Fortress Hungary

Security fence along Bulgaria’s border with Turkey (photo: Reuters).

On June 17, 2015, Minister of External Economy and Foreign Affairs Péter Szijjártó announced that the government of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán had initiated construction of a four-meter-high fence along the entire 175-kilometer length of the Hungarian-Serbian border in order to obstruct the flow of illegal immigrants into Hungary from Serbia.

The number of immigrants seeking asylum in Hungary has increased dramatically over the past two years, rising from 18,900 in 2013 to 42,777 in 2014 and 24,000 in the first two months of 2015. Most of these asylum-seekers have been from Kosovo, though an increasing number of them are from other countries, notably Syria and Afghanistan (source in English).

Most of those seeking asylum in Hungary arrive to the country illegally via Turkey, Greece, Macedonia and, finally, Serbia. A total of 54,000 people entered Hungary illegally in the first five months of 2015, or about 360 per day (source in Hungarian).

Prime Minister Viktor Orbán said in June 2015 that since immigrants do not face persecution in Serbia, he considers all of those who arrive to Hungary from that country to be “subsistence immigrants” (megélhetési bevándorló), thus making them ineligible for political asylum (source in Hungarian).  However, the large majority of the illegal immigrants who request asylum in Hungary do not intend to remain in the country, but merely want to avoid immediate expulsion so that they may continue on to Austria, and from there to Germany, Italy and other states in western Europe.

Minister of External Economy and Foreign Affairs P (photo: MTI).

Minister of External Economy and Foreign Affairs Péter Szijjártó announces construction of the southern border barrier (photo: MTI).

The five refugee camps and three immigration detention-centers in Hungary lack the capacity to accommodate the recent significant increase in even such transitory migration (source in English).  The Orbán government does not plan to expand the capacity of these refugee camps and detention centers:  in fact, Prime Minister Orbán declared in May 2015 that the Debrecen refugee camp, the largest in Hungary, “must not be developed, but closed and those who live in it sent home!” (source in Hungarian).

The Orbán government’s proposed security fence would be the fifth frontier barrier in the European Union: Spain built fences in the 1990s along the borders of its autonomous cities of Ceuta and Melilla in Morocco, while Greece and Bulgaria have erected fences over the past few years along their borders with Turkey (source in English). None of these fences are over 30 kilometers in length.

The opposition newspaper Népszabadság has reported that the Orbán government’s proposed border fence would cost 22 billion forints (70.3 million euros) to build (source in Hungarian). The issue of whether this money would be more efficiently spent on other means of handling Hungary’s current refugee crisis is open to debate.

In addition to the explicit purpose of the fence along the Hungarian-Serbian border to prevent illegal immigration, the frontier barrier will perform an implicit function as well: to serve as a permanent physical manifestation of external threat to Hungary’s security, thus providing Prime Minister Orbán with the opportunity to strengthen his political legitimacy through portrayal of himself as defender of the nation.

Öffnung der ungarisch-österreichischen Grenze 1989

Hungarian People’s Army soldiers dismantle the security fence along Hungary’s border with Austria in 1989.

Moreover, the proposed security fence carries enormous symbolic significance in a country that just 25 years ago regained the national independence necessary to remove one of the greatest physical and ideological border barriers in history from its western frontier. The opposition media immediately began referring to the Orbán government’s proposed security-fence as the “Iron Curtain” (source A and B in Hungarian).

And not to mention: building the wall will surely strain Hungary’s relations with Serbia, whose prime minister, Aleksandar Vučić, said in response to the Orbán government’s announcement that it would build the border barrier: “I am surprised and shocked. We will discuss this decision with our Hungarian colleagues. Serbia will not close itself in, we will not live in Auschwitz” (source in English).

One wonders if Serbia is merely the first neighboring country that the Orbán government will separate from Hungary through construction of security fence along their common border and if such frontier barriers might again one day serve primarily to keep dissatisfied Hungarians from leaving the country rather than to prevent unwanted foreigners from entering it.