ms. Llana, "he sees Hungarian society as decidedly anti-migrant. But he believes voters stayed home because they didn’t want to contribute to Orbán’s influence as prime minister. They also may have been over-saturated by the campaign blitz. And he says that perhaps they don’t see migration as a sufficiently big enough problem in their daily lives.”

Banulescu-Bogdan at the Migration Policy Institute adds that anti-migrant feelings in Hungary and other former communist countries now a part of the EU show a “grand collapse in solidarity” over the refugee crisis across the continent.  

“The 28 EU member-states failed to agree on a compromise to more equitably and more efficiently share the ‘burden’ of refugees across the EU,” she says. “The solution moving forward is going to have to be a more organic cooperation among member states,” which she says could include better policies, better communication among member-states, and perhaps the recrafting of quotas, relocating more asylum seekers to countries such as Portugal that have been more welcoming to them.

This report contains material from Reuters.

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