On May 23, 2016, Abdullah, a 26-year-old man from Afghanistan, crossed the border from Serbia to Hungary. He managed to break through the razor wire-reinforced border fence Hungary had erected the previous fall and was apprehended by uniformed men near a Hungarian village.
Abdullah and the eight other people who were caught with him were forced to return to the border fence, where 30 policemen waited for them. They were told to keep their heads down, not to see what was about to happen. Yet Abdullah raised his head and saw the policemen approaching. They carried a big canister of pepper spray. Then the beating began.
After a while, the refugees were handcuffed and led to a little hole the police had opened in the fence. Suddenly, a policeman approached Abdullah and sprayed his face with pepper spray. He could not see. The policeman forced him to crawl through the little hole in the razor wire fence. As he was crawling, the policeman kicked his butt and laughed. By the time he made it to the Serbian side of the border, he had suffered severe cuts.
Abdullah’s story is not unique. In 2017 alone, approximately 10,000 refugees were apprehended and forcefully pushed back to the Serbian side of the border fence. The Hungarian border is now patrolled by a specially formed police unit that bears the official name of “border hunters” and by uniformed private vigilante groups. They go on the hunt for refugees.
A recently adopted law allows for these hunts. A refugee may be apprehended anywhere in the country and be pushed back to Serbia without being able to launch an asylum procedure.
Those who do enter Hungary through one of the two transit zones may apply for asylum. Yet even their chances are slim. Only two people are allowed to enter every day – one per zone. This means that families must remain on the other side of the border. In times past we might have called these zones concentration camps. Now the barbed-wire-surrounded container camps that are guarded by men with guns are not referred to as such.
The government of Hungary makes sure to emphasize that they do not detain refugees. After all, the imprisoned refugees may leave the zone any time – through a door that leads back to Serbia.
These scenes occur daily at the periphery of the European Union. They are not met with resistance. The E.U. institutions remain quiet. So do individual member states such as Germany, France and the U.K. Why?
The answer is as simple as it is hard to bear. Core E.U. member states profit from Hungary’s policies toward refugees. Sure, the European commission has launched two infringement procedures against Hungary. Yet none of them condemned the treatment of refugees at its borders. None concern the fact that it has become virtually impossible for men like Abdullah to apply for asylum.
Viktor Orban, prime minister of Hungary, is still a welcome guest of politicians of the likes of Austrian chancellor Sebastian Kurz or leading German conservative politician Horst Seehofer. Likewise, Orban’s party remains a member of the European People’s Party group (EPP) in the European Parliament, and thus remains a partner to other conservative parties such as Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and Mariano Rajoy’s People’s Party in Spain. The EPP has repeatedly and openly supported Orban’s election campaign that was focused solely on the promise to keep the borders closed and refugees out, even at the cost of a political regime that seems to slide into autocracy. Even though liberal circles have moaned at Orban’s policies toward refugees, their politicians have not taken action.
The fact is that Hungary’s cruel policy toward refugees plays into the hands of other E.U. member states. They turn their eyes from the violation of human rights and the violation of the right to seek asylum, as long as Hungary’s policies keep away the refugees from their doorstep. While the dirty job is being done by countries at Europe’s periphery, core E.U. member states can prove to their electorates that the refugee crisis is over, that they need not be afraid of more people entering their country.
It is a sad “win-win” situation. Orban is allowed to prove that he is the sole protector of Europe’s “homelands and Christian culture,” as he has proudly said in his latest address to the nation, while politicians such as Angela Merkel may simultaneously proclaim that in their countries the right to seek asylum represents a fundamental principle that allows for no compromise. At the same time that politicians such as Merkel polish their shining armor, the dirty job done at Europe’s periphery shelters them from actually having to apply their principles on their own territory.
The people who really bear the cost are those such as Abdullah. As long as other E.U. member states condone what is happening at the bloc’s periphery, all principles of human rights and of the right to seek asylum remain nothing more than a promise in a far distant land – a land they may not enter.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Refugees Deeply. A version of this article originally appeared on Open Democracy.