Hungary steps up anti-immigration rhetoric in face of refugee surge

Hungary steps up anti-immigration rhetoric in face of refugee surge

Budapest (AFP) - From billboards warning refugees not to steal Hungarians' jobs, to a government survey linking migrants to terrorism, Hungary's government has stepped up its anti-immigration rhetoric in recent weeks, sparking international concern.

The central European nation has been experiencing a surge in asylum seekers, as thousands of desperate migrants fleeing war and conflict try to reach European shores.

Last year, Hungary received more refugees per capita than any other EU country apart from Sweden, up to almost 43,000 people from 2,000 in 2012.

In response, Prime Minister Viktor Orban -- who recently called migration a threat to "European civilisation" -- has launched a national consultation on "immigration and terrorism".

As part of the campaign, state-funded posters have popped up around the capital Budapest reading: "If you come to Hungary, you cannot take the jobs of Hungarians" and "If you come to Hungary, you have to respect our culture!"

In addition, the government sent a survey to eight million voters containing questions linking migrants with terrorism, which EU officials slammed as "malicious and wrong".

The UN's refugee agency UNHCR also expressed "shock" at the survey, which included questions like: "Some people believe that the mishandling of immigration issues in Brussels and the spread of terrorism are connected. Do you agree?"

Two of the three possible answers expressed agreement.

Another question asks: "According to some, Brussels' policies regarding immigration and terrorism have failed and a new approach is needed to handle these issues. Do you agree?"

- Clash with Brussels -

So far, some 400,000 people have returned the survey ahead of the July 1 deadline, government spokesman Zoltan Kovacs confirmed.

"We can decide for ourselves, with the help of the questionnaire," he told AFP.

"The consultation reflects the government's philosophical approach to the issue. We never denied that it is a political questionnaire, obviously it's different from what most in Brussels would go for."

Orban has repeatedly clashed with the EU over a number of policies that critics say endanger core European values, including a call in April for a debate on the death penalty and earlier efforts to put strict controls on the media.

He has also criticised the EU's proposal for mandatory refugee settlement quotas as "mad and unfair".

Until recently the government had argued that it would accept political refugees while economic migrants should be handled on a national basis, allowing Hungary to more easily expel illegal migrants.

However, the ruling Fidesz party revealed on Sunday that it was now also working on a law to "prevent people arriving from safe countries from applying for political asylum".

Senior Fidesz lawmaker Antal Rogan said migrants' lives may have been in danger in Syria - a key source of refugees, together with Afghanistan and Kosovo - but that once they crossed into safe transit countries like Greece or Serbia, they could apply for asylum there.

At the Bicske asylum-seeker centre, 40 kilometres (25 miles) west of Budapest, Mohammed, a Somalian waiting for a decision on his refugee status application, said he did not understand the terrorism link in the questionnaire.

"Most of the people here, including me, are escaping from terrorism or civil war in their own countries," he told AFP when shown the document.

On Bicske's main street however, a local man, who asked not to be named, said he thought the consultation was a good idea.

"Many Muslims are coming here, even the moderate ones can come under the influence of extremists," he said.

? 'Sliding popularity' -

Such views chime with an April poll by the Tarki research institute, according to which xenophobia has reached a 14-year high. This is despite only around 140,000 foreigners living in Hungary, making up just 1.5 percent of the roughly 10-million-strong population.

The xenophobic Jobbik party, now Hungary's second most popular, has also been catching up on the Fidesz party in some opinion polls.

"This populist questionnaire and the extreme rhetoric have been successful in distracting people from more dangerous issues for the government, like recent financial scandals and its sliding popularity," says Peter Kreko, an analyst with the Political Capital firm.

Meanwhile, human rights groups like the Hungarian Helsinki Committee are urging people to send back empty questionnaire envelopes as a protest.

At a recent demonstration in Budapest, people wearing stickers condemning "state-funded xenophobia" folded the questionnaires into paper boats to commemorate the many migrant victims who drowned in the Mediterranean in April.

"(The government is) not trying to get public opinion but form it instead," protestor Judith Langowski told AFP.

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