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Hungary’s Fugitive Slave Law

A few years ago, on an extended visit to a number of European countries and such picturesque cities as Paris, Lisbon, Madrid, Barcelona, Venice and Salzburg, I was surprised to find that my favorite city was Budapest, Hungary. It had intriguing geography, with two very different centers (Buda and Pest) in one city, the Danube running between them; it had  old castles and palaces (one of them turned into the hotel in which my wife and I stayed), wide shopping streets and a beautiful park and lake in the center of the city. I could see why it was called the “Paris of Eastern Europe.” What I enjoyed most of all were the many sidewalk cafes, filled with students studying and talking and drinking coffee or beer, the classic and elegant historic coffee houses where the rich of the city used to gather and probably still do, and the quirky “ruin pubs,” which were partially destroyed buildings unrepaired and turned into multi-floor drinking establishments. I searched, unsuccessfully, for the birth place of John Von Neumann, one of my intellectual heroes. What a place to study or teach, I thought to myself!  I imagined the city being alive with avante garde ideas and intellectual fervor.

Hungarian-born American investor, political activist and philanthropist George Soros, also must have seen his native Budapest in the same way. Until last month, the city was the home of his Open Societies Foundations as well as the Central European University, a graduate university focusing on social sciences, which he founded. The university’s future is still in doubt, as the government of  Prime Minister Viktor Orban has passed legislation that would make its current structure and policies illegal, despite the university being listed among the world’s top 100 in the social sciences. In May of this year, Soros, a target of the Orban government, as well as of American conservatives and Republicans because of his support of progressive politics, announced that he is moving his Open Societies Foundations from Budapest because of “an increasingly repressive political and legal environment” in Hungary. For the time being the embattled Central European University will stay.

What repression was Soros talking about? The idyllic Budapest I encountered a few years ago was shattered by an influx of refugees from the war-torn Middle East and famines devastated Africa, who, beginning in 2015, traversed the country on their way to other European destinations, such as Germany or the Netherlands. To be truthful, most of them were only passing through Hungary, partly because it’s so-so economy did not offer the employment or public assistance options available in more thriving European destinations. Nevertheless, Hungary made worldwide headlines with scenes of refugees stranded in Budapest train stations, with the pictures of the fences it erected between it and Serbia, Slovenia and Croatia to keep refugees from crossing into its borders, and with videos of its immigration authorities chasing and beating refugees who had managed to get in.

Victor Orban, the leader of the right-wing, populist Fidesz Party has been prime minister of Hungary since 2010. Orban and his party seized on the fear generated by the wave of refugees and intensified a campaign to demonize migrants, particularly if they are Muslim or non-white. His arguments are ethnic/racial, such as his words, “For a country to be strong, demographic decline must be out of the question. At this point in time, this is Hungary’s Achilles heel. A country which is in demographic decline – and, to put it bluntly, is not even able to sustain itself biologically – may well find that it is no longer needed. A country like that will disappear. Only those communities survive in the world which are at least able to sustain themselves biologically; and let’s be honest with ourselves, Hungary today is not yet such a country.” On another occasion, he said, “there is no cultural identity in a population without a stable ethnic composition. The alteration of a country’s ethnic makeup amounts to an alteration of its cultural identity.” His arguments are also religious: “Those arriving have been raised in another religion, and represent a radically different culture. Europe and European identity is rooted in Christianity. Is it not worrying in itself that European Christianity is now barely able to keep Europe Christian? There is no alternative, and we have no option but to defend our borders.” 

Despite plummeting numbers of refugees entering his country—in September of 2015, a total of 138,396 illegal immigrants crossed into Hungary (mostly on their way elsewhere) and by September of 2016 the number had dropped to 152—Orban has kept up his drumbeat of anti-Muslim immigrant rhetoric. Notably, this anti-immigrant campaign has not been directed toward all groups and the number of immigrants into Hungary remains just below average for EU countries. They even had a program called the Hungarian Investment Immigration Program that lured people into the country with a promise of one-month qualification as a permanent resident and a fast-track to citizenship for an investment of $300,000. The program ended in 2017, when the government declared that its economy no longer needed it. However, it flourished during the same time that refugees were being turned away, and despite the prime minister’s claim that maintaining White European ethnicity was a priority, the program also tried to attract Asians, particularly Chinese, who could afford the investment. It was clear that the Orban government just didn’t want Muslims in its country.

Now, the Orban government has capped its anti-immigration program with the most onerous ruling yet. Yesterday, the Hungarian parliament passed a set of laws—which they named the “Stop Soros” bill—that makes it illegal for anyone to help migrants legalize their status in Hungary by providing information about the asylum process or offering them financial assistance. The penalty for violating the law is a 12-month jail term. Another measure would change the Hungarian Constitution to make it illegal to “settle foreign populations” in Hungary, a move made to thwart efforts by other EU countries to force Hungary to take some of the refugees that have settled elsewhere in Europe. These laws, particularly the first one, are reminiscent of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law in the United States, which made it illegal to assist a runaway slave, with a fine of $1,000 for violating the law. That law, now regarded as one of the worst laws our country has ever passed, also made it clear that slaves were not citizens and had no rights to a trial by jury in an American court, a decision made even more clear seven years later by the Supreme Court’s infamous Dred Scott decision. 

So far, the EU has not objected to the violation of free speech or free expression inherent in Hungary’s new law.

Hungarians are not worse people than other Europeans. I loved the friendliness that met me when I visited Budapest. We mustn’t make the mistake we often make about Germans under Hitler, of saying that there is something different about a population that takes prejudice, fear and hatred toward an ethnic, religious or racial group to a malignant extreme. Enough social psychological experiments by the likes of Stanley Milgram and Philip Zimbardo should have taught us that we are all capable of such behavior. All it takes is our fear being activated, something to push us into an Us vs Them state of mind, authority figures who tell us that the ethical thing to do is to follow orders and obey the laws no matter what, and a few demagogues to drum up hateful fervor amongst us.

There are smaller movements that mirror Hungary’s approach to immigrants in nearly every country in Europe and certainly in the United States, where anti-immigration fever is rampant. Victor Orban has praised President Trump on numerous occasions, hailing his victory in 2016 as signaling the “end to liberal non-democracy in America.” Trump has returned Orban’s praise and in a telephone conversation with him days before  Orban’s government passed the “Stop Soros bill,” the U.S. president encouraged the Hungarian P.M. to “strongly defend” Hungary’s border. Orban did just that.

Immigration has caused fear and drastic behaviors on the part of many countries. Hungary’s reaction is one example and the U.S. “zero-tolerance” policy that separated children from parents is another. We are in danger of losing our humanity because of fear and prejudice. We can’t afford to let ourselves go down the road Hungary seems to be following. We need to stand up for helping our less fortunate brothers and sisters in the world who are fleeing dangerous or unliveable situations, regardless of race, ethnicity, religion, or national origin, and not succumb to bigotry and selfishness, clothed in the guise of nationalism and religious or ethnic self-righteousness.


Reader Comments (2)

I agree with your conclusions, Casey, but I'm surprised you don't mention the anti-Semitism in Orban's policies since George Soros is demonized as a Jew, not as a progressive, in Hungary. That is a turn to the right not historically based, since the Austro-Hungarian empire was more open to and tolerant of Jews than most if not all of its European neighbors. It's part of our current psychic sickness, whose cure I'm afraid I won't live long enough to see.

June 22, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterAnca Vlasopolos

Anti-Semitism is on the rise in Hungary and in many other European countries, as well as in the U.S., where we see it fueling the alt-right movement and its neo-Nazi street counterpart. George Soros has been vilified for being Jewish by the Orban government and by the alt-right here in the U.S., where conspiracy theories about Jewish bankers and Communists are still festering within the troll community. This article focused on the immigrant issue in Hungary and the U.S., but it doesn't lessen the problem (one with a longer history) of anti-Semitism.

June 22, 2018 | Registered CommenterCasey Dorman

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