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Border fences and refugee bans: Hungary did it — fast

Illustration by Rebecca Zisser / Axios

Time for a quick quiz: can you name the country?

  • It is led by a pro-Russia, Soros-hating right-wing populist.
  • One of its main strategies to control illegal immigration: a fence along its southern border.
  • It has largely suspended its consideration of applications for asylum from refugees.

The answer: Hungary.

Fidesz, the ruling party since 2010, and its leader, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, have used the migrant crisis in Europe to stoke fears about refugees fleeing the Middle East and cut the country off from both its neighbors and international institutions. Many have argued that the party has used these strategies to distract from accusations of corruption and an increasingly stagnant economy. Fidesz's strategies have been effective: its poll numbers have risen and illegal immigration into Hungary is near zero, but thousands of refugees remain in camps and detention centers along the nation's borders in inhumane conditions — unable to travel deeper into Western Europe or return home.

Timeline showing how quickly a government can act on refugees:

April 24, 2015: The Hungarian government sends a "national consultation on immigration" to its citizens with questions like: "There are some who think that mismanagement of the immigration question by Brussels may have something to do with increased terrorism. Do you agree with this view?"

May 2015: The number of illegal migrants entering Hungary hits 11,606 for the month, the start of a rise that culminates with 138,396 migrants crossing the border in September.

June 14, 2015: The government begins a billboard campaign using public funds with signs across the country bearing slogans like "If you come to Hungary, don't take the jobs of Hungarians!"

June 17, 2015: Hungary announces that it "cannot afford to wait any longer" for the EU to act on migration and sets out its plans to build a 13-foot razor-wire fence along the 110-mile border with Serbia.

September 15, 2015: Hungary puts new border laws into effect. The new laws:

  • seal its border with Serbia, except at designated crossings
  • make it a crime to damage the barrier erected along the Serbian border
  • criminalize illegal entry into Hungary — with a prison sentence of up to eight years
  • refuse passage through Hungary for asylum seekers whose applications are rejected
  • institute a state of emergency in Hungarian counties bordering Serbia

October 17, 2015: Hungary seals its 216-mile border with Croatia after completion of a fence.

February 11, 2016: Hungary announces its plans to build a fence along its border with Romania; to date, this construction has not occurred.

July 5, 2016: Hungary deploys 10,000 soldiers and police to push migrants back over border into Serbia.

July 26, 2016: Orbán praises Donald Trump's foreign policy as "vital for Hungary" and says: "For us migration is not a solution but a problem ... not medicine but a poison, we don't need it and won't swallow it."

September 2, 2016: The Hungarian government begins recruiting for civilian "border hunters" to patrol the Serbian and Croatian fences.

October 2, 2016: The government holds a national referendum on the question: "Do you want to allow the European Union to mandate the resettlement of non-Hungarian citizens to Hungary without the approval of the National Assembly?" 98.36% vote no, but a turnout of just 44% renders the vote invalid. The BBC calls it both an "emphatic victory" and a "crushing defeat" for Fidesz.

January 10, 2017: Fidesz announces a plan to oust all NGOs funded by George Soros — which "serve global capitalists and back political correctness over national governments" — from Hungary.

January 12, 2017: Hungary reinstates "mandatory immigration detention," restricting asylum seekers to detention centers and camps until their asylum applications can be processed.

Our earlier story: How to launch a populist revolution

Illustration by Greg Ruben / Axios
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