Migrants as Object of Political Action

Jozef Israëls: The thinker // Public domain

The migration crisis in 2015 posed a significant challenge for Europe. It has also become a contributor to legitimizing political action in Hungary, as well as in Poland after the parliamentary elections held in the autumn of 2015.

The purpose of this short essay is to try to indicate the differences and similarities in the use of the migration issue in political competition – and it is a very useful tool with multiple applications.

Different Foundations: 2015-2021

At the very outset, it can be pointed out that a direct comparison between Poland and Hungary is very difficult to make, if possible at all. Why? For in 2015, the migrant crisis in Hungary really happened. At its peak, tens of thousands of people a day were crossing the border from the Serbian side. Several hundred thousand people passed through Hungary, heading toward the border crossing with Austria (in Hegyeshalom) and on to Germany.

In Poland, on the other hand, this phenomenon was something in fact unknown up until the Kremlin-inflamed attempts by migrants brought in by Belarus to cross Poland’s eastern border in 2021. Yes, migrants were used in the election campaign to frighten people, but the Polish public reacted to the issue depending on political sympathies.

The topic of migration was not a catalyst for social divisions for a long time, and when we faced attempts at crossing the border from the Belarusian side, the majority of the population supported maintaining border defense. At most, the people were opposed to push-backs of families with children.

In Hungary, on the other hand, almost from the outset, support for the government’s actions toward migrants significantly exceeded that which would be directly based on party sympathies, reaching over 70%. The construction of a fence on the border with Serbia was gaining the approval of up to 4/5 of the population[1].

Importantly, it was backed by 70% of opposition supporters. The Századvég polling institute, sympathizing with the government, asked Hungarians in 2015 about whether they supported European Union-imposed immigrant quotas. 63% of respondents were against, 27% in favor, and the remaining 10% did not have or did not want to express an opinion.

Moreover, 75% of those surveyed agreed with the statement that whether a country houses immigrants should be left solely to its discretion. 21% had the opposite opinion[2]. The survey was then repeated in 2016, and the percentage of opponents rose to 87%[3].

It should be noted that the situations of 2015 and 2021 are incomparable, although the Hungarian authorities are trying to juxtapose them[4]. The events of 2015 were not stimulated by the hostile policies of a neighboring state, as happened six years later in the Polish-Belarusian border region.

This means that while the migrant crisis in 2015 could theoretically be explained by a possible ‘clash of civilizations’, as Hungarian propaganda attempted to do, the 2021 actions in Poland should be unequivocally assessed as an allied effort against regional security – not only against Poland, but also the Baltic States. From the perspective of 24 February 2022, there is no doubt that the migrant crisis on the Polish border in 2021 was a prelude to broader actions destabilizing the region, which became one of the overtures to full-scale Russian aggression against Ukraine.

It is crucial to bear in mind that when the anti-migrant narrative settled in Hungary for good in 2015, and Budapest rejected the EU’s migrant relocation mechanism – the so-called ‘quotas’ – the previous coalition of the liberal Civic Platform and the Polish People’s Party was still in power in Poland, and they wanted to join that mechanism.

However, a change was brought about by the result of the parliamentary elections in the autumn of 2015, in which the United Right (Law and Justice and allies) won. Although the Polish right has built its electoral strategy on fear of immigrants, there is no doubt that the situation in Poland has never resembled that in Hungary.

Even the consequences of the crisis on the Polish-Belarusian border cannot be compared to what the Hungarians earlier experienced: In Budapest, migrants camped out in the city centre. Until mid-September 2015, when physical entanglements on the border with Serbia and Croatia were erected, migrants moved across the country from the south to the northwest.

With the benefit of hindsight, research and available literature, we know that among the ‘migrants’ who got to Hungary were both refugees and economic migrants who moved from the Balkans in search of a better life, mainly from Kosovo[5]. The later Paris attacks are said to have been prepared at the Keleti train station in Budapest and one of the hotels in Budapest[6].

In contrast, those who crossed the border between Poland and Belarus were most often caught in the immediate vicinity of the border. The conflict remained largely isolated right in the border region, and the increase in the number of migrants was not observed in large urban centers.

Institutionalization of the Migrant – Enemy

The forces and resources involved in Hungary in the fight against migration were incomparably greater than those used in Poland. Migration was used as a foundation for election campaigns in 2018 and 2022. During the latter, the main axis of polarization became, of course, security due to the fact that the vote took place about six weeks after Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

In the Hungarian media, almost every day for nearly eight years, the topic of migration has come up in some form in speeches by politicians or reporters’ material. According to government propaganda, proof of the ‘migrant problem’ in Europe are individual crimes, e.g. beating, murder or rape, committed by a migrant in another country – mainly Scandinavian, or Germany. The case of Germany is relevant here, since the failure of the European Union’s migration policy is qualified unequivocally negatively as the fault of the so-called ‘Brussels bureaucrats’ and the German government under former Chancellor Angela Merkel.[7]

What distinguishes Poland from Hungary is not only the scale of the Budapest government’s initiatives in the field of combating migration, but also the fact that the migrant crisis in Hungary has been institutionalized. By this I mean specific legal and constitutional actions taken by the authorities.

Hungary has been under a state of emergency due to mass migration since 2015. It is extended every March and September, each time for six months. The legal basis for these decisions is becoming increasingly questionable, as the prerequisites related to the number of migrants who should cross Hungary’s border to enable those in power to speak of a mass threat are not met.

What is more, in 2018, migration laws were tightened once again, when a package of laws called ‘Stop Soros’ was passed, which also criminalized aiding people who crossed the border illegally (you can go to jail for a year for doing so). It also, partially, changed the wording of the Constitution.

The problem, however, is that the Hungarian authorities have changed the method of presenting border-crossing statistics to meet these requirements. Now people are apprehended not so much when reaching the border fence, but also when staying near it. All old statistics have been removed from the police websites, those from 2015 are not available at all[8]. For the point is that the migration crisis in Hungary ended when the border crossing between Hungary and Serbia in Röszke was closed. And there’s no doubt the crisis was effectively ended.

In Hungary, the topic of migration is evoked before every election, at every level of the government – the National Assembly, the European Parliament or local government. The rhetoric of those in power boils down to exposing the ‘Soros plan’, which is to attract a million migrants to Europe with the goal of stripping Europeans (primarily Hungarians) of their identity.

This element has also been picked up in Poland by the United Right. An important component of both ruling parties’ narratives was to emphasize their Christian roots. Both Poland and Hungary were to become the last bastions of value in the region. This communication strategy was then expanded to include elements related to protection from LGBTQI[9].

The Polish public space was dominated by the message related to the fact that Beata Szydło’s government terminated all commitments related to the migrant relocation mechanism (so-called quotas[10]). Multiculturalism and the United Right’s opposition to it have been running through the media.

In Poland, however, the topic of migration was not dominant in the election campaigns. Moreover, its exposure in the case of the local elections of 21 October 2018 proved counterproductive. A few days before the vote, the Law and Justice party unveiled a spot accusing local government officials associated with the Civic Platform of wanting to open cities to migrants[11].

The Commissioner for Human Rights, recognizingthat the spot deliberately amplified fear of migrants and refugees, has requested the Prosecutor’s Office to initiate criminal proceedings for incitement to hatred based on national, ethnic and religious differences. The issue sparked outrage and led to mobilization – but of opposition voters. It can be concluded that in Warsaw it led to a high turnout and a victory for Rafał Trzaskowski (Civic Platform) in the first round. The Prosecutor’s Office has repeatedly discontinued and – after complaints from the Commissioner for Human Rights – reopened the investigation into the spot[12].

The activities of the Hungarian authorities, overtly discriminatory in terms of nationality, have not been the subject of any investigation by the prosecutor’s office. Hungary’s equivalent of the Commissioner for Human Rights has not sided with immigrants and refugees, even when the Hungarian government decided in April 2015 to hold a ‘national consultation on immigrants and terrorism[13]‘ (a form of a ‘referendum’ held by correspondence). It was symptomatic to juxtapose immigrants and terrorists.

Among other questions, respondents were asked whether they thought Hungary would become a target of terrorist attacks in the coming years, whether they were aware that the number of illegal immigrants had recently increased 20-fold, and whether they agreed with the statement that immigrants posed a threat to Hungarian laws and jobs. The consultation was accompanied by an outdoor campaign with the slogan ‘If you come to Hungary…’. The billboards ended the sentence with constructs addressed to newcomers, such as “you won’t take away Hungarians’ jobs”, “(…) you must obey our laws”, “(…) you must respect our culture”[14].

Building Identity Through Hate

In 2016, a referendum was held in Hungary, against the constitution, to reject the relocation mechanism. Why was it unconstitutional? For the mechanism was enacted as an international document, and no referendum can be held with respect to such documents.

However, the favor of the judiciary, which was taken over by the Fidesz-KDNP coalition, made it possible to hold that plebiscite[15]. The referendum turned out to be a disaster in terms of turnout, as somewhat only about 40% of those eligible participated. Moreover, higher turnout was not observed in those places where refugees actually appeared on the streets; a slightly higher-than-average turnout was found only at the border with Austria.

Nonetheless, the government communicated that it would respect the opinion of Hungarians and act as if it had full social legitimation. Orbán described 2017 as “the year of the fight against the European Union”, during which among other things EU’s migration policy was criticized[16].

Orbán’s adoption of the anti-immigration narrative was also aimed at strengthening identity elements. Although it seems improbable, at the height of the migration crisis, ‘migrants ‘ranked low in surveys related to fears, only to then quickly rise to the top three,[17] which was the result of state propaganda efforts.

This can be seen, for example, in the studies cited by Jarosław Kopeć in his text, which were based on the YouGov report for the LENA consortium[18]. 34% of Hungarians and 39% of Poles thought too many migrants had come to their country. When asked about the EU as a whole, 75% of Hungarians and 65% of Poles, respectively, viewed the situation negatively (the survey was conducted in December 2021, at a time of increased migration pressure on the Polish border).

What is more, 57% of Hungarians and 41% of Poles believed that immigrants did not want to integrate. In Hungary, fears about the possible annihilation of the Hungarian identity were played on. Viktor Orbán spoke of building a parallel society by migrants in order to defeat the native one. According to the survey, 57% of Hungarians believed that migration was a threat to identity. 49% of Poles were of a similar opinion. At the same time, 71% of Hungarians supported the construction of a fence on the EU border (58% of Poles) as a protection against illegal migration[19].

In the Hungarian narrative, migration is still a far greater threat than the phenomenon of war. In Poland, after February 2022 all public attention was focused on security issues. The subject of migration is not discussed at all, and the open hearts of Poles have allowed them to welcome millions of Ukrainians into their homes, as well as support them in various ways[20]. These, however, from the very beginning were not treated as migrants, but something along the lines of ‘brothers in need’.

Theme for Years to Come

Migrants have played and continue to play a very important role in the Hungarian public space. In Poland, the topic of migration has appeared, however, it has not been able to antagonize the public, and has not become a catalyst influencing the electoral decisions of Poles to a greater extent. This is largely due to history as well as the Polish identity and the openness to another human being.

In Hungary, on the other hand, the problem of illegal immigration is still politically exploited, despite the fact that the scale of the phenomenon is incomparable to that of 2015. Over the years, the state has changed the ways in which statistics are presented to make them look more dramatic and justify the authorities’ actions. Migration in Hungary has become an indispensable element of the political space that will continue to bring Fidesz voter support for years to come.

[1] Mandiner (2018, 19 March), Nézőpont: Hatalmas a kerítés támogatottsága, https://mandiner.hu/cikk/20180319_nezopont_hatalmas_a_kerites_tamogatottsaga

[2] Magyar Hírlap (2015, 13 November), Századvég: A magyarok többsége ellenzi a kötelező kvótát, https://www.magyarhirlap.hu/belfold/Szazadveg_A_magyarok_tobbsege_ellenzi_a_kotelezo_kvotat

[3] Origo (2016, 17 May), Századvég: A magyarok 87 százaléka elutasítaná a kvótát, https://www.origo.hu/itthon/20160517-szazadveg-felmeres-72-szazalek-venne-reszt-kvota-nepszavazason.html

[4] What the two countries have in common is that they were not so much destination countries for migrants, but transit countries on their way to Germany. At the height of Hungary’s migrant crisis, on 7 October, the 444.hu website, citing data from the Immigration and Citizenship Office, reported that of all those arriving in Hungary, 300 people were granted refugee status in the country, that is, 0.2% of those who submitted their applications. See 444.hu (2015, 7 September), A Magyarországra érkezett menekültek 0,2 százaléka meg is kapta a menekültstátuszt, https://444.hu/2015/09/07/a-magyarorszagra-erkezett-menekultek-02-szazaleka-meg-is-kapta-a-menekultstatuszt

[5] KSH (2015, 20 June), 2015/47 Statisztikai tükör, https://www.ksh.hu/docs/hun/xftp/stattukor/menekult14.pdf

[6] M.Sarkadi Nagy (2017, 22 January), Így lett a párizsi terrortámadások elkövetőinek budapesti útjaiból az egész országot bekamerázó Szitakötő-projekt, Atlatszo, https://atlatszo.hu/kozugy/2021/12/07/igy-lett-a-parizsi-terrortamadasok-elkovetoinek-budapesti-utjaibol-az-egesz-orszagot-bekamerazo-szitakoto-projekt/

[7] E.g. Mandiner (2017, 16 March), Szijjártó: Megbukott a félmegoldáson alapuló brüsszeli politika!, https://migracio.mandiner.hu/cikk/20170316_szijjarto_megbukott_a_felmegoldason_alapulo_brusszeli_politika

[8] This can be seen here: https://www.police.hu/hu/hirek-es-informaciok/hatarinfo/illegalis-migracio-alakulasa?weekly_migration_created%5Bmin%5D=2015-01-01+00%3A00%3A00&weekly_migration_created%5Bmax%5D=2016-01-01+00%3A00%3A00

[9] E.g. Rudziński, L. (2021, 2 July), ‘Kaczyński ogłasza wspólną deklarację z Orbanem i Le Pen dot. przyszłości UE.’ (‘Kaczyński announces joint declaration with Orban and Le Pen on future of EU.’), I.pl, https://i.pl/kaczynski-oglasza-wspolna-deklaracje-z-orbanem-i-le-pen-dot-przyszlosci-ue/ar/c1-15693069

[10] Stolarczyk, M. (2017), ‘Stanowisko Polski wobec kryzysu migracyjno-uchodźczego Unii Europejskiej’ (Poland’s position on the European Union’s migrant and refugee crisis’), Krakowskie Studia Międzynaodowe (Cracow International Studies), 2 (15-41)

[11] The spot can be viewed at: https://twitter.com/pisorgpl/status/1052530980190334977?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw%7Ctwcamp%5Etweetembed%7Ctwterm%5E1052530980190334977%7Ctwgr%5E056896c062c054ddc9de718ee3d96fd7e8825058%7Ctwcon%5Es1_&ref_url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.tvp.info%2F39508561%2Fnowy-spot-wyborczy-pis-porusza-problem-nielegalnych-uchodzcow-i-bezpieczenstwa-polakow

[12] Office of the Commissioner for Human Rights (2021, 4 February), ‘Będzie ponowne śledztwo ws. spotu wyborczego PiS z 2018 r.’ (‘There will be a reinvestigation of the 2018 Law and Justice election spot’), https://bip.brpo.gov.pl/pl/content/po-zazaleniu-rpo-ponowne-sledztwo-ws-spotu-wyborczego-pis

[13] Nemzeti konzultáció a bevándorlásról és a terrorizmusról(2015), https://2015-2019.kormany.hu/download/4/d3/c0000/Bev%20konzultáció%20eredményei.pdf#!DocumentBrowse

[14] Hvg.hu (2015, 4 June), Kiderült, milyen feliratok lesznek még a kormány óriásplakátjain. https://hvg.hu/itthon/20150604_Kiderult_milyen_feliratok_lesznek_meg_a_k

[15] Magyari, P. (2016, 3 May), Kúria: Lehet népszavazást tartani a kvótáról, 444.hu. https://444.hu/2016/05/03/kuria-lehet-nepszavazast-tartani-a-kvotarol

[16] Farkas, Gy. (2017, 22 November), Rekordot döntött a nemzeti konzultáció, 24.hu. https://24.hu/belfold/2017/11/22/rekordot-dontott-a-nemzeti-konzultacio/

[17] Boros, T. (ed.)(2018), A Magyar Rémálom, Milyen félelmek élnek a Magyar társadalom? Budapest: FES, https://library.fes.de/pdf-files/bueros/budapest/14556.pdf

[18] Kopeć, J. (2021, 21 December), Survey for LENA: ‘Polacy, Węgrzy i Europejczycy z Zachodu o imigracji i murach na granicy.’ (‘Poles, Hungarians and Western Europeans on immigration and walls at the border.’), BiqData Wyborcza.pl, https://biqdata.wyborcza.pl/biqdata/7,159116,27945242,na-imigrantow-inaczej-patrzy-sie-w-polsce-i-na-wegrzech-inaczej.html?_ga=2.40297954.1760006837.1677413823-57392900.1676895899#S.embed_article-K.C-B.1-L.1.zw

[19] In this context, it is also worth mentioning that there are two fences on the Hungarian-Serbian border, with one of them already being upgraded by being raised by nearly two meters.

[20] E.g. Osiecki, G., Żółciak, T. (2022, 13 November), ‘Staliśmy się państwem dwunarodowym. Mieszka u nas już 2 mln osób z Ukrainy.’ (‘We have become a binational state. We already have 2 million people from Ukraine living with us.’) Forsal, https://forsal.pl/gospodarka/demografia/artykuly/8585141,polska-polityka-migracyjna-uchodzcy-z-ukrainy.html

The article was originally published in the Projekt: Polska publication Democracy without Minorities‘: https://www.enop.eu/publications/democracy-without-minorities/

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