This summer, I had the opportunity to travel to Budapest. My cousin had been working there for a few weeks, and I decided that I had saved up enough money to hop over and visit him. On the evening of July 15th, I boarded a red-eye flight in Washington, DC and was in Vienna, Austria by morning. When I arrived, I handed the immigration attendant my passport, received admittance to the country, and ate some breakfast. After a short layover, I boarded a small plane to the Budapest airport, picked up my suitcase, and took an Uber to my cousin’s flat. In twelve hours, I had crossed the Atlantic Ocean, entered the European Union, and unpacked my luggage in a small apartment on the outskirts of the Hungarian capital. In that time, the only calamity I faced was my jet lag. Whereas my only major obstacle in making the trip was its expense, to many thousands of refugees, this journey remains an unimaginable and unrealizable feat.
Today, Hungary is perhaps the single most polarizing country as it pertains to the European refugee crisis. While Hungary has the highest number of asylum applications per capita of any country in Europe, there remains a tremendous level of anti-migrant sentiment in the country that has undoubtedly been bolstered and propagated by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and his ruling right-wing Fidesz party. Orbán has gained a reputation as a controversial figure who does not hesitate to convey his radical opposition to migration, saying that “every single migrant poses a public security and terror risk” and that migration into Hungary is a “poison.” From my experience in Hungary, while I failed to notice overt manifestations of this radicalism, I noticed no opposition to it either. Immigrant advocacy seems invisible among the Hungarian populace, for as I blissfully toured the historical streets of Budapest, there seemed to be no reminders of the thousands of migrants locked outside the razor wire border fence.
Ultimately, while Orbán’s opinions may seem radical and specific, his policies represent a mere stepping-stone in the rise of radicalism in the Western world. Thus, the normalization of Orbán’s anti-immigrant sentiment reflects a larger global trend that indicates that fear, not factual understanding, is the main driver for political change around the world.
Orbán demonstrated precisely this fear-over-fact politics in an interview with Business Insider. When pressed about his resistance to the EU proposal for all member nations to share the refugee burden, Orbán explained that Hungary seeks not to “divide Europe,” but rather to “protect [its own] citizens.” He then added, “This means that we do not want migrants to come to us.” In this interview, although Orbán directly articulated his opposition to refugee resettlement in Hungary, he failed to provide evidence that this act would protect Hungarian citizens in any way. While the threat of migrants in Europe remains highly disputed, without tangible statistics, Orbán’s mention of the threat of migrants creates the intangible feeling of fear.
Later in the interview, Orbán not only invoked fear of difference in the broad sense, but he also directly pushed the more specific categories of cultural ignorance and xenophobia. Orbán articulated his belief that taking in masses of Middle Eastern migrants “means importing terrorism, criminalism, anti-Semitism, and homophobia. This claim lacks facts to back it up, but more importantly, Orbán is perpetuating discrimination based on race. He went a step further still when he called Hungary a “cultural melting pot,” claiming the fact that “Europe’s largest synagogue is here in Budapest” as a justification for this blanket statement. This comment is particularly harmful because it misrepresents and ignores Hungary’s brutal history of anti-Semitism. His remark emphasizing the size of the synagogue ignores the 565,000 Jews murdered during World War II and the relatively small number of Jews that remain. Instead, he picks and chooses his facts to convey a sense of nationalism and exclude a different foreign group. Evidently, as the face of contemporary Hungarian politics, Orbán is using fear and misrepresentation of facts as tools not only for personal gain, but also as tools for political change in the broader sphere. Moreover, in doing so, he contributes to a strong sentiment of nationalism that promotes the cycle of fear, ignorance, and discrimination in Hungary.
The scope of Orbán’s radical rhetoric spreads much farther than this one interview. Globally, Orbán is known more for his xenophobic refugee policies than for his economic ones. Despite a drop in support in the first half of last year, the construction of the border fence in October was enough for the Fidesz party to retain its majority in the Hungarian and European parliaments.
But how do Hungary’s strict anti-migrant policies affect the country fiscally? In other words, are these policies really the best option for Hungary’s economic and internal affairs? It certainly doesn’t seem that way. In recent years, Hungary has faced a severe labor shortage as a result of its accession into the EU. Because wages are far higher in other EU countries like France (the GDP per capita in France is $41,200 compared to Hungary’s $26,200), a growing number of native Hungarians are moving overseas to work. It is therefore quite possible that the presence of migrants could counter this labor shortage, yet Orbán refuses to back down. Hungary’s hardline anti-migration stance may not only fabricate an overblown threat, but it may also stand in the way of overall economic benefit.
Hungarian politics today are largely dictated by anti-migrant sentiment, of which Prime Minister Orbán remains at the forefront. Since Orbán’s rhetoric has spread throughout mainstream Hungarian politics, it is now no longer radical; xenophobia has become the norm throughout the country. But this right-wing nationalist sentiment spreads beyond Hungary’s borders. Take Brexit, for example. For many Brits who supported the leave campaign, there were legitimate arguments for increased national sovereignty and autonomy. However, stubborn resistance and opposition to immigration blanketed these arguments.
Despite the increasing pervasiveness of fear politics, they fail to yield any tangible benefits to the countries in which they are found. As we have seen, Hungary could benefit enormously by relaxing its refugee policies. In a country whose people are leaving to pursue higher wages, destitute migrants, who would appreciate any wages at all, could fill these gaps. Similarly, in the United Kingdom, the choice to leave the European Union has already caused the pound to lose value and will reduce the size of Britain’s economy in the long run. Additionally, if the UK does leave the EU, the EU will remain its largest trading partner and the UK must continue to abide by EU regulations. Evidently, leaving the EU yields little to no tangible benefit for the Brits. Thus, fear politics not only lack factual basis, but they also stand directly in the way of the interests of peoples and nations.
As xenophobic sentiment spreads through both national and international spheres, it becomes normalized and legitimized. This process has already begun in the United States. Donald Trump, now the figurehead of the Republican Party, has garnered support by inciting fears that Mexicans and Muslims are the primary threats facing our nation. These perceived threats resist the facts that most terror attacks originate at home and that net immigration from Mexico is zero. Instead of taking steps to reform the visa process with Mexico or to fight homegrown terrorism, Trump and others are demonizing millions of Americans. As in both Hungary and the UK, xenophobia is responsible for preventing constructive policies that would actually better the country.
Hungary, therefore, is not the only country in the world whose politics are dictated by xenophobia. It merely represents one example of the damage that fear politics do. In countries like Hungary, the UK, and the US, xenophobia exists because uncontrolled migration represents a perceived threat to the status quo. With the absence of tangible facts and trends, that’s all that migration is: a fear. Unless nations can embrace policies that address tangible issues and not ones based on unjustified and irrational fear, their populations will continue to act against their own best interests because the creation of fear covers up substantive political issues.
If Hungary continues along this path, to an outsider, not much will change. Many thousands of others will travel to Hungary like I did and find themselves lost among the beautiful architecture and centuries-old history. But Hungary will continue to lose its workforce, and refugees will continue to be neglected outside of the border fence. Unless the world wakes up to its fears, the interests of many millions—of refugees and citizens—will remain tucked away.