GYOR, Hungary — During a recruiting fair at a police proving ground here, a gaggle of teenagers ogled a display of machine guns, batons and riot gear. A glossy flier held out the promise of rugged patrols in 4x4s, super-cool equipment to detect body heat, night-vision goggles and migrant-sniffing dogs.
Because that’s how Hungary’s new “border hunters” roll.
This nation that once sat behind the Iron Curtain is offering a rare glimpse into a world where the build-a-wall mentality to keep migrants out rules the land. On Sunday, Hungarians will cast ballots in a national referendum on European Union quotas for accepting asylum seekers, with polls showing an overwhelming majority of likely voters poised to reject them.
They may as well hang a sign at the border, critics say: Welcome to Hungary — the migrant’s dystopia.
Donald Trump may want a wall, but Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban — a vocal fan of Trump’s immigration plan — has built one. Now, the nation is launching a massive recruitment drive for 3,000 “border hunters.” Their mission: beef up an already formidable migrant blockade, turning Hungary into a global model of how to prevent even the most determined asylum seeker from slipping through.
“Hungary does not need a single migrant for the economy to work or the population to sustain itself or for the country to have a future,” said Orban, who likened migration to “poison.” He added, “Every single migrant poses a public security and terror risk.”
Yet in a country where the Gestapo once hunted Jews and Cold War-era secret police ferreted out dissidents, some here say that the government is in danger of instilling a different kind of fear.
Orban’s government is fueling the public rebellion against the mostly Muslim migrants, critics say, by financing a multimillion-euro campaign asking voters to reject E.U. quotas. Opponents call it the rise of state-sponsored hate speech.
In a widely distributed flier, the campaign is echoing Trump’s claim last year that aggressive Muslim migration has turned some European neighborhoods into “no-go zones.” In one series of national ads, billboards in cities, towns and villages asked Hungarians, “Did you know?” before answering their own question:
- ●“Since the beginning of the migration crisis more than 300 people died in terrorist attacks in Europe.”
- ●“Since the beginning of the migration crisis, harassment against women in Europe increased dramatically.”
- ●“The Paris attacks were carried out by migrants.”
Critics concede it is within the limits of freedom of expression for anti-migrant supporters to make such blanket claims. But what is extraordinary, they say, is the zeal with which the government itself has become a mouthpiece for ethnic and religious caricatures.
The Orban government, they argue, is mainstreaming racism.
“They have launched this extremely vile campaign to portray migrants as rapists and terrorists who can only be stopped if we put up walls to protect our Christian identity,” said Márta Pardavi, co-chair of the Hungarian Helsinki Committee. “To them, it doesn’t matter that it’s not true what they’re saying. They have created a great opportunity for racists.”
Europe’s migrant flood of last year has slowed to a trickle, in part because of a tenuous E.U. deal with Turkey as well as a move by Balkan nations to shut their borders.
But hundreds of migrants are still slipping through, and more than 100,000 are stranded in the entry countries of Greece and Italy. All nations in the bloc, E.U. officials say, must share the burden and resettle a certain number of migrants determined by country size, population, economy and other factors.
But Hungary — along with Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia — is suing the E.U. to avoid taking in the 1,294 migrants the bloc says it must resettle. Sunday’s referendum is ostensibly to block future quotas. But it has effectively become a referendum on migrants themselves.
Orban this week suggested one solution: setting up a “giant refugee city” in lawless Libya to process asylum seekers.
Balázs Hidvéghi, a spokesman for Orban’s Fidesz Party, defended the “no” campaign and the hiring of border hunters, rejecting criticism as political correctness.
A former anti-communist activist turned populist nationalist, Orban last year took heat from his European peers for throwing up a fence to block the path of asylum seekers streaming into Europe from the war-torn Middle East. Yet Hidvéghi bragged that, for instance, the leader of Austria — who criticized Orban’s hard-line stance — is out of a job, while Orban is stronger than ever.
“We are setting the agenda,” Hidvéghi said.
One thing is relatively clear: Hungary’s migrant blockade seems to be working.
From a peak of more than 13,000 migrants a day, Hungary has more or less snuffed out illegal migration. About 30 legal migrants a day are allowed into transit centers for processing, and even the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) concedes that very few illegal migrants appear to be getting through.
That is partly because since July, Hungarian police and soldiers — about 8,000 of them — have begun “escorting” back behind the fence any migrant found within five miles of Hungary’s side of the border. Because the fence rests a few feet within Hungarian territory, the government says it is not technically expelling asylum seekers, a violation of international law.
The new border hunters will augment their efforts, officials say, by pairing with more experienced officers to spot migrants from towers and vehicles, track them and ultimately put them back behind the fence.
The UNHCR, however, says the policy appears to violate the Geneva Conventions. In addition, the UNHCR and Doctors Without Borders have documented allegations that the Hungarian police in more than 100 instances used excessive force to return migrants. Some interviewed migrants showed investigators dog bites, severe bruises and other injuries.
“It is a basic right that if a person wants to ask for asylum, they have the right to cross the border in an irregular manner and make such a request,” said Ernö Simon, a senior spokesman for the UNHCR in Hungary.
Most migrants are simply seeking to transit Hungary to get to more generous nations such as Germany. But even some migrants who are permitted into Hungary are “treated like animals,” according to a report released by Amnesty International.
In early August, according to Amnesty, more than half of the 1,200 asylum seekers residing in Hungary were under official detention. Former detainees reported beatings and threats of violence by Hungarian police and security guards.
Hungarian officials call such claims unfounded. Asked about allegations of mistreatment by migrants, Hidvéghi shrugged.
“Migrants have also said they came from Syria and turned out to be terrorists,” he said.
Opponents think the government may move to pass more anti-migrant legislation based on the outcome of Sunday’s vote. Polls show a large majority of likely voters set to reject the quotas — although turnout must exceed 50 percent to make the referendum valid. Some critics are calling for opponents to cast invalid ballots to try to nullify the results.
But whether because of the government campaign or not, many Hungarians seem to echo the sentiments of Daniel Kiss, a 17-year-old at the border hunters recruitment drive in this midsize city. He is eager to graduate high school next year, he said, and then become a border hunter to “defend my country.”
“There are some migrants with goodwill, but the majority are aggressive,” he said. “They just want to get across our border, and we can’t allow that.”
Gergo Saling in Budapest and Stephanie Kirchner in Berlin contributed to this report.