Orbán’s Hungary: a family visit shows divisions

Photo by CDC on Unsplash

My cousin once removed is about to set off by car to Orbán’s Hungary to visit parents, siblings and friends. As I might also drive to visit relatives in a couple of weeks, we discussed the various regulations to observe during the journey through five countries. We also discussed how our family there thinks about their current political situation.

Several of my Hungarian and Austrian friends and relatives who have lived in the UK have lately moved back home permanently since Brexit. When I asked my cousin whether he is also planning to move back to Hungary in the near future, he said just one word: Orbán.

He has quite a large family circle, with two sisters and several cousins, who all have young children. His sons look forward to playing with their cousins. However, my cousin is anxious about the changes that some of the parents of these children have undergone.

He hopes that some opinions won’t have trickled through to the children yet. He lives in cosmopolitan Fulham and has a wonderfully diverse social circle. His sons are used to encountering all shades of skin colour in the playground and at school, with friends who originate from various countries across the world.

Small town in Orbán’s Hungary

The small town where my cousin grew up and where his mother lives is anything but multicultural. It is a 160km drive from the capital Budapest, but could well be in another country. There is no University there and few jobs for young people with degrees. Most young graduates move to the capital or look for work in neighbouring Austria or Germany.

My cousin still has a few friends who stayed there to work as teachers. One of his cousins remained in the town to be near his widowed father. This cousin had been to visit me in Sevenoaks in the late 90s and he had loved multicultural London and the music scene there. He played saxophone in a band and was a very progressive thinker. He had met and made friends with people of different cultures and skin colour.

My UK based cousin has not visited him for around two years in the course of his Hungarian holidays. The reason for this was that he has changed drastically. He has become radicalised. They have two teenage daughters who he now does not allow to leave the house, unless accompanied by an adult. He worries that they might meet a refugee who will rape them.

Refugees in Orbán’s Hungary

Very likely, there is not a single refugee or migrant in the small town. But if you switch on Magyar TV, the Hungarian national public broadcaster, you will hear daily news reports about immigration. Pro-government newspapers also feature regular articles about immigrants. These stories are rarely positive.

The headlines one hears on the evening news warn: If immigration continues, “terror will become part of life in large cities. That’s a line from a 2018 speech by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, marking the 62 anniversary of the outbreak of the Hungarian Revolution and war of independence against communist rule.

Refugees who live in Hungary face regular reminders that they are unwelcome from both governmental legislation and opinion polls. Orbán introduced some of the strictest anti-immigration laws in Europe, and has built a 109-mile-long fence along its southern border to curb crossings from Serbia and Croatia.

Migrants rest as a policeman watches them near Hungary’s border fence on the Serbian side of the border near Morahalom, Hungary, in February 2016. Credit: Laszlo Balogh/Reuters

One would think from this reaction by the government that Hungary is swamped by refugees. However, NGOs estimate that the country only allows in about two asylum-seekers per day. Orbán refused to take part in the European Union’s resettlement program for refugees in 2015

Hungary approved a package of legislation called the “Stop Soros” law. Feeding a refugee child across the fence is a prisonable offence. The law  introduced in 2018 declared that any group or individual helping undocumented immigrants claim asylum could be liable for a jail term. The move has unsettled NGOs, and also made Hungarians nervous about volunteering to help refugee organisations.

A poster of opposition party members, like Gergely Karácsonyi, the mayor of Budapest photoshopped with Soros says: “They would dismantle the border fence together.” 

Government spokesperson Zoltán Kovács said about Hungary’s attitude to migrants and its strict anti-immigrant legislation:

“Migration is not a human right. Illegal migration is a risk. It carries dangers to public security, the danger of terrorism, and eventually the danger of cultural conflicts, which we see now in western Europe.”     

Now Orbán’s Hungary goes for gay rights

Viktor Orbán’s government has to date targeted migrants in its political messaging, but now gay rights have come under increasing pressure ahead of parliamentary elections in 2022.

Hungary’s parliament has passed a law, supported by the far-right Jobbik party, banning LGBT+ people from featuring in educational materials or on TV shows for under-18s. Sex education is banned in schools and is supposedly left to parents or specially licensed organisations. A Hungarian government spokesperson commented:

“There are contents which children under a certain age can misunderstand and which may have a detrimental effect on their development at the given age, or which children simply cannot process, and which could therefore confuse their developing moral values or their image of themselves or the world.”

International condemnation

Amnesty International’s Hungarian chapter, which held protests against the plans, described the passing of the law as a “dark day for LGBT+ rights and for Hungary”. According to the Council of Europe’s commissioner for human rights, Dunja Mijatović: 

“The proposed legislative amendments run counter to international and European human rights standards. It is misleading and false to claim that they are being introduced to protect children.”

Due to mounting pressure from EU countries and the EU, Orbán has announced that his government will hold a nationwide referendum on “child protection”. With leading questions, like: “Do you support minors being shown, without any restriction, media content of a sexual nature that is capable of influencing their development?” the outcome seems predictable. 

“The prime minister asked Hungarians to say no to these questions, just as they did five years ago when we stopped Brussels from forcing migrants on us,” said Orbán’s spokesperson Zoltán Kovács in a blogpost.

All Out and Hungarian Pride

A projection by All Out and Hungarian Pride lit up Budapest with rainbow and Hungarian colours and projected a powerful message across the Danube River: “Your referendum is a distraction. LGBT+ rights are human rights.”

It also called on the EU to keep up the pressure on Hungary to repeal the anti-LGBT+ law, echoing what over 47,000 All Out members around the world demanded by joining their campaign

After All Out launched their campaign, the EU Commission has started legal action against Hungary. But the law is still on the books and the referendum is coming, fanning the flames of homophobia and transphobia.

Sadly, this will drive another block between my two young cousins: the one living in Fulham is horrified by the vilification of migrants and LGBTQI people. But he has given up trying to persuade his cousin living in the small Hungarian town that his children are not at risk by imaginary migrants or by marauding gay people.

Who can compete with daily scare stories on TV? 

Orbán’s Hungary should be a warning to Britain

Europe looks on in horror at what is happening in Hungary. But Brits should maybe pay a little more attention to what is happening nearer home: Priti Patel’s Nationality and Borders Bill criminalises seeking asylum and aiding an asylum seeker 

Nigel Farage campaigns against saving people in dinghy’s at the Kent coast.

Another change to keep our eyes on is to the official secrets act, now making “embarrassing” the government by journalists a crime

Equally dangerous to our democracy is the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Court Bill which criminalises peaceful protest, if somebody reports it as “annoying”. 

I for one am worried.