Artillery Row

A fence in Röszke

Hungary is on the frontlines of the migration crisis

It was a beautiful day in Röszke as we approached the border fence — sunlight glinting off the giant stretches of fencing and barbed wire. Beyond them were quiet fields, open and undisturbed, and beyond them, out of sight, were thousands upon thousands of migrants waiting for their chance.

“The very basics of the rule of law are being disregarded when it comes to illegal migration,” the charismatic Hungarian State Secretary for International Communications and Relations Zoltán Kovács had said emphatically the day before. In Hungary, the government has no intention of allowing the nation’s borders to be disregarded.

Police officers showed us damage to the fences where the migrants had clambered over. A small scrap of black cloth was hanging from the wire. A blue toothbrush was lying in the dirt.

Viktor Orbán’s government began to build the border barrier between its territory and Serbia and Croatia in 2015, after Merkel had beckoned hundreds of thousands of migrants into Europe. The second layer of fencing was added two years later. Crossings slowed, naturally, but the pressure has continued, and the smuggling gangs have refined their trade.

At the command centre in Mòrahalom, police watched footage of the border as Miley Cyrus burbled in the background. When the migrants touch the fence, an alarm is triggered and police can be sent to intercept them. Adapting, though, police informed me, migrants launch pseudo-crossings to ensure that the Hungarians are sent to the wrong place. The police turn up at one spot while migrants sneak in elsewhere.

More disturbingly, the smugglers are prepared to use force. Sometimes, this comes in the form of a hail of sticks and marbles. Sometimes, they have glocks and Kalashnikovs — firing them into the air as the police approach. At Mòrahalom, we watched footage of a smuggler holding his firearm as young men streamed over a ladder and into the EU. Another man was shown simply cutting his way in.

On the other side, the police said, migrants will be met by cars, mostly driven by Ukrainians and Georgians. The gangs themselves are Afghan, Syrian and Moroccan. Some intelligence allegedly suggests that the Taliban are involved with the Afghan gangs. Hungry to make the most of the booming business — which generates billions of dollars per year — the gangs are engaging in brutal turf wars. Three men being shot to death across the border last month led to a clampdown by the Serbian authorities, which the Hungarians claim has helped.

The gangs are extremely active in self-promotion — using TikTok, for example, to advertise their services and exhibit their criminal prowess. According to the Migration Research Institute in Budapest, gangsters use social media to attract migrants and also to find people — often the unemployed or otherwise financially precarious — to pick them up and carry them onwards into Europe.

Hungary’s border control efforts have of course been controversial. In 2015, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said that the Hungarian border barrier does “not respect Europe’s common values”. In Budapest, frustration at the lack of empathy with their efforts was clear. “It is unimaginable that someone can be shooting a machine gun at us in the evening,” marvelled György Bakondi, Prime Minister Orbán’s chief homeland security adviser, “And in the morning he can apply for asylum.”

Of course, a liberal critic of the policy could respond that criminal gangs exist because of the fence. Drugs are associated with organised crime not because of some inherent quality of narcotics but because they are prohibited.

True enough, though the willingness of some migrants to participate in attacks on the police — visible in footage of shield-bearing officers warding off sticks — does not say a lot for their future civic-mindedness. (Their courage and ingenuity, on the other hand, is beyond doubt. One police officer told me about detaining a migrant at 8pm in the evening and then detaining him again at 4 the next afternoon.)

But of course decriminalisation reduces crime. The question is whether something should have been criminal in the first place. To reject obstacles and guards is to reject borders entirely except as some sort of quaint abstract convention.

Most Hungarian politicians I spoke to felt thoroughly vindicated by recent events

Most Hungarian politicians I spoke to felt thoroughly vindicated by recent events. Pro-Palestine marches in Western Europe, and an ugly rash of anti-Semitic assaults, seemed like proof that their judgement had been correct. Granted, most of the marchers from ethnic minorities will have been less recent immigrants or their offspring. But one sensed that the case against illegal migration — serious a subject as it is — can be a vehicle for a broader critique of Western multiculturalism.

I’m hardly unsympathetic. Several of the architects of the Bataclan massacre used Hungary as a gateway to Europe. But Salman Abedi, who murdered 22 people in the Manchester Arena bombing, swanned backwards and forwards between the UK and Libya quite legally before carrying out his assault. 

Still, there can be no debate about legal migration if there is no such thing as illegal migration. The idea that the state has the right to define its borders is among the fundamental bases of a state — and while it can be voluntarily qualified, such as when EU states agree that EU citizens can cross each other’s borders unhindered, that does not mean that it ceases to exist in any other case.

Yet then there is the scrap of cloth and the toothbrush.

The night before visiting Röszke I had attended a talk on immigration to the USA. Sitting in a room of frowning restrictionists, even I, a frowning restrictionist, had a faint “are we the baddies” question lingering in the back of my mind. Whatever way you look at it, border controls are a sad business. You’re directly harming some people’s lives and you’re not directly helping anyone’s.

But second order-effects can be as materially significant as their first order equivalents

But second-order consequences can be as materially significant as their first-order equivalents. Most migrants are good-hearted people, whose only desire is to build a better life — I am one myself — but at scale, and especially when it originates from culturally and politically divergent societies, it raises the risk of damage to social trust, safety, community cohesion et cetera. The anti-Israel marches — which I think all fair-minded people would acknowledge include a lot of well-meaning men and women, whatever the quality of their judgement — are actually not as profound examples as riots in France, gangsterism in Sweden and terror cells in Brussels.

“We have to solve the problems where the problems arise,” Mr Bakondi said, “We mustn’t bring the problems to Europe.” Problems are not always solvable — in our own nations let alone in other people’s. At a minimum, Western nations should stop exacerbating them. We would have had problems with migrants leaving Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya even without Western intervention — the Taliban, Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi hardly being models of sound and conscientious statesmanship — but it certainly did not help. Now, we should have no time for Israeli politicians insisting that displaced Palestinians should be allowed into the West — a “solution” which is fair to neither us nor them.

Ultimately, we can disagree on what scale and what sources of immigration are appropriate. But all nations should value the ability to decide for themselves. Hungary and others on the frontiers of Europe are doing the dirty work of protecting the right of Western European nations to have the ability to define their own borders. We might shrink away from the coils of barbed wire gleaming in the Röszke sun but only because we don’t have to guard them ourselves.

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