Keleti Station Budapest August 2015

Europe invaded

We must heed the warnings from Hungary and Poland about migration

This article is taken from the July 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Mateusz Sitek, a Polish soldier on duty at the frontier with Belarus, was an easy target. As he tried to close a hole in the border fence someone holding a makeshift weapon — a knife taped to a tree branch — rammed it through the gap straight into his chest. Sitek, 21, died a few days later on 6 June. 

His murder was little noticed in the West, but it caused fury across Poland. Radek Sikorski, the foreign minister, demanded that the Belarusian authorities hand over his killer. They are unlikely to agree. Poland’s border fence is 5.5 metres high, runs for 186 kilometres and is topped with razor-wire. So far this year there have been 17,000 attempts to breach it — and 90 per cent of those caught have Russian visas. Polish officials say that the flow is organised by Russia and Belarus to destabilise Poland. 

Mateusz Sitek

Europe’s borders are under assault from highly-organised, violent armed gangs. People trafficking is a multi-billion dollar business. During the first half of 2023 Hungary’s southern frontier was the pressure point. The two sets of barriers have been heightened to four metres and reinforced with razor wire, night vision and thermal cameras. But they can still be crossed. 

Migrants, mostly young men, daily besieged the fence. The Serbian side was divided up between different armed gangs. Each controlled a section and anyone passing through had to pay protection money. The frontier was closed to the media during the campaign for the European elections. But video footage of the southern fence obtained from the Hungarian National Police Headquarters shows the ferocity of those attempting to force their way across.

Several migrants are armed, either with a pistol or what seems to be an assault rifle. Others fire slingshots into Hungary. The breaches are swift and coordinated. The advance guard rests a ladder against the fence on the Serbian side. The first migrant scurries up the ladder carrying another ladder, then jumps down into the area between the fences. He then runs across to the second fence and places the ladder against the barbed wire. 

The migrants rush up the first ladder, sprint across to the second, step over the barbed wire and jump into Hungary. The border guards frequently drive up the path between the fences, or run after the migrants, at which point they either speed up or return to Serbia. The murder of Mateusz Sitek, and those trying to break through Hungary’s southern frontier, are part of a continuum that reaches back to the migrant crisis of 2015. Its epicentre was Keleti station in Budapest. 

One morning that August I stood in the station forecourt. The grand old ochre-coloured Austro-Hungarian building and its surrounds were an urban refugee camp. The ground was littered with discarded cigarette ends, rotten fruit, half-eaten sandwiches, empty mineral water bottles. Hundreds of people were camped out all around. Hungary was a key staging point on the main route west to Germany. Not far from where I stood, a middle-aged man was sleeping on sheets of cardboard, his arm around his daughter, perhaps 10 or 12 years old. On a human level, I was moved. Who could not be? 

I visited Keleti station several times that summer. Many of those I spoke to claimed to be Syrian and perhaps they were. But everyone knew that being Syrian offered the fastest trouble-free route to Western Europe and a prized German passport. Some of those at Keleti were women and children. 

Hundreds of people were camped out all around Keleti station

There were also many young, single men, from Afghanistan, Iraq and Africa. After talking to one male refugee in his twenties, who said he was Syrian, an elderly man in a green suit sidled up to me. He spoke with an Arabic accent as he fixed me with a beady eye. “Everything these people are telling you is a lie,” he announced, then walked off. 

Looking back, I wish I had followed him. Was he lying? Or the supposed Syrian? It’s impossible to know. I focused on speaking to the migrants about their stories. But now, with hindsight, I wish I had pushed harder. Many questions still linger. How had Europe’s borders simply collapsed? How had hundreds of thousands of people simply traipsed through the continent? 

Many used smartphones and apps to plot their routes, sharing information on messaging groups. Who was paying for the wifi, the electricity and the extension leads where the migrants were charging their mobile telephones at Keleti? How did they know to sit quietly each morning in concentric circles and place a photogenic boy in the middle? Each time a television crew passed by, the boy held up a piece of cardboard emblazoned with the words Syria and Germany with a heart in the middle. And why was my coverage, like the coverage of most journalists, so sentimental and sympathetic? After all, this was an organised invasion, not just of Hungary, but of Europe. Instead of writing sob-stories, we should all have been asking much tougher questions. 

Hungary responded by building a secure fence along its southern frontier and deploying border guards to stop the migrants. This caused a predictable storm of outrage, as though a country defending its own — and the EU’s — southern border from an attack on its sovereignty was an affront to human rights. 

The following month I interviewed Viktor Orbán. He was on fine form, enjoying the world’s attention, but understandably puzzled about the barrage of criticism. “We are the only country in the last month to take seriously and put real effort into following the Schengen regulations. For that we are criticised. That is the strangest story I have seen since we joined the EU.” 

George Soros

Orbán was open about his determination to keep Hungary a Christian country and not allow substantial Muslim immigration. Muslim communities live in parallel societies and do not integrate, he said. “I am speaking about culture and the everyday principles of life such as sexual habits, freedom of expression, equality between men and women and all those kind of values which I call Christianity.” Other countries were of course free to allow parallel societies. “But we Hungarians would not like to have it.”

Hungarian officials repeatedly warned that it was impossible to know who was coming in. Later it was revealed that Europe’s collapsing frontiers provided cover for Islamist terrorists. General Zsolt Bodnar told Bojan Pancevski of the Sunday Times that seven of the nine terrorists who carried out the November 2015 Paris terrorist attacks, in which 130 people were killed, passed through Hungary. In total 14 members of Isis terror cells were based in Hungary and used it as a gateway to western Europe. 

Some took part in the Brussels terrorist attacks in March 2016 that claimed 32 lives. “Terrorists were mingled with the migrants from terror,” György Bakondi, Hungary’s chief security adviser, told me recently. Many of the migrants had destroyed their papers and passports. “The people who were arriving had no travel documents at all. So their identity was established totally at the mercy of what they were saying.” 

The disconnect between liberal groupthink and the reality of the 2015 migrant crisis was encapsulated in an article by George Soros. Soros called for the EU to accept “at least a million asylum-seekers a year for the foreseeable future” and provide €15,000 for each asylum seeker for two years, to help cover the costs of housing, health care and education. These funds would be raised by issuing long-term bonds, he added helpfully. The article was a gold-plated gift for the Orbán government, already engaged in a bitter culture war with Soros, his Open Society Foundations (OSF) and Central European University in Budapest. 

I recently asked several Hungarian officials who they blame for the 2015 refugee crisis. They point the finger in large part at Soros and the OSF. I asked the OSF what role, if any, it had played in the 2015 crisis. It directed me to a statement issued that year, denying that either Soros himself or the OSF “had funded the production or distribution of materials to aid people smugglers”. 

Nor had either encouraged anybody to “leave their own countries”. However, the OSF said it had funded organisations in the region which provided legal assistance to migrants and refugees, which monitored and documented their reception on arrival, as well as for “emergency response efforts and longer-term initiatives to ease the crisis”. 

Angela Merkel’s decision to admit one million mostly Muslim migrants in the summer of 2015 is still reshaping the continent. The results of the European elections show a surge in support for hard-right and far-right parties, in part because few centrist politicians will speak frankly about the impact of mass migration. 

The 2015 migration crisis was a shock, but the liberal consensus meant that open debate on immigration was stifled, says John Lloyd, author of the forthcoming Their Iron Indignation: Dispatches from Europe’s Far Right Revolution: 

The EU, centrist governments and the liberal consensus meant that anyone who was against mass immigration was perceived as a racist and against foreigners. You simply did not say that kind of thing. Questioning immigration was seen as something that might damage the tissue of society, something that was not said in good company. It inhibited speech and maybe even thought. People who were critical had eight ton weights dropped on them.

Zoltán Kovács, international spokesman for the Hungarian government, agrees. “The elites always know better than the people what they want and you see this with migration. So this is what we fight against, the thing which we would not like to see happen here in Hungary. Because if it starts, if it happens, you cannot stop it. How do you send back second and third generations? There is no way.” 

So far Hungary has spent 650 billion forints (approximately £1.4 bn) on defending its (and Europe’s) southern border. Finally, after nine years, a senior EU official is due to visit. The border is quieter now after a sustained crackdown last year by the Hungarian and Serbian police and security services. 

“We would like to guarantee our internal security to keep away illegal migrants most of whom were moved by organised crime,” says Bakondi. “Most of them are young men, and they are often very aggressive. So we want to keep them as far away from Hungary as possible.” So far the crackdown has worked. There were 50,707 border violations and 415 smugglers detained to the year ending in May 2023. This year there have been 1,273 border violators and 28 smugglers detained. 

Lord Jonathan Sacks, Britain’s former Chief Rabbi, once said that “the hate that begins with Jews never ends with Jews”. For some the 7 October massacre triggered a surge not in solidarity with Jews, but anti-Semitism. Nine months later, most weekends, pro-Palestine demonstrators take control of swathes of space across British cities, intimidating passersby and Jewish counter-demonstrators. The police watch benignly. 

The British state has proved unwilling and unable to act decisively to secure the streets. Yet this is an issue for everyone, whatever their faith. When members of Hizb ut-Tahrir, an extremist Islamist group, called for “Jihad” after 7 October, the Metropolitan police issued a tweet, explaining that “jihad has a number of meanings”. Which is technically true, but it seems unlikely that the activists were demanding a more fervent struggle for greater self-knowledge and moral improvement. 

This elite disdain for uncomfortable truths about migration was evident in Nigel Farage’s interview with Mishal Husain on the Today programme in early June. Farage referenced the scenes in Leeds when Mothin Ali, draped in a keffiyeh, won a council seat for the Green Party. 

After his victory Ali announced, “We will not be silent, we will raise the voice of Gaza. We will raise the voice of Palestine,” before declaring “Allahu Akbar” to cheers from his supporters, who repeated the chant. Hussein was unconcerned. “Allahu Akbar means God is great and is used in many different contexts,” she replied dismissively. Until this year none of those contexts were British local elections. Ali later apologised for “any upset”.

Even as Hamas terrorists were still rampaging through Israel, pro-Palestinian activists in Neukölln, Berlin, handed out sweets to passersby to celebrate the slaughter. In Malmö in May, around 12,000 people took to the streets to protest Israel’s entry in the Eurovision final. Eden Golan, the Israeli entrant, needed a convoy of police cars to protect her as she moved across the city. 

Around 20 per cent of Malmö’s population are Muslim. The city, like Stockholm and other major conurbations, is riven by gang violence. Anti-semitism is surging. Sweden, a once peaceful, prosperous country, now has the second highest gun crime rate per capita in Europe after lawless Albania — and 30 times higher per capita than London. 

None of this is happening in central Europe. This year marks the eightieth anniversary of the Hungarian Holocaust. Budapest, like Prague and Warsaw, is still haunted by its lost Jewish population. Ironically, central Europe, the graveyard of so many Jews, is now one of the safest places in the world to be Jewish. 

In Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic there is widespread solidarity with Jews and Israel. Jewish people freely wear stars of David or signal their support for the Jewish state. Posters of the hostages abducted by Hamas remain untouched. There are no demonstrations in Budapest calling for the destruction of Israel as such protests are illegal. The ongoing migration crisis has forged an unlikely alliance: between Viktor Orbán and Donald Tusk, his Polish counterpart. Orbán is a populist conservative eurosceptic, firmly on the right. Tusk is a liberal centrist, usually described as pro-EU. Not any more. 

In May this year EU member states finally approved the migration pact. Countries can either accept their quota or pay €20,000 a year for each migrant they refuse. Soon after, the European Court of Justice fined Hungary €200m for refusing to make changes in its border asylum policy, with a daily fine of €1m until it agrees to, causing fury in Budapest. Tusk, like Orbán, has been vocal in his opposition to the idea of quotas. 

Like Orbán, he argues that unrestricted mass migration poses an existential threat to Europe. “This is a question of the survival of our Western civilisation,” he said in February. Poland must “wake up and understand that we have to protect our territory, our borders, that if we are open to all forms of migration without any control, our world will collapse”. His declaration was greeted with a wry smile in Budapest. 

I lived in Budapest for about 25 years, covering Hungary and central Europe. I see now how something still thrives there that has almost vanished in Britain: a powerful sense of national and social cohesion. Hungarians, like Poles and Czechs, know who they are. They have a determined grasp of their history and culture. They know their national icons, their composers, artists and poets. They take a deep pride in them. There is no elite-led cultural onslaught on history and identity. National holidays prompt celebration rather than breast-beating. The contrast with Britain is sharp. A poll carried out in June for the Commonwealth War Graves Commission showed that only 48 per cent of 18-34 year olds even knew what D-Day was. 

Today there is no sign that Keleti was once the epicentre of Europe’s migrant crisis. The underpasses that were once home to legions of Afghans, Syrians and others are spotless, the station forecourt litter free. Around three miles away, on Freedom Square, stands one of the continent’s most poignant Holocaust memorials. It’s a decade-old ad hoc gathering of stories, photographs of victims, memories and documents in flimsy plastic folders, interspersed with personal possessions. 

Such a construct in a western European city would last a very short time before being daubed in paint or destroyed. In April the Holocaust memorial in Hyde Park had to be covered in blue plastic sheeting to prevent it being vandalised during a pro-Palestinian demonstration. The memorial on Freedom Square remains unguarded and untouched, as has it been for years, the fading testimonies gently rippling in the summer breeze.

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