Migration trends

Hungary cannot be considered a country into which non-Hungarians immigrate. With the exception of a relatively large Chinese diaspora, most immigrants settling in the country since the regime change have been ethnic Hungarians from neighbouring countries, mainly from Romania, Slovakia, Serbia and Ukraine.
From the start of 2015, through several campaigns, the Orbán cabinet has created the impression that Hungary’s place in global migration patterns has fundamentally shifted. The terms used in government communications (“immigrant” and “migrant”), have sent the message that Hungary, as a “destination country”, must now face a migrant “wave” coming from outside Europe.
However, this is far from reality; migrations follow massive, historically developed patterns, and this fact has not been changed by recent events. Hungary has not become a “destination country” for migrants coming from outside Europe, primarily due to its geographic position.
Eurostat data show that the refugee crisis has brought about major change in one area in Hungary: the number of submitted asylum applications. Hungary is now the first in Europe for asylum applications per 100,000 citizens.
Indeed, Hungary has never experienced a refugee flow on the scale seen in 2015. To illustrate the magnitude, one should consider that between 1990 and 2014 the number of refugees travelling through Hungary never matched the number produced by Hungary alone after 1956.
In this context, the shift seen in 2015 is momentous indeed. Moreover, compared to previous years, both the number of asylum seekers from outside Europe and their arrival rates have increased considerably, which is also creating a new situation.

The effect of the refugee crisis on political attitudes and preferences related to migration

Migration patterns and politics mutually interact, and this was also the case with the 2015 refugee crisis. In Hungary the public discourse interpreting the crisis was strongly shaped by politics, especially by targeted government campaigns. Below we shall study five aspects of these shifting political attitudes and preferences related to migration: (1) public perception, (2) xenophobia, (3) policymaking, (4) party politics and (5) the political system.

Public perception

Increasingly, migration is seen as a major challenge throughout Europe. According to the May 2015 Eurobarometer survey, it is already considered on average the most important topic in Europe, while in 2014 it was only in fourth place (behind economic issues). Respondents considered immigration an urgent issue in only four EU Member States previously, but by now the topic has moved to the top in 20 Member States. Compared to the European average, there has been an even more significant shift in Hungary. While in 2013 only 3% said immigration is among the top three challenges facing Europe, today that number has reached 65%.
Moreover, this dramatic shift in Hungary took place over a short time. According to Eurobarometer figures published in May 2015, in the spring respondents considered unemployment to be the most urgent problem in Hungary, and only 13% placed immigration as among the top three most important problems. However, in the autumn that number had already jumped to 65%, and with respect to terrorism as a problem, the corresponding figure in Hungary increased from 5% to 29%, while traditionally important economic and social issues did not show a similar shift.
This shows that in Hungary the biggest change with respect to public attitudes on immigration occurred at the level of perception. No doubt the government’s summer anti-immigrant campaign, the rising refugee numbers and asylum seeker visibility all played a major role in this shift.


According to all domestic and international studies, strong prejudice against minority groups is a significant trend in the Hungarian population. One major lesson from the systematic studies conducted since the regime change is that Hungarians are very intolerant (in line with other Central and Eastern European countries).
This is closely tied to a strong sense of existential threat. In general, human beings do not tolerate groups perceived as a threat. Accordingly, it was a foregone conclusion that a campaign built on anti-immigrant sentiment would gain relatively wide support in Hungary.
In the long term, based on European Social Survey (ESS) data, the Demand for Right-Wing Extremism (DEREX) index’s prejudice sub-index measuring demand for the far right has started to rise again after a few years of decline in Hungary. Today it almost matches 2006 levels.
The refugee crisis has transformed the nature of xenophobia in Hungary as follows:
– General fear and distrust of the unknown have been replaced by a specific enemy image: the asylum seeker.
– This tangible enemy image has become associated with even more specific fears, i.e., the threat of terrorism and crime.
– In the past, distrust has been aimed at future potential arrivals, but by now xenophobia has a present, tangible focus.
Xenophobia and prejudice guided by fear are socially understandable phenomena, especially in Hungary, where the population has scant experience of immigration. Citizens can hardly be blamed for having developed negative social attitudes on this issue; responsibility rests primarily with the politicians exploiting the current situation.
Looking at short-term data, according to a recent research report by the Hungarian polling institute Tárki, the level of xenophobia in Hungary has dropped significantly since spring 2015. While in their April survey xenophobia was at 46 per cent (reaching an all-time high), by July it decreased to 39 per cent and by October a further significant decrease occurred (to 36 per cent, or 2013 levels). Since the same decreasing trend characterises “xenophiles”’, the period between April and October 2015 accounts for a significant increase in the proportion of “thinkers” in Hungary.
Party preferences play an important role in both xenophobic and xenophile attitudes. Among xenophobes, Jobbik voters are heavily over-represented, Fidesz voters are moderately over-represented and MSZP voters are under-represented.
It is also very important that latent xenophobes are also proportionately high here. They are “thinkers”, but when asked about certain groups they rejected seven of the eight groups mentioned (Hungarians from Ukraine, Syrians, Afghanis, Iraqis, Pakistanis, Somalis, Albanians from Kosovo and a fictional group, the Pirezians). If we add them to the open xenophobes, the cumulative xenophobia is 51% in the total population.


At the level of policymaking there are major differences in Europe between Eastern and Western European countries. Western European countries are divided when it comes to managing the refugee crisis: in many places, large blocs have emerged in public opinion criticising governments’ activities. Measures are seen as too soft or too harsh, including measures taken by the Hungarian government. The EU’s Eastern Member States take a more unified stance against receiving refugees and against certain solutions proposed by the European Commission.
In Hungary support for binding quotas came to 47%, the ninth-lowest figure. Of the 53% opposed to binding quotas, only 45% can be considered firmly opposed, as close to 8% were unable to take a clear position. This shows that a majority of the Hungarian public is rather divided on the issue and is not categorically opposed to the quota system (at least this was the case at the end of September).
Public opinion poll outcomes may be significantly influenced by the way the questions are posed. This is well-illustrated by a poll conducted by a Hungarian think-tank with close relations to the government, Századvég, in early November, where – in contrast to the European Parliament survey presented above – a single question was used to assess public opinion (“Do you tend to agree or disagree with a plan to distribute migrants arriving in the European Union based on a mandatory quota system?”).
Close to two-thirds (65%) tended to disagree, while those in agreement were significantly fewer (30%). In short, in the two studies the support rates for quotas show a significant gap, i.e., 47% support in the first study and 30% support in the second study. Following the events in Paris, fear over migrants is expected to increase in Hungary, i.e., support for the quota system in the country is expected to decline further.
Hungary does not stand out among Eastern European countries and the Hungarian public is even somewhat less vehement than other Eastern Europeans in rejecting EU recommendations. In other words, in this context the Hungarian government is more hostile to the solutions proposed by the European Commission than the Hungarian public is.
With its autumn anti-quota campaign, the government was not simply trying to benefit from an already existing opposition, but apparently wished to see the public take an even more defiant position on this issue.
Looking at domestic studies, according to a July survey by the government-friendly Századvég, 86% of those defining themselves as right-wingers, 32% of self-defined left-wingers and 53% of self-defined centrists supported the fence along the Hungarian-Serbian border. According to a survey conducted in late September 2015 asking about the planned fence construction along the Croatian border, 66% supported the plan (86% on the right, 39% on the left and 63% in the middle).
According to a survey published on September 24, 2015 by Nézőpont (another Hungarian think-tank close to the government), 87% were opposed to illegal immigration, 55% supported the border fence and 28% supported the EU’s quota system. According to an Ipsos survey, between June-July and September 2015 there was a slight increase in the perception that migrants pose a threat to Hungary and thus should not be allowed to enter the country (from 64% to 67%); 53% believe the current arrivals are motivated by war and 28% think that economic and financial considerations are more dominant motivations for the arrivals, with the latter position enjoying a majority only in the Jobbik camp.

Party politics

Experience in Europe over the past 40 to 50 years shows that governments have all but no influence on migration patterns, be they driven by refugees or labour migrants. Consequently, more politicians see an excellent opportunity to exploit the problems accompanying increased arrivals in order to reap short-term political gains for themselves.
Since the 1970s, parties opposing all immigration have emerged in all European countries. While their agenda has mostly been adopted by mainstream political forces, the problems accompanying increased arrivals have not dissipated by any appreciable measure.
Tightening immigration regulations over the decades has proven ineffective and there is no evidence that, on their own, the European nation-states can regulate global migration patterns at all, so political competition with the anti-immigration parties continually demands ever-tighter, ever more visible controls.
Among other measures, governments prefer to pass the buck to the EU system. The short-term objective is to occupy a popular position while not actually managing these problems. The Hungarian ruling party is well aware of this and, not oblivious to its own political interest, launched its communication campaign using increased arrivals to Hungary as a pretext.
Fidesz, forced onto the defensive in autumn 2014, used this method in an effort to regain the political upper hand, to recapture the political initiative, and to eliminate from public discourse all other issues that may hurt the party’s interests.
However, from the party politics perspective, current developments point beyond competition with Jobbik and involve a broader objective. Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and his party have a well-tested strategy of dividing the political arena into the “pro-national” and “anti-national” fields and insist on treating all issues along this fault line. Anyone questioning a position taken by Fidesz is automatically and without argument relegated to the “anti-national” camp and considered a “foreign agent”.
By the end of 2014, domestic party politics had turned its back on this fault line that had been so convenient for Fidesz; it became less and less credible that the Orbán cabinet was indeed the sole representative of the “national interest”. This is why the governing parties seized on the refugee crisis, for with a campaign built on this topic, the entire opposition on the left as well as civil society and right-wing activists criticising the government could be defined as “pro-foreigner”.
Fidesz’s effort paid off inasmuch as it managed to increase its support base by 5 or 6%, while its major challenger from the right, Jobbik, could not exploit the migration issue and in fact lost some supporters. The fragmented leftist opposition was forced into an unpopular, reactive role and its popularity has essentially stagnated.

The political system

Viewed from the political establishment’s perspective, the refugee crisis and its fallout clearly pose a challenge for European liberal democracies. With increasing numbers of arrivals, protection for minorities, minority opinions and unconditional recognition for human rights may come into conflict with the will of those political communities controlling the majority.
The Orbán cabinet, bent on building an illiberal state, openly states (and Orbán takes every opportunity to emphasise) that the “European elite has failed” because, by his logic, most European governments have come into conflict with the popular majority on this issue.
In some countries the conflict between the agenda represented by the central government and local policymakers’ agendas creates additional systemic problems. While keeping EU considerations, security policy, and tactical considerations in mind, governments can decide to admit and resettle refugees, which then often runs into opposition at the local political level.
Even though we cannot talk about extremist parties breaking through nationally or at European level, such trends are perceptible at the local or regional level.

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