Of Fences, national securities and solidarity: An open letter to Momentum

Note from the LeftEast editors: As we move towards the 2018 parliamentary elections in Hungary, the Momentum Movement, recently chartered as a party, is being touted in the international liberal media as a pro Europe party with potential to threaten the right-dominated political space where the main challenge to Fidesz comes from the extreme right party Jobbik. After becoming known this spring through it’s a successful campaign against Hungary’s the government’s plan to bid to host the 2024 Olympics, Momentum is now poised to run in the elections. Momentum drives a campaign designed by communication professionals, rejecting political identification, and offering technocratic solutions “instead”. As their slogan states, they want to build a country that is “not torn apart by ideologies, but kept together by common goals”. The identification of “common goals” apparently happens by statistical analysis of public opinion, which in turn is shaped by the unanimous dominance of right-wing government media, and its raging xenophobic campaigns. The party’s positions on political issues express “common sense” ideas carefully measured to statistics of their target group.  The recent comments by Momentum’s spokesperson on the issue of migration, to which the following open letter reacts, was but one in a series of campaign statements that aim at this carefully balanced position tailored to statistical common sense: “there is a need for the fence, but we need to be in solidarity with both the soldiers who work there and with the refugees who are there and are willing to go through the truly legal process (sic) that would allow them to  acquire refugee status”. While Momentum is often praised in international liberal media as the left-wing challenger of Hungary’s strong right wing, G. M. Tamás argues that Momentum represents a “new brand of politics” – a party project built on communication expertise and the expressed denial of taking a political position. At the same time as “they go against the anti-democratic, anti-liberal, anti-egalitarian measures of the government”, they “conform to a widespread prejudice that there are indeed some anti-nationalist forces operating, destroying the backbone of our nation, and selling us off to Europe, represented by the left and liberal parties that have played a role in political life since 1989. We maintain that such a project cannot represent a real alternative to the present situation, where the major opposition party to Fidesz is extreme-right party Jobbik. Neither a liberal nor a left alternative is possible without refusal, as the Migrant Solidarity Group of Hungary (MigSzol) writes, to “go down the road paved by Fidesz”.  Below we post with MigSzol’d permission, it’s “open letter to Momentum”. It was originally published in Hungarian in Kettős Mérce , and can be found in English on the MigSzol blog.

Of Fences, national securities and solidarity: An open letter to Momentum

A group of children raising slogans criticizing their “miserable” conditions at Tompa camp in Hungary.
Photo by Haider Ali

On 19 July, Momentum spokesperson Miklós Hajnal made it to the headlines when questioned on the topic of mass migration and people’s fears. He stated on Hír TV: “Concerning public safety, there is still a lot which is not right in this country … because we sent many people to the border [as guards], pulling them out from the cities and villages where they would otherwise work. Our position is that there is a need for the fence, but we need to be in solidarity with both the soldiers who work there and with the refugees who are there and are willing to go through the truly legal process (sic) that would allow them to  acquire refugee status.”

There is still some time till the party’s promised official programme would be released in October, and while there is still heated internal debate on the matter, Migszol seizes the opportunity to formulate some suggestions and ask some questions to the party in the making.

We at Migszol have decided to write you an open letter not only because your spokesperson’s comments yesterday in Hír TV touched upon the issues that we work on, but also because they have opened up a topic that we had long wished to see taken up by political parties. In fact, since your inception we were holding our breath to see what your policies would be on the matter of asylum seekers and refugees. What we collected here is aimed at your statements, not against you. We do not want to single you out.

Rather, our aim is to point to a wider problem in Hungarian politics, namely the following: No political party is brave enough to move away from a security obsessed and fear-fuelled approach to the topic of asylum policy.  Yet we believe that such a move would be crucial for founding the discussion on asylum on facts, not fears.

Fidesz domination over migration debate in Hungar

Miklos Hajnal’s statement quoted above highlights the fact that “the question of migration” has become politicised by Fidesz to the extreme that it is now very difficult to move away from the parameters set by the government. Yet, these parameters offer no solution. We need clear stances and real alternatives by political parties on this issue. Moreover, such a clear stance needs to be based on facts rather than paranoid fears from an imaginary “clash of civilizations”.

Momentum is not the only party that has fallen into the trap of the Fidesz discourse. László Botka, the prime ministerial candidate of MSZP, had stated in an interview with Reuters that he would dismantle the fence. However, as the announcement provoked a controversial responses, he withdrew his statements in a Border Hunter inauguration event.  It is not just Momentum, there is a great deal of fear amongst political parties to tackle the topic head on.

However, will you be able to offer a viable alternative to Fidesz, if you  abstain from taking a clear political stance and simply go down the road paved by Fidesz ? This is a crucial question especially with regard to the heavily politicised topic of migration. If you accept so easily the parameters set by the ruling party, then, will  you be able to provide a real alternative? How can it be that the only “experts” on the “migration panel” at Momentum’s summer festival were representatives from the Fidesz-affiliated National University of Public Service (NKE)? You have listened to no other voices.

How can the party be in opposition to Fidesz while only inviting NKE representatives? Does that contribute to a diverse Hungary that Momentum claims to strive for? That is how Fidesz’s roundtable looked like at Tusványos. We hope that Momentum does not trust this as a well functioning approach since, in principle, the young party has a desperate attempt to appeal to all interests, anti-refugee and pro-refugee. However, isn’t this a hopeless attempt?

​On the question of “legality” of the fence and the transit zone

It is not clear from Hajnal’s statement what he exactly means by “the truly legal process (sic) that would allow them  [the asylum seekers] to acquire refugee status.” Since Hajnal only talks about refugees being [kept] at the borders and does not say anything about changing the current asylum legislation or policies, we can only understand him to mean that the current situation is the ‘truly legal process’. However, is he aware of what is going on in the transit zones under the name of legal border control?

The transit zones and their procedures violate several points even of the already inadequate Geneva Convention and the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which stipulates that children should not be detained.

Life in the transit zones is criminalised as people are detained behind bars and razor wire during the entire  duration of their asylum procedure – the latest legal development that Fidesz introduced only in March 2017. People staying in the transit zones are being constantly  humiliated, living for months in a non-airconditioned container with one window. Often, large families are lumped together, their only alternative being to spend their day in a small inner courtyard with no shadow whatsoever. People are handcuffed when they need a doctor and are accompanied by armed security guards carrying batons and sprays anywhere they go within the detention complex.

People are placed behind bars without having committed any crime, and this, in the name of the elusive, all-encompassing term of national security, which can be recalibrated according to the needs of each occasion. An asylum policy based on facts would also mean clarifying the concepts in circulation: for instance, what is exactly meant by “public security”? At the moment, the people who suffer most from public security are precisely the minorities: people of LGBTQ background, roma, migrants, people with a different skin colour.

Another set of legislation is built to make the asylum application procedure incredibly difficult, with arbitrary rules such as announcing Serbia as a safe third country. The result is that after many months of being roasted under the sun and inside non-airconditioned spaces they may be pushed back to Serbia with no options left. All of this is done under the name of legality.

We ask Momentum to consider the relative nature of law, since with that logic the newly-passed NGO law or the Lex CEU would also qualify as legitimate. Do you agree with that?

Unfortunately, lately we have had to question, on certain points, the validity of the term  “legal in the way Fidesz defines it. At some occasions, it is impossible to accept it as the only measure of what is morally correct or even legal. The European Court of Human Rights has ruled that detention of asylum seekers in the zone violates human rights. Given that Momentum is an outspokenly pro-EU party, we are surprised that they do not follow the ECHR ruling on this matter.

We would also emphasise that the fence itself is not the problem: the fence is only a material manifestation of the legislation that allows it. Limiting the discussion on being pro- or anti-fence is pointless unless we also discuss the law that criminalises the asylum seekers’ entry to the country and endangers an entire group of people. We need to discuss the law that allows the violent push-back of people to Serbia since July 2016 and the systematic detention with no special allowances for vulnerable people.

Seeking asylum is internationally recognised to be everyone’s right, and that includes access to territory. If Momentum truly wants to show solidarity with the refugees, they should not only organize money collections to gain sympathy voters, but create a safe passage and attend to their needs!

It appears to us that your migration policy is more based on the assumed popular opinion on migration than on the facts of migration policies in this country, and it lacks the intention to propose your own policy.

Instead, now you aim to conquer your own spot on the same old playground where Fidesz sets the rules. We are looking forward to October, to see if you were to stay there, or you proceed to create your own, fact-based alternative for Hungarian migration policy in this dusty air of political propaganda, in which we are currently navigating.

We recommend this reading from the Hungarian Helsinki Committee for all members of Momentum still considering what their stance is. Migszol does not necessarily agree with all these suggestions either, but at least this one was written by real experts – those experts, whose opinion also the Fidesz government has ignored ever since seizing power in 2010.

The economy of the fence

You say that the fence is necessary. If Momentum is serious about its anti-corruption stance, then, what is your opinion on the methods followed when the fence was commissioned, without tenders, on the question of who made the money on it? The price of the fence was, according to minister János Lázár, 284 billion HUF, that is, more than 900 million EUR.  Note also that the same money would have been more than enough for maintaining the reception centers already established (partly from EU money) with a much better staff and facilities.

These could actually be reopened which would mean a consideration of vulnerable people. And the people detained at our borders are vulnerable—men, women and children exposed to multiple orders of trauma including the trauma of leaving their homes and the trauma of the journey. And there is nothing done in the transit zones to alleviate their suffering.

T​he fence does not only cost dearly tax payers money – it also makes the cost of border crossing higher for refugees both physically and in hard currency. It creates lucrative business opportunities for smugglers, and exposes people attempting to cross the border in irregular ways to horrific violence. So now, the options are smugglers or transit zones.

We also do not understand what you mean when you talk of solidarity with the soldiers. The soldiers are paid to work there, no doubt in tough conditions for a workplace, but this is not to be equated to the inhumane conditions faced by asylum seekers detained in the transit zone.

The fence’s effect on Hungarian public consciousness

The fence needs to be protected with more money, legislation, equipment, artillery and personnel. This ‘Hungarian solution’, as Orban phrased it, has created a new problem for the public, a problem that requires endless political and militarized justification in order to continue to appear as reasonable. Its persistent existence works as a sign that it is indeed needed, as Momentum says, but in effect, it is hard to find out what is truly going on at the border. Present are police, the border hunters working under the police, the army, the Immigration Office, and militias ran by the Jobbik mayor of Ásotthalom. These are all strong symbolic messages that hint towards a threat lurking right beyond the Schengen region. We believe that the border fence and its military protection gives an impression of a threat, while in reality it is just a massive machinery manufactured to fight make-believe windmills. There is no threat that would require such protection.

In addition, the normalization of the fence further increases fear, a fear of what is “out there”, of what we don’t know, and this is exactly what Viktor Orbán wants. These sentiments are echoed also in his speeches on ethnic homogeneity and his false opposition of Christianity and Islam. Last but not least, for the tiny population of migrants and refugees in Hungary (around 0.4 percent of the country’s population), the fence stands as a constant reminder that they are not welcome – and even if they are, they are welcome as “exceptions”.

Five years ago, if someone would have said that you need to build a fence, almost everyone would have been outraged, and would not have accepted it but now the majority agrees on this. Its presence has become normalised.  We truly hope that Momentum, as a new energetic party, would not fall into this trap so cleverly set by Orbán, and would realise what the fence does to us living in Hungary