Open to those who can pay: the hypocrisy of how Hungary treats asylum seekers

A second line of fencing being constructed on the Serbian/Hungarian border in early March 2017. Sandor Ujvari/EPA

The Hungarian government of Viktor Orbán is intent on making life as tough as possible for asylum seekers. In March 2017, Hungary’s parliament approved the automatic detention of all asylum seekers in camps built from shipping containers at the country’s borders. The government says it has built 324 shipping container homes at two locations along the border with Serbia. Both new arrivals and those already in the country will be detained in these “transit zones” while their asylum applications are being processed.

Hungary’s treatment of refugees and asylum seekers has received much criticism. The European Court of Human Rights recently decided that Hungary’s border-zone detention of two asylum seekers was unlawful and that their removal from Hungary to Serbia exposed them to the risk of inhumane and degrading conditions in Greece.

International human rights agencies such as UNHCR and Amnesty International have long been critical of the Hungarian position on asylum seekers. They argue that Hungary’s detention legislation infringes on the country’s obligations under international and European human rights law.

Médecins Sans Frontières has also documented the wounds caused by the inhumane treatment of refugees at the Serbian border by the Hungarian police. The government justifies this by emphasising its role in keeping Europe safe; and Orbán himself has suggested that immigration is the “Trojan horse of terrorism”.

The question is what benefit Orbán and his Fidesz party gain from generating moral panic about immigration in Hungary. Hungary is listed as one of the most corrupt countries in the EU by Transparency International, likened to Central Asian states where the party is the main culprit of corruption.

Bonds for residency

One particular issue surrounds a programme of Hungarian Residency Bonds. Introduced in 2012, the scheme rewards foreign citizens who invest €300,000 in Hungarian government securities with Hungarian resident status and a path to citizenship. But the programme has turned into a Achilles heel for a government that, on the one hand, frames all immigration as a threat to security, yet maintains an open door for those with enough money on the other.

My research has shown that while these bonds were initially aimed at Chinese traders and investors, others, particularly from the Middle East, have also purchased bonds. According to the Hungarian weekly HVG, 4,700 non-EU nationals have purchased sufficient Hungarian bonds since 2012, with their family members included, with an estimated 16,000 people gaining residency in Hungary through this route.

There are also strong indications that rather than contributing to the Hungarian economy, the bond programme has been used for enrichment by a number of politically influential Hungarians and companies they cooperate with. By 2015, the overall sum collected through residence bonds was around €900m whereas the total central government debt stood at around €78 billion.

Hungary’s president Viktor Orban inspecting new recruits for the country’s border guard in March 2017. Szilard Koszticsak/EPA

Orbán’s hypocrisy

The Hungarian government is compromising the security of the country and the EU border through the unaccountability of these residency bonds.

Yet at the same time the government has developed a clear anti-immigrant discourse. In October 2016, although 90% of those who voted in a referendum backed a block on EU quotas for settling refugees in Hungary, the turnout was not sufficient for it to pass.

In the aftermath, the Fidesz government needed two opposition votes in parliament to pass a constitutional amendment to proceed with the block. The anti-immigration Jobbik party demanded that the government scrap the Hungarian Residency Bonds programme, but the government refused and lost the vote. Orbán called this blackmail and the Fidesz parliamentary faction leader Lajos Kósa insisted that residency bond purchasers go through vigilant security checks.

However, one of the private companies that handles bond purchases has indicated on its website that the issuing of Hungary Residency Bonds would placed under moratorium on March 31, 2017. This suggests that ahead of Hungary’s 2018 parliamentary elections, the Fidesz government has realised how much of a political hot potato the bond issues have become.

Orbán insists that Muslim asylum seekers are at the roots of terrorism, crime, anti-Semitism, and homophobia in Hungary and Europe – and has generated moral panic to justify their detention in containers. But this is hypocritical while immigration to Hungary has been turned into a lucrative business.

In response to the container camps, the EU Commission decided to send Dimitris Avramopoulos, its Commissioner for Migration Home Affairs and Citizenship, to Budapest for “serious” talks. During his visit on March 28, Avramopoulos said that “we don’t want to have a Fortress Europe”, adding curtly that “we are a union based on fundamental principles to help those in need of protection, in a human, dignified and respectful way.”

But his remarks had little teeth and he did little to publicly remonstrate with Hungary for its container camps. Meanwhile, the Hungarian government continues to compromise the fundamental principles of the EU and its laws by the way it is treating asylum seekers.