How to explain the inexplicable Hungarians? Why have so many of them backed Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s decision to ward off migrants and refugees by installing barbed-wire entanglements on the country’s borders with Serbia and Croatia? As a signatory to the United Nations’ 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, Hungary is obliged to offer them protection. Yet 66 percent of Hungarians say that refugees present a danger to Hungary, and only 19 percent believe they have a duty to take in people who are fleeing from danger themselves.
Just a generation ago, nothing captured the spirit of 1989 better than Hungarian border guards applying wire cutters to the fences separating their country from Austria. That summer, thousands of East Germans rushed to Hungary hoping to escape communism, causing a panic back home that led to demonstrations and the opening of the Berlin Wall in November. Their migration was a counterpoint to an earlier one in 1956, when an estimated 200,000 people escaped Moscow’s suppression of the Hungarian Revolution by fleeing across an open border to Austria, and then on to dozens of countries willing to take them in as new citizens.
Not so long ago, Eastern Europe’s civil-society movements demanded that all people be able to travel freely; open borders were considered a human right. Yet today, Hungary has been joined by Poland, Croatia, Serbia, Macedonia, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic in an effort to bar Muslim migrants from crossing into the European Union, even though refugees from these countries were welcomed in Western Europe during the Cold War and after. The arguments defending Hungary’s new barbed-wire barriers hark back to a time before the concept of human rights was enshrined. Orbán has tapped into a consensus throughout Central and Eastern Europe that Muslim migrants from Syria and Iraq cannot integrate because they are not Christian. And if anyone needs proof, the argument goes, then just consider what refugee mobs did to women in Cologne on New Year’s Eve. Countries in Western Europe are also putting up barriers, but the exclusiveness, while cruel, isn’t total. France feels overburdened, but it has not said that it will accept no refugees at all. (In May, Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo announced plans to build a refugee camp in the capital city.) The same is true of the Scandinavian nations.
The notable exception is Germany, where Chancellor Angela Merkel has insisted there will be no limit set on how many refugees the country will absorb. Germany is much wealthier than its neighbors, but it’s still a relatively small and densely settled place, about 17 percent smaller than California but with twice the population (80 million). Yet last year, it took in over a million migrants, chiefly from Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq. According to a report leaked in February, the country will absorb some 3.6 million non-Europeans by 2020, by the German government’s reckoning.
Leading politicians in her own coalition have accused Merkel of dividing Germany, but she has held her course with support from the center and the left, especially the Green Party. In February, one Green-governed state rejected the federal government’s demand that economic refugees be returned to Afghanistan, arguing that there was no airport in that country where it was safe to land. Despite pervasive doubts about how Germany will someday assimilate the hundreds of thousands of newcomers, 90 percent of Germans say that their country should continue to offer refuge to people fleeing terror and war.