The blame and the zero

Take this piece from the New York Times: Who’s responsible for the refugees?

To me, it said two things.

One: “Stop blaming Hungary”. Two: “The ideal number of refugees is zero.”

One: Stop blaming Hungary (not)

Not so hasty, I daresay. J’accuse.

It’s true Hungary had no hand in displacing those who seek asylum in Europe these days. But the Hungarian government and its authorities are responsible for escalating the crisis. Maybe not fully, but they have a lion’s share.

Hungary has actually failed to protect the borders of the EU, and caused unnecessary harm to both the refugees and its own citizens along the way. The authorities allowed the asylum-seekers to pass through the country without registration, without processing asylum requests. Yet both are required by the Schengen treaty, and would have been essential because there are frauds and potential undercover terrorists in the crowd. But instead, Hungarian authorities simply pushed the asylum-seekers to Austria, and then on to Germany.

For the record, most critics of the Hungarian government, and the #refugeeswelcome campaign did not demand that we allow everyone in, unchecked, unchallenged. The demand was fair treatment for all asylum-seekers by actually registering and processing asylum requests, and promptly admitting those who prove to be refugees.

The authorities claimed they could not do their work because most people arriving refused to be registered. This is true, but there’s another truth we keep forgetting: that the asylum-seekers had a very good reason to do so. Hungary has a notorious history of rejecting practically all asylum requests – and because the country is part of the Schengen area, a rejection excludes the asylum-seeker from all Schengen countries.

Based on EuroStat data, if we ignore those who arrived from Kosovo, Hungary received 9980 asylum requests in the first quarter of 2015. Of all asylum requests (this time including those from Kosovo), Hungary processed as many as 1255. Only 130 cases had a positive outcome. This is 1.3% – but compared to the total number of requests, 0.3% – practically zero. This performance and the tendency to a negative decision is a clear violation of the Geneva convention.

In a way, the immigration control practice of Hungary has always been a ticking bomb, threatening a major crisis every time a larger number of refugees approached its border.

As if this weren’t enough, Hungarian authorities further angered the asylum-seekers by withholding information and by the abysmal treatment they were met with. The authorities failed to provide shelter and sustenance, and they tried to coerce the asylum-seekers to camps by cheating them: remember the train with the German flags that stopped short in Bicske?

Hungary’s failure seems deliberate. The government could have upgraded the immigration authorities to cope with the task of registration and asylum processing. They could have changed the anti-immigration legislation to comply with the Geneva convention. But they chose to spend money on a hate campaign and enact even more restrictions.

Since last night, the border with Serbia is closed and fenced. Those crossing illegally – through the fence – will be prosecuted as criminal offenders, and evicted from the country. Those crossing legally – through border controls on the roads – will be registered, refused asylum, and evicted from the country. In a unilateral move, Hungary has declared that Serbia is a safe country, and that asylum-seekers must first register their requests there. This is not true: to be considered safe, a country must have adequate immigration control infrastructure – it’s not enough that the lives of the asylum-seekers are not in danger. This violates the Geneva convention in more than one ways, because it requires that the country take refugees in, and it also prohibits criminal prosecution against those crossing the border illegally.

Today an opposition MP reported that authorities cheat again: those entering legally are forced to sign a Hungarian-only document where they admit to crossing the border illegally. The same document contains a resolution that the asylum-seeker is barred from entering the Schengen area for a year.

But because Serbia is not willing to take back those who are evicted, there’s no telling how long they will be able to keep this up. There’s no telling how long the fence and the authorities’ resolve will last. And there’s no telling what happens next – I think our government is as clueless as I am.

Premier Orbán and many of his supporters vow that Hungary will remain ethnically pure, as Éva S. Balogh puts it. They are forgetting that Hungary isn’t ethnically pure and never was. And the hate campaign had a horrifying side effect, too: there’s now talk of the ‘protection of the white race’ in casual conversations of seemingly peaceful individuals.

This treatment and the closedown will benefit one group of people: human traffickers – many of whom are rumored to be linked to some Hungarian officials, or else in the pay of KGB, the Russian secret service. As much as these seem to be pure conspiracy theories, we know of at least one case when the police didn’t respond to a call when several asylum-seekers were held hostage by traffickers (forgive the Hungarian link).

In pursuit of his agenda, Orbán’s government violated three international treaties (Geneva, Schengen, Dublin III), and disrupted the free movement of people across Europe as many countries including Germany and Austria are now restoring border controls. By Schengen, it can only be temporary, but there’s a good chance that Hungary will be ejected from the treaty, making those border controls permanent for Hungarians.

And no, it’s not an acceptable excuse that Germany and Austria were also at best inconsistent in handling the crisis. The faults of others don’t justify our own wrongdoing.

A fine record for a rogue regime, isn’t it?

Two: The ideal number of refugees is zero

Here I couldn’t agree more.

We shouldn’t want hundreds of thousands or millions of refugees. But the arguments we usually hear are all the wrong ones.

Many liberal voices, including Nobel laureate Imre Kertész, now defend the Hungarian government, claiming that admitting a large number of Muslim immigrants threatens the fundamental value of Europe: individual freedom. This might be true, at least if we accept the axiom that integration is not possible, and that a parallel society of Muslim immigrants would endanger the lifestyle of the majority.

Remember, the Hungarian government actually failed to protect the borders.

The truth is, we don’t know. We have yet to see how integration is done right on a larger scale. European governments tend to segregate and prosecute rather than integrate – the latter is hard work and takes longer than the term of one government. And when you segregate and prosecute, it’s easy to claim that co-existence is impossible. However, when integration is done right, it will be successful. I have seen Muslims in Germany wanting to integrate. I have seen second-generation immigrants with full German identities, living in full German environments, and accepted as Germans in all aspects.

Another truth is, we aren’t entitled to our freedom, safety, and wealth. And although we are right to defend them, it’s not acceptable to forget the same values when we deal with foreigners, or we are under threat. It’s not acceptable to defend our values by mistreating, harming, and cheating asylum-seekers. When we do that, our values cease to exist – there’s nothing to defend anymore.

On a side note: with all due respect, one does not agree with the Hungarian government, let alone defend it. On several occasions, they have proved that they don’t care about individual freedom and usually talk about European values in mockery. From people like them, there can be no credible defense of the European way of life.

So, we shouldn’t want all those refugees. But for a completely different reason.

The Hungarian government keeps saying that their actions were necessary because any hint of favorable treatment amounts to an open invitation – and then millions will turn up at our borders.

No. The invitation is our relative safety, wealth, and lifestyle – it’s out there and we can’t revoke it, unless we forfeit the very safety, wealth, and lifestyle we’re so keen on defending.

What’s more, food is running out in the refugee camps around Syria – in Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan –, and life is slowly getting unbearable there, prompting more and more refugees to leave.

In the meantime, more and more people get displaced as the Islamic State advances in Syria.

The discussions among EU countries about refugee quotas seem like petty bickering – they can’t even agree about those, so how could we expect them to come up with a plan to help in the Middle East, to contribute to eliminate the threat in the first place?

Having to welcome refugees is not a good thing. But – or precisely because – being a refugee is immensely worse. So, if we really want to make a difference, we must do what little we can to prevent people from becoming refugees. And we must do what little we can to assist the refugees to return to their normal lives – preferably not in Europe, but in their country of birth.

These last couple of weeks, groups of marvelous people have been helping the refugees in Hungary. Advocates of the ‘white race’ accused them of preferring migrants to the Hungarian poor (not that they give a thought to them otherwise), and also of inciting the migrants to come in even larger numbers.

Yet the volunteers weren’t political – they didn’t make demands, they just saw human misery and went out to help. I’ve already commended them in another piece called Causes.

The not-so-marvelous others, like me, wrote blogs, comments, and made occasional donations. To UNHCR, for example.

What with the closedown, this might become a moot cause in Hungary, replaced by a potentially much more dangerous civil endeavor: to uncover refugees in the custody of human traffickers. We have very good reason to believe that for every human trafficker caught, there are ten others who are let loose.

For now, the refugees are stuck in Serbia, and, winter coming, in the Middle Eastern refugee camps. That’s where help is needed. Volunteers from all over Europe are headed for Serbia, and pleas appear for donations to UNHCR and other organizations helping refugees in Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan.

Let’s pull ourselves together already. Let’s find a way to prevent the refugees from being displaced permanently – but protect our values as well. By mistreating, harming, cheating asylum-seekers, we aren’t defending European values – we’re destroying them.

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