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Hungary’s Punitive Politics Ahead of the Referendum Vote

As part of our “Displaced and Disposable” series, social researcher Bruna Kadletz visits a transit zone along the Hungarian-Serbian border ahead of Hungary’s refugee referendum and reflects on Viktor Orban’s xenophobic agenda that excludes asylum seekers from society.

Written by Bruna Kadletz Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
Makeshift camps beyond the barbed wire fence, as seen from the Hungarian side of the border with Serbia. Bruna Kadletz

HUNGARY-SERBIA BORDER – The Hungarian government is posing the following question to its citizens: “Do you want the European Union to mandate the obligatory settlement of non-Hungarian citizens in Hungary without the approval of the National Assembly?”

The October 2 referendum, held on a blatantly loaded question, is part of a larger state-sponsored propaganda effort against refugees and resettlement opportunities.

The government has been disseminating the message with alarming efficiency over the summer months. Street posters, billboards and an 18-page booklet – which was distributed to more than 4 million homes – portray asylum seekers as threats to Europe and Hungarian culture.

Hungarian politicians have referred to refugees and migrants as “intruders,” “potential terrorists” and “poison,” with some even suggesting that pig heads be displayed at the border as a way to dissuade Muslims from crossing.

The closure of the main Balkan migration route this March is a glaring example of the punitive politics that employs violence against people fleeing war zones. The logic that physically contains and isolates asylum seekers regards them as disposable and unworthy of recognition or aid.

While the physical and legal barriers have not stopped the movement of people completely, they have certainly intensified the humanitarian catastrophe in the Balkans. Thousands of asylum seekers are currently stuck in inhumane conditions.

One of these makeshift camps in the transit zone near Kelebija, on the Hungarian-Serbian border. During a visit in late August, I witnessed the deplorable state in which almost 200 people were living, including over 40 children and a two-month-old baby who was born in Idomeni, Greece.

Makeshift camps in the transit zone near Kelebija, Serbia, at the Hungarian-Serbian border. (Bruna Kadletz)

Makeshift camps in the transit zone near Kelebija, Serbia, at the Hungarian-Serbian border. (Bruna Kadletz)

The Hungarian government manages its border by allowing an average of 30 pre-registered people to enter the country per day. This control mechanism prioritizes families and places single males at the back of the queue.

In the meantime, transit zones host open settlements, where refugees and migrants must remain before crossing the border.

Officials of the U.N.’s refugee agency, the UNHCR, and Hungarian border police regularly visit the transit zone near Kelebija, urging unauthorized volunteers and organizations to leave. Only accredited institutions are allowed to provide humanitarian aid.

While such surveillance purportedly protects displaced people from smugglers, it has also made inhumane conditions in the camps far less visible.

According to local organizations, the provision of essential aid to refugees has been criminalized in the transit zone. They report that border authorities have seized the distributed goods from people in need. Still, volunteers set random distribution sites in the neighboring forest to fill the gaps left by the government and international aid organizations.


Children sit in a communal space, with their parents on either side. Over 40 children live in this particular camp, without basics such as showers. (Bruna Kadletz)

A UNHCR official at the camp assured me that refugees and migrants living there were fully covered by the agency but a brief look around tells a different story.

Jean Asselborn, Luxembourg’s foreign minister, remarked recently that the Hungarian treats asylum seekers “worse than wild animals.” The treatment of refugees in the Hungarian transit zone that I saw confirmed his strong wording.

There are neither proper shelters nor showers in the camp. The smell of the children reveals how long they have not bathed. Water is scarce. A single tap serves the entire community. Most of these residents, who have escaped extreme hardship, appear determined to weather the challenges of finding a secure place, where they hope to rebuild their lives.

Viktor Orban, the prime minister of Hungary, has been a leading figure in manufacturing unsurmountable challenges for these refugees and setting a dangerous precedent for neighboring countries.

Since last year, when more than a million asylum seekers crossed the Balkan route, Hungary has increased physical and legal measures to block them.

After erecting an intimidating 110-mile (175km) long razor-wire fence along the Serbian border in September 2015, Hungary implemented harsh border controls on July 5, 2015, deploying military power and criminalizing refugees. According to the government’s rules, Hungarian authorities are allowed to expel any “undocumented” refugee or migrant caught by the police within 5 miles (8km) of the Hungarian side of the border – without examining their asylum pleas, as per E.U. regulations.

Bruna Kadltez.

Hungary fortified its border with Serbia in July 2015 to restrict new entries. As a result thousands of people are stuck in transit zones, more vulnerable to traffickers.

Orban’s anti-migration regime chimes with what Henry Giroux, an academic focused on culture and education, called the “biopolitics of disposability” – brutal and punishment-based modes of governing populations that restrict those deemed less meaningful to society to zones of exclusion, where the basic services are not available.

Orban has shown how government can mold public opinion – instrumental to producing disposable lives in so-called democratic societies.

In replacing refugee protection with state-sponsored expulsions and xenophobic propaganda, the government has stirred up ultra-nationalism and fear.

Implementing such political strategies has prevented sustainable and humane solutions to the plight of refugees worldwide, bringing us to the present global migration crisis. Whether governments like it or not, recognizing our shared humanity has never been more essential.

As I mentioned in my previous article, the refugee crisis exists in an interconnected global context, rather than a parallel, distant plane that we can keep separate.

In these times of divisive, hateful rhetoric, we must elevate our ethical standards, especially in terms of how we – individually and collectively – respond to the needs of the most vulnerable.

Hungarians have a priceless opportunity with this referendum. The vote is a historic chance for them to reflect upon their own struggle to find refuge during the revolution of 1956 and empathize with the thousands of asylum seekers now stuck at their borders.

Defying the logic of expulsion employed by their government, Hungarians could revive the values of hospitality and solidarity within their society by voting “yes.”

As John Powell, an academic focused on civil rights in the U.S. noted, “No one should be expelled from the circle of human concern.” Such efforts only lead to further crisis in the long term, as we are currently witnessing – from the plight of disenfranchised black communities in the U.S. to xenophobia against migrants across the globe.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Refugees Deeply.

Also in the ‘Displaced and Disposable’ Series:

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