How Viktor Orbán turned "asylum seekers" and "refugees" into "subsistence migrants"

October 15, 2015

Menekülthelyzet Röszke térségében

Translation of Eszter Prokai’s article “Show a masked policeman and everybody starts to tremble” (“Végy egy maszkos rendőrt, és mindenki rettegni kezd“) appearing in on October 7th, 2015.

How did a previously unused expression—the “subsistence migrant” enter the realm of Hungarian public discourse within days?  How did György Nógrádi suddenly become the country’s most sought after migration specialist?  These are some of the questions a recently published study attempts to answer, from which it is also revealed that police photographs portraying refugees as criminals in which police wear masks for fear of contracting a deadly disease contributed to the success of the government’s anti-immigrant campaign.

In their study entitled “Ground Down” (Bedarálva), researches Gábor Bernáth and Vera Messing examine the government campaign in connection with the refugees, its catch phrases, how it was covered by the media, whether the subject was written up by journalists in accordance with the requirements of their profession, and whether any independent actors were able to express their opinion.  It is important to note that the research only analyzes the first month of the campaign, but that it was already possible to draw very interesting conclusions from that short period.

The migration issue was thrust to the fore after the January 2015 terror attack on the Paris offices of Charlie Hebdo following a significant increase in the number of asylum seekers.   Hungarian politics and media have been built on these two events ever since write the two researchers, who believe it is not by chance that xenophobia reached an all time high in Hungary in April according to pollster TÁRKI.

Migration as a threat

Despite a rapid increase in the number of asylum seekers since 2012, apart from technical journals and civil organizations, few dealt with the subject matter.  The topic was rarely raised in parliament the second half of 2014, and when it was it was usually in connection with the Ukrainian crisis or Hungarians residing abroad.

The lack of interest in the topic came to an end the day Viktor Orbán commented on the Charlie Hebdo attack.  Several days later the government identified migration as a threat, with a prominent Fidesz politician announcing that, “like terrorism, immigration is cause for serious concern”.
The government’s campaign introduced a new category: the “subsistence migrant”.  Given that the vast majority of asylum requests are rejected, few asylum seekers wait for their applications to be processed before leaving the country.  The government referred to such people as “subsistence immigrants” arguing that if they did not wait for their applications to be processed, they automatically give up the possibility of being accorded refugee status.

“In Hungarian the word ‘subsistence’ is strongly suggestive and only has negative connotations, for example:  ‘Subsistence criminals, subsistence parenthood’” write the authors.

In 2014 the government primarily referred to the more than 40,000 asylum as immigrants, even though the law and the field spoke of refugees.  Whereas the word “refugee” evokes feelings of solidarity, sympathy and a desire to help, “immigrant” and other expressions such as “migrant” or simply “foreigner” awaken no such sense of social responsibility.

Everyone blowing the same horn

A turning point in the government campaign was a political discussion which took place in parliament on February 20th, when it was revealed that
the opinion of the government and Jobbik was exactly the same.  Even the left wing could not free itself from the government’s way of looking at things.

The government, the government parties and Jobbik emphasized the financial burden and the anticipated problems of culture and assimilation.  However, neither said how great the danger was.   They spoke of the failure of western integration, of terrorists slipping through, of epidemics and threats to public health, none of which is supported by data.  In lieu of facts, Jobbik introduced unsubstantiated rumors into the debate, such as “two young syrians broke into a small farm, took up the parquet floors, and lit a fire”.

But the rest of the political opposition partially shared the views of the government.  For example, a leading MSZP  (Hungarian Socialist Party) spokesperson accepted from the outset that the migrants posed a security problem.  “MSZP is ready to discuss rational professional proposals for dealing with the wave of refugees that strengthens the security of Hungarian people, and which treats asylum seekers as human beings”.

The LMP (Politics Can Be Different) spokesperson reacted to such statements intended to spread panic with its own panic-mongering statements by speaking about how terrorist training centers exist in Bosnia.  MSZP did something similar when it said asylum seekers posed a potential danger.  “You are playing with fire, as there could be catastrophic consequences if you lock the asylum seekers in terrible conditions, even as their guardians cannot care for them properly.  Which Fidesz assemblymen would like for there to be a time bomb in his or her own electoral district?”.

Quickly affirming that which needed affirmation

The evolution of communication on the part of expert law enforcement institutions played an important role in the political campaign.  Beginning the middle of January the police and government ministries and offices introduced the term “subsistence immigrant”.  The use of a new category did not cause argument or incomprehension on the part of authorities or experts.  The official organs quickly adopted to the government’s communication.  The researchers point out that it is interesting to observe the mistaken roles of experts during the period in question, as researchers dealing for some time with asylum seekers and refugee issues quickly objected. At the same time analysts who had not been active in this field appeared in the government media to support the government’s interpretation of the security threat.

Such analysts included experts from the Center for Basic Rights, which an investigative website revealed were financially and personally linked to the government and to Fidesz, as well as defense and security policy expert György Nógrádi, who was frequently asked by government media to comment on immigration even though he was primarily an expert on war zones and conflict, having not previously dealt with immigration.

Not a single opinion from an organization or expert dealing with, or writing on, the issue of immigration for decades was aired.  From the outset the Association of Refugees, the Artemisszió Association or Hungarian Helsinki Committee tried to react to the unfolding campaign, launching a fact-based campaign and continuously publishing human interest stories about refugees and their personal experiences on social media and online news portals.  However, it is unlike any of this had any significant impact on the mainstream media or the broader public opinion because the organizations were excluded from media drawing the largest number of followers.

Depict them as criminals and nobody will feel sorry for them

Analyzing the press for three weeks after the prime minister’s declaration of January 9th, the researchers observed the following:

  • the theme dominated the then still pro-government Magyar Nemzet, with more than three articles on the subject appearing daily, even as other publications published an average of one report a day.
  • pro-government media (Magyar Nemzet, Hír TV, and M1) placed far greater emphasis on the subject.  The intensity of the attention devoted to the topic alone implied that the problem is huge.
  • relatively little expert opinion was included among the articles published.  Expert opinion primarily in the form of security experts who could only analyze immigration from the point of view of their respective fields (terrorism, crime) appeared in the Magyar Nemzet on only ten occasions
  • the refugees themselves were given virtually no coverage.  During this period only two articles about the refugees themselves appeared, one on RTL and one on
  • photographs of refugees appearing in the media were typically group shots showing them from the rear.  One third of the photographs portrayed the refugees as though they were criminals: faces covered, hands cuffed, laying on the ground.  Even the police appearing in the photographs wore surgical masks and white gloves, implying a threat of epidemic, which, according to the researchers, was an important technique used to alienate viewers from the “subsistence migrants”.

The media ensured minimum opportunity to present alternative opinions.  Such opinions could only be found if someone expressly sought them out.  In this way, it is not surprising that the position of the government parties came to dominate with regard to the danger of terrorism, the huge numbers of refugees, and the burden of providing for them.

According to the researchers the most watched and read media were not able to resist the government steamroller, which can be seen in the fact that during the period in question NGOs could not get their messages across to the general public.   The government, on the other hand, was able to disseminate what it had to say on the subject without any particular difficulty.