How Hungary's Viktor Orban Became The Villain Of Europe's Refugee Crisis

The country's harsh border controls and anti-immigration rhetoric have been widely condemned.
Laszlo Balogh / Reuters

As European leaders meet Wednesday for an emergency summit on the region's urgent migrant and refugee crisis, the man to watch is Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban.

The populist prime minister has been one of the most prominent political voices arguing for Europe to fortify its borders, in a year that has seen hundreds of thousands of people journey to the continent from conflict zones in the Middle East and Africa.

Orban has actively tried to stop the flow of undocumented people entering his country, which is on the Balkan route many migrants and refugees take to reach hospitable countries like Germany. Scenes last week of Hungarian police spraying water cannons and tear gassing people trying to cross the country's border underscore the lengths that the government is willing to go to.

Hungary has also employed other measures, including building an $80 million razor wire border fence and passing legislation to deploy the army that is allowed to fire rubber bullets at migrants and refugees. The country's government has even taken out full page ads in Lebanese newspapers warning people not to attempt the journey to its borders.

The sun rises along the Hungary and Serbia border fence near the village of Asotthalom, Hungary, October 2, 2016.
The sun rises along the Hungary and Serbia border fence near the village of Asotthalom, Hungary, October 2, 2016.
Laszlo Balogh / Reuters

While rights groups and the United Nations have condemned Orban's actions as inhumane and unacceptable, the prime minister's response to the crisis has shored up his popular support at home.

A poll conducted earlier this month showed that a massive 82 percent of Hungarians favor tighter immigration controls, according to The Wall Street Journal. Orban's Fidesz party commands strong support from the public, which shows the prime minister's recurring knack of turning crisis into political opportunity.

Orban first rose to some prominence as a law graduate and student activist in the 1980s. In 1989, he called for free elections in Hungary in a bold public speech. After Communism ended in Hungary, Orban directed his notoriety into carving out a political career as leader of the conservative-nationalist Fidesz party.

He served as a Fidesz member of parliament until 1998, when he was elected prime minister at the age of 35.

A younger Viktor Orban, the chairman of the Fidesh party speaks during the press conference at the election headquarter in Budapest.
A younger Viktor Orban, the chairman of the Fidesh party speaks during the press conference at the election headquarter in Budapest.
Laszlo Balogh / Reuters

Fidesz lost the next election, in 2002, amid allegations of corruption, but Orban returned to power in 2010 in a landslide victory that gave the party a two-thirds majority in parliament. Once Orban was prime minister again, he made changes to the constitution that critics say consolidated state power over courts and the media, and revealed the former dissident’s growing autocratic streak.

Tens of thousands of Hungarians gathered in Budapest to demonstrate against Orban’s government in 2012, chanting “Viktator” and protesting the new amendments, but his administration survived.

Formerly a radical voice for liberalism in Hungary, last year Orban openly advocated for illiberal democracy, like Turkey’s and Russia’s, as a successful model for states. He has opposed EU influence over Hungary’s policy decisions, and kicked out the International Monetary Fund after the country received a multibillion dollar bailout.

Now, as the refugee and migrant crisis continues, Orban has once again balked at what he says is European interference in Hungary’s national affairs. Ahead of Wednesday’s summit, he said Germany’s “moral imperialism” shouldn’t be imposed on Hungary.

Orban’s political stance has cast him as one of the primary antagonists, as the migrant crisis plays out, from the perspective of western EU states and rights groups. Hungary voted against one EU relocation plan, passed Tuesday, to move 120,000 migrants and refugees from front line states like Italy and Greece.

The prime minister has also opposed the proposals favored by many European countries, including Germany, that would establish a unified policy to deal with the crisis. These plans include establishing a quota system that would redistribute refugees across European states to more evenly share people and costs.

Hungary has previously voted against such a plan and Orban has decried quotas as “unfair” and “unwise,” albeit saying that the country would be forced to comply if they are passed.

Instead of quotas, Orban has suggested a Hungarian plan that is designed to contain refugees and migrants in Syria's neighboring countries, where most of the people trying to reach Europe are coming from. Under the plan a monetary fund will be set up into which nations are to contribute 1% of their EU contributions and 1% of their EU income, reported the BBC.

The money would then be used to strengthen border control and send aid to refugee camps primarily in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan.

The plan reflects Orban's view that migrants and refugees should stay in countries like Turkey, where it is "safe." But while Orban purports to be discouraging migration because of its dangers, and the potential economic cost to Hungary, a significant part of the prime minister's rationale is purely religious and nationalist.

"We think all countries have a right to decide whether they want to have a large number of Muslims in their countries," Orban said earlier this month. "If they want to live together with them, they can. We don’t want to and I think we have a right to decide that we do not want a large number of Muslim people in our country."

Also on HuffPost:

Migrants And Refugees At Hungary's Border

Go To Homepage

Popular in the Community