Australia has been widely criticized this year for running offshore detention centers for migrants and asylum-seekers, which human rights organizations have said are inhumane and need to be shut down.
But on Thursday, Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto told Foreign Policy in an exclusive interview at U.N. headquarters in New York that he’s “not sure those reports are fair” and that Hungary would like to set up similar offshore processing centers in order to keep migrants out of the European Union.
“There’s an Australian example about the islands, and this is something that seems to be working, actually,” he said, hours after Hungarian news site Origo.hu reported that Prime Minister Viktor Orban said he wants to round up migrants and ship them to an island patrolled by European forces. It’s unclear exactly where island that would be.
Migrants trying to reach Australia are processed on neighboring Nauru and Papua New Guinea, And although Orban referenced “an island,” Szijjarto said that he personally does not have a specific land mass in mind for potentially holding refugees trying to enter Hungary.
Szijjarto went on to defend Orban’s suggestion in his conversation with FP, and said that like Australia, Hungary has faced unfair criticism for its treatment of migrants and asylum-seekers. The criticism peaked last year when thousands of asylum-seekers trying to reach western Europe entered Hungary and were in some cases greeted with tear gas and water cannons. Others were stranded in train stations in the capital Budapest when Hungarian officials refused to allow them to board trains to Germany, where Chancellor Angela Merkel had said she would accept refugees — even if their paperwork had not been properly processed along the way.
Since then, Hungary has erected fences, deployed armed personnel to monitor border entries, challenged an EU quota plan in court, and organized an Oct. 2 referendum vote to ban the quota system from applying to Hungary.
Szijjarto said these measures were not overreactions and that officials in Budapest should “not allow people to just march through the country breaking our regulations and attacking the local authorities,” especially because Hungary is an outermost border of the EU and thus has to take not only its own security, but the entire government bloc’s, into consideration.
Pointing to recent terrorist attacks in Brussels and Paris, as well as an ax attack carried out by an Afghan teenager in Germany, Szijjarto said Hungary needs “to put security first.”
He said the policies also seek to maintain the safety of migrants and refugees who risk their lives to reach Europe. Hungarian officials would prefer to pump aid into countries such as Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey, he said, so that when the Syrian conflict is resolved, Syrians will return home instead of staying put in the EU.
“The approach of the EU and President [Barack] Obama in this respect is simply a failure, because our position is that we have to bring the help where it is needed and we should not inspire people to take life hazards and should not inspire people to travel thousands of kilometers to totally different countries, totally different cultures, and totally different traditions,” he said. “Who’s going to rebuild Syria if you don’t have the Syrian people?”
When asked how his tough stance on migration was taken at the U.N. this week, as world leaders gathered to discuss the migration crisis and Obama called for greater acceptance of refugees and an end to fear-mongering, Szijjarto said that among friends, his policies are well-received. And when he travels in Europe, he has noticed Europeans outside of Hungary seem more keen to latch onto Hungarian policies, even if they scoffed at them one-and-a-half years ago.
“Wherever I go, people always come and say ‘We need another Viktor Orban, your policy is correct, we should put security first,’” he said.
But earlier this month, Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn said Hungary should be “excluded from the EU” for its treatment of refugees.
“If he was not the foreign minister of Luxembourg, I would say it’s an unserious joke, but since he is the foreign minister of Luxembourg, we have to take it seriously,” Szijjarto said Thursday. He said Hungary would never consider leaving the government bloc and that Luxembourg Prime Minister Xavier Bettel later ensured that their exclusion is not his country’s official position.
This week, Szijjarto also met with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, and said that he urged Moscow’s top diplomat to improve relations with the United States in order to better coordinate the fight in Syria. He said the only way to ensure that Hungary is not “a loser” is to improve relations between the East and the West, and that means bringing the conflict in Syria to an end so that refugees stop flooding into Hungary.
“If there’s no peace in Syria then we have to fear that those people — 6.5 million internally displaced and 13.5 million living on humanitarian aid in Syria — will hit the road,” he said.
Photo credit: ARMEND NIMANI/AFP/Getty Images