Orbán’s re-election confirms migrant NGO tax law

Just one of many Fidesz ‘Stop Soros’ campaign posters plastered onto bus shelters and billboards throughout Hungary. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Stricter amendments to laws targeting migrant-affiliated organisations demonstrate a potentially bleak future for migrants in Hungary as leader Viktor Orbán aims to protect national values.

In the lead-up to the 2018 Hungarian election, Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán could be found conducting a rally in the city of Miskolc, warning residents that their city would become a place full of “ghettos and no-go zones” and that “the people of George Soros” would oppose a national government, leading Hungary to “become an immigrant country”, should his Fidesz party lose said election on April 8th.

The mention of Hungarian-American businessman and philanthropist, George Soros, at the rally in Miskolc is nothing new coming from the mouth of the Fidesz party leader. Orbán has continuously accused the founder of the Open Society Foundations, which has notably funded migrant-associated, non-government organisations of undermining the Hungarian government. Orbán’s lack of welcome towards Soros’s financial intervention, in migration and education throughout the country, could not be more poignant in his most recent political move. A legislation package, declaring that non-government organisations that assist migrants, must pay a 25 per cent tax on donations from outside the country’s borders was named the ‘Stop Soros’ laws.

Early Days

Drafted into parliament in January 2018, the laws followed up on a previous 2017 law on NGOs funded from outside Hungary, and were revised in February 2018. They declare that the organisations affected by the laws must register their activities to the Ministry of Interior and receive government permission to continue to function legally.

Despite these amendments, however, head of the International Organisation for Migration’s Hungarian office, Balazs Lehel, says that it is “hard to tell at this point” how these laws are to affect the migrants themselves.

“First of all, we don’t know how the Stop Soros package will be introduced, so we don’t know how it will be enforced, and we also don’t know how the NGOs will react to this, whether or not they will comply with the regulations, that’s the first question,” Lehel says.

“Then secondly, how they will actually be able to go line-by-line, look at the law and comply with the regulations.”

Lehel went on to describe the list of activities mentioned in the laws as “broad”, making it “very difficult for organisations to avoid  the question of compliance.” Lehel also expressed fears that the laws “can be changed to include other organisations such as ourselves.”

“It must be noted that even though the IOM is not under the package right now, we as an international organisation work a lot with NGOs.

“This is the nature of our work, simply because in a lot of countries around the world there is a very well-developed NGO sector with well-specialised skills and special services. They can provide aid much more effectively and cheaply than international organisations, so it is simply our duty to work with the civil society and the NGOs. It’s the same in Hungary as well.

“I think a lot of details haven’t been figured out yet. When we see how this package will be implemented, then we will know the actual impact of the package itself. I think it’s a bit too early.”

Áron Demeter, advocacy and media manager for Amnesty International, stated that although any effects are bound to be indirect they would still be detrimental.

“Basically, it aims to shut down or at least severely control those NGOs who are working in favour of those people. So the real risk is that those NGOs will vanish. There will be no one in Hungary who would help [the migrants] by, for example, providing legal representation or legal assistance, or speak out for their human rights.

“That’s the real threat. It would be very devastating.”

Migration is a Key Political Topic

The most recent wave of mass migration from Africa and the Middle East into Europe began back in October 2013 when Operation Mare Nostrum was established. It was intended to provide security in response to migration from Libya into Italy. It has been long, gruelling travels for over a million migrants over the last four years, with some getting as far as the English Channel.

The topic of migration in the midst of this crisis has since proven to be a political minefield throughout Europe, with inconsistencies in migration policies across the continent being rife.

Nowhere on the continent could this appear more apparent than within the European Union rebel nation that is Hungary, whose leader has been at loggerheads with not only Brussels, but also the United Nations over the Fidesz party’s migration policies. Throughout the country, posters distributed by the Fidesz party can be seen on many bus shelters and billboards. These posters often attack George Soros as well as migrants present within the country’s borders. One such notable poster depicts four opposition party leaders, who ran in the election earlier this month, arm-in-arm with businessman Soros while appearing to cut a fence that guards one of Hungary’s borders.

The country received the second most applications from asylum seekers in 2015, with 177,130 applications by the end of December that year, which equated to almost 1,800 asylum applications per 100,000 Hungarians, making the amount of applications the largest in Europe on the grounds of proportion of local population in 2015.

Hungary is a common stop on the migrant route to what are thought to be much improved pastures, as they venture through the Balkan states and towards the west.

Prime minister Orbán, who has held the post since 2010, is seen by some as a pioneer in far-right ideologies in the face of the European Union’s preference to take migrants, especially those forced out of their homes as a result of war, in from the outside.

“Orbán was probably the first European politician who started this kind of narrative, at least openly, right after the Charlie Hebdo attacks in 2015,” states Demeter.

“Since then, this is the line, that all of the people who are coming [into Hungary] are terrorists who are a threat to Judeo-Christian values.”

National Values

In response to disapproval from the United Nations, Hungarian foreign minister Péter Szijjártó defended the Fidesz party’s anti-migration rhetoric in front of the UN in Geneva. Szijjártó said that, “the Hungarian people have the right to live a life in security, without fear of terrorist atrocities,” and insisted on maintaining an “integrated, homogenous society” that the Hungarian government sees as “invaluable.”

The Hungarian foreign minister also referred to non-government organisations as groups that were not elected and therefore are not fit to represent the people of Hungary.

In January 2018, Orbán himself retorted to the idea that migrants are fleeing their homes to escape war. He stated that migrants venturing through “stable” countries, such as Hungary, towards richer countries proved that these migrants were merely “economic migrants,” and not people fearing for their lives. During the same interview with German newspaper Bild, he referred to migrants coming through Hungary from the Middle East as “Muslim invaders.”

Demeter also stated that prime minister Orbán’s history of disregarding the value of migrants in Hungary, in favour of the Hungarian people in order to protect Christian values, is “mainly for the far right voters, and also for many people in Hungary who resonate with these kinds of messages.

“The aim is to create fear in people, and to secure the Fidesz majority support in society.”

Migrants marching along a main road in Hungary towards the Austrian border, one of whom is brandishing the flag of the European Union. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Lehel, meanwhile, says he believes that political statements such as Orbán’s response to migration into Hungary “tend to be really simplistic, but with issues such as migration, such simple statements don’t work.

“Of course, migration includes a lot of things. It includes irregular migration, yes, but it also includes regular migration as well. In fact, it includes a lot more regular migration than irregular migration.

“We’re always in a difficult position when we have to argue with very simplistic statements because that’s simply not our job. Our job is the opposite, it’s about differentiated and segmented solutions to make sure we come up with something that’s balanced and beneficial.”

In addition to amending the ‘Stop Soros’ laws, in Feburary 2018, the Hungarian government triggered tighter security for its borders by allowing just two asylum seekers per day into the country. Although this act was heavily criticised for stranding refugees in neighbouring Serbia. Hungarian Helsinki Committee spokesperson, Márta Pardavi, stated that the rule prevents families from crossing the border. János Lázár, head of the prime minister’s office, denied that the administration was forcing refugees away.

Foreign Citizens

Meanwhile, inside the country’s borders the amount of foreign residents in Hungary in 2018 is an estimated 156,000, up by around 5,000 from the figure accumulated in 2017, according to the Hungarian Central Statistical Office. Romania comes out on top in 2018 as the most prominent country of origin for migrants, with Chinese and German residents also maintaining an outstanding presence.

While the largest percentage of citizens with foreign origins, approximately 65% are from Europe, Asia, which takes into account the Middle East as well, constitutes around 28%. However, the only Asian country listed within the data is China.

2011 proved to be a peak year for foreign residents within Hungary, with over 206,000 residents from abroad. 2011 was the only year where this figure reached beyond the 200,000 mark.

A prominent chunk of the migrant population within Hungary these days are the Romani people, who often experience segregation through being forced to attend schools specifically designed for them. They are not allowed to attend schools organised under the mainstream Hungarian education system, a matter that the European Roma Rights Centre is looking to eradicate.

A Rise in Far-Right Policies in Europe

The Fidesz party’s dominance in Hungary since 2010 proves to be just one cog in the wheel that represents the rise of far-right ideologies. in addition to the United Kingdom leaving the European Union and the election of Sebastian Kurz as Chancellor of Austria has pointed to a rise of intolerance for mass migration in favour of protection for natives.

Demeter says that a rise in the desire to protect borders and, in the process, prevent integration from the outside, can date back to the attacks to French cartoon publication Charlie Hebdo’s headquarters in Paris, as well as the attack on the Bataclan nightclub in the same city in 2015.

It seems that migrants from outside Hungary and, indeed, outside the European Union as a whole, aiming to migrate to the EU face an uphill battle against enforced regulations and security. Strengthened in part by the right-wing nationalist leadership in allied nations, Hungary’s stance is set to remain long-term as prime minister Orbán’s Fidesz party continues to dominate, keen to protect their national and religious values.

Meanwhile, the European Union aims to change the eligibility of applicants for the Cohesion Fund, from the member state’s GDP per capita, towards the values that the state considers important. It is possible that Brussels could financially punish Budapest for its actions by taking away Hungary’s Cohesion Fund in favour of member states who prove more welcoming towards migrants, as well as the EU’s democratic values as a whole.