Victims of scapegoating: How the anti-migrant campaigns affected the immigrants of Hungary
KALOCSA, HUNGARY - It was a hot late August afternoon and I wore shorts and a T-shirt. “Maybe you should borrow a nurse uniform,“ said an 80-year-old retired teacher I ran into on my way to a small-town hospital in Southern Hungary. I was not sure whether he was joking or was really concerned that my bare legs may offend the Yemeni-born traumatologist I was about to visit. But when I met Dr. Adel Shawfar it became clear that he did not expect me to dress differently. He said that compromise is inevitable to successful integration.“When a newcomer arrives in a new society, he has to accept the new culture and society, while the locals should be tolerant,”- he told me.
Far from his conflict-torn birth country, Shawfar found his home in a tiny but intimate Hungarian town, Kalocsa. Yet dr. Shawfar enjoys living here with his Slovakian Hungarian wife and their two children. He ranked second in a local 2017 man-of-the-year competition, a testimony to the respect the surgeon enjoys in the town of 20,000 people.
“People see me as an inhabitant of the city not as a stranger they should be afraid of,“ he said. But whenever he leaves Kalocsa, he says, people eye him with suspicion.
Having lived in the country since 1990, he has observed a significant shift in Hungarians’ attitude towards immigrants and refugees. He fears that his young children could grow up in isolation and even encounter violence because of their origin.
“It will not be an easy task to make them understand why they are hated. Every country has the right to protect itself, but it is really harmful to incite hatred,” he said.
Surveys show that anti-immigrant sentiments have been increasingly on the rise in Hungary. According to a poll conducted by TÁRKI Group, xenophobia reached its historic peak in 2016, when 53% of the respondents said that Hungary should not accept any asylum seekers. Only 1% said that the country should accept all of them, the lowest number since 1992.
Surveys also reveal that Hungarians are increasingly fearful of refugees and immigrants despite hosting only a few. A country of ten million, Hungary has granted refugee status or other form of international protection to only 1272 people since 2015. Yet in 2017 Pew Research Center found that large number of refugees coming from places like Iraq and Syria is perceived as a top threat only in Hungary. In another public opinion poll conducted in 2017 by Závecz Research, eight in ten Hungarians said they believe that Muslims threaten their country’s future.
The Hungarian society used to be multi-ethnic, but after the World War I, the population‘s ethnic and religious compositon has become more homogeneous. Behind the Iron Curtain the nations of Central and Eastern Europe were not exposed to much outside influence. „The Central-Eastern European societies are traditionally more close-knit and conservative than the Western Europeans, and this is notably true for Hungary” said Péter Tálas, a security policy expert from the Budapest-based Center for Strategic and Defense Studies.
„The Central-Eastern European states are not founded on democratic basis, but on the basis of cultural nationalism and blood relations. This the reason that the societies excludes their internal enemies like Jews and Gypsies and their external enemies like immigrants and refugees,“ said Antal Örkény, a sociologist from the Budapest-based Eötvös Loránd University.
The Hungarian government does nothing to counter these sentiments. On the contrary, it ran its own advertising campaigns against refugees and immigrants from the summer of 2015. During the height of these campaigns billboards with anti-immigrant messages dotted the country, while commercials were played during every ad break on TV and radio. The campaigns cost at least 17 billion forints (56 million euros) of tax-payers’ money according to an estimate by Átlátszó, a Hungarian investigative journalism non-profit.
The government’s adverts linked immigration only with negative consequences like terrorism. One billboard blared that immigrants committed the Paris terror attacks. „This campaign is a media-fueled anxiety, which can be successful, because the society is fearful and average people do not have personal experiences in connection with immigration. This is an Orwellian incitement of hatred, which is based on people’s lack of security,“ said Örkény.
The worsening public sentiment affects well-integrated Muslim immigrants like dr. Shawfar and relative newcomers as well.
“There were times when I really wanted to leave Hungary, especially when I saw those billboards on the streets of Budapest,” said Amani Fayez, who has been living in Hungary since 2009. She left her home in Damascus, Syria, to study dentistry in Budapest’s Semmelweis University.
Fayez speaks fluent Hungarian and has friends here, but she could not get on well with her classmates who were standoffish because of her headscarf. She gave up wearing it this summer, because she was tired of unceasing stares. Some professors also made her feel unwelcome, she recalled. “Once a teacher compared the refugees to bacteria of dental decay,” she said “I had to listen to it from the first row of the auditorium.“
Fayez said that before the migration crisis she felt that Hungarians were more helpful and tolerant, but now a lot of people became hostile. Sometimes random strangers mock her, calling her a migrant or a refugee. “I understand that they want to protect their country, I also would have been afraid if Hungarians showed up in Syria, but I am disappointed because of their behaviour. They think that everybody is alike, an extremist or a terrorist,” she said.
Despite such expereinces Fayez says she likes living here and is determined to stay. She wants to finish her studies, work here and pay taxes. “It is a challange for me, but I want to show the Hungarians that I am capable of integration” she said. As a Palestinian refugee from Syria, she is registered as a stateless person, but she hopes this can change:
“My biggest dream is to have a citizenship, and I think, it can be possible in Hungary”.