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Hungary FM: Unchecked Migration Increases Risk of Terror

In an exclusive interview with Foreign Policy, Budapest’s top diplomat assesses the impact of terror in Europe.

Refugees stand behind a fence at the Hungarian border with Serbia near the town of Horgos on September 16, 2015. Europe's 20-year passport-free Schengen zone appeared to be a risk of crumbling with Germany boosting border controls on parts of its frontier with France as migrants desperate to find a way around Hungary's border fence began crossing into Croatia. With a string of EU countries tightened frontier controls in the face of the unprecedented human influx, the cherished principle of free movement across borders -- a pillar of the European project -- seemed in grave jeopardy.  / AFP / ARMEND NIMANI        (Photo credit should read ARMEND NIMANI/AFP/Getty Images)
Refugees stand behind a fence at the Hungarian border with Serbia near the town of Horgos on September 16, 2015. Europe's 20-year passport-free Schengen zone appeared to be a risk of crumbling with Germany boosting border controls on parts of its frontier with France as migrants desperate to find a way around Hungary's border fence began crossing into Croatia. With a string of EU countries tightened frontier controls in the face of the unprecedented human influx, the cherished principle of free movement across borders -- a pillar of the European project -- seemed in grave jeopardy. / AFP / ARMEND NIMANI (Photo credit should read ARMEND NIMANI/AFP/Getty Images)

Last September, as tens of thousands of desperate migrants and refugees flooded into Hungary from Serbia, Hungarian police who were deployed to the border refused to let many of them in, greeting them instead with tear gas and water cannons to push them back from where they had come.

That use of force was widely criticized: Human rights groups condemned it as a violation of Budapest’s international obligations to asylum-seekers, and neighboring Austria likened Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s policies to Nazism.

But seven months and two terrorist attacks on European soil later, Hungarian officials feel vindicated by their tough stance on migration. Now, they say, Budapest was wrongly chastised for sounding the alarm bell on the dangers of unregulated mass migration months ago.

In an exclusive interview with Foreign Policy in Washington on Thursday, Foreign Minister Peter Szijjártó said Hungary was right to look with suspicion at the masses of people demanding entry from Serbia — especially in the wake of this month’s terrorist attacks in Brussels.

“If there’s an uncontrolled and unregulated influx” of several thousands of people arriving daily, “then it increases [the] threat of terror,” Szijjártó said. He said European and Hungarian authorities are able to verify neither the identity nor the “intentions” of such individuals.

“They were not innocent refugees, they were aggressive people who wanted to enter territory of Hungary by violating the regulations,” he said, referring to migrant mobs that clashed with border police in September. “There are more and more European member states who think it’s enough of political correctness…It is not Europe’s responsibility to provide these people with a European life.”  

In the aftermath of the March 22 attacks in Brussels, European security services have come under intense criticism for failing to share information and piece together evidence that might have stopped violence that was carried out by militants affiliated with the Islamic State. On Thursday, Szijjártó said such evidence was available to authorities but that “the puzzle was not put together.”

Szijjártó also called on EU states to improve information sharing, but said so far no new proposals have been floated for how to achieve that goal. And in the absence of such an effort, the top Hungarian diplomat again cited the Brussels attack as evidence for why his political party’s main initiative — rolling back EU authority and returning power to member states — should be a priority in the aftermath of the attacks.

Open borders and weak security at the European level has hampered the ability of states to combat terrorism, he said. “You cannot have a strong football team of 11 bad players, so you cannot have a strong European Union based on 28 weak member states,” he said.  

When asked whether he believed another attack on European soil was imminent, Szijjártó said the countries that have been attacked were targeted because they belong to the EU, which puts all of the government bloc at equal risk — including Hungary. “If you speak of the threat of terror in Europe, then we have to speak about that generally,” he said. “We are part of the international coalition against ISIS, period, whatever consequences it does have.”

He also said some governments pointedly criticize Hungary’s tough stance on refugee entries last fall have since backpedaled, especially in the aftermath of terrorist attacks. “There are more and more countries saying that yes, protection of the external border is very important,” he said.

Hungary’s border with Serbia marks the beginning of the Schengen Zone, which allows for easy travel within the EU. In recent months, Budapest has pointed to the protection of the Schengen Zone as a responsibility some Western European countries welcoming refugees do not have to consider.

Throughout the conversation, Szijjártó, who served as Orban’s spokesman from 2010 to 2012 and was named foreign minister in 2014, likened the challenges Hungary faces on its border to those the United States deals with on its southern border with Mexico. “When we sealed off the border, then the migrants attacked Hungarian police, they were throwing stones and pieces of concrete at Hungarian policemen,” he said. “I could imagine what would happen on your southern border if Mexican migrants would do so, attacking your police. What would be your reaction?”

Strengthening the U.S. border with Mexico has been a key talking point of GOP frontrunner Donald Trump. Asked whether the real estate mogul-turned-presidential-candidate has touched on issues dear to Budapest’s agenda, Szijjártó said there are “many similarities in the core political developments in the U.S. and in Europe,” citing the rise of anti-establishment parties such as Alternative for Germany and the left-wing Podemos party in Spain. Szijjártó himself belongs to the Hungarian center-right Fidesz party, whose rhetoric on refugees has recently placed it more in line with some of the continent’s far-right politicians.

But Szijjártó carefully distanced himself from the xenophobia peddled by the Trump campaign. “We are a Christian Democratic government,” he said. “We never said migrants equal terrorism.” A Christian policy is not an “anti-something” policy, Szijjártó said.

“But being tolerant does not mean being stupid,” he added. “And by being tolerant, you have to take care of the security and safety of your people.”

Szijjártó also said there needs to be a more general debate over Hungary’s responsibility to treat anyone who arrives there like a refugee, a title he thinks applies to someone who has fled a dangerous situation.  

Those who arrive in Germany, he said, pass through what he called “seven safe countries” to get there.  

“Is it normal that these people think they have the right to choose in which country they want to live?” he said. “Because I think it’s not normal.”

Photo credit: ARMEND NIMANI/AFP/Getty Images

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @EliasGroll

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