Márton Bisztrai | Menedék Association | 30 May 2023
Within the ReROOT project, our team at the Menedék Association focuses on the arrival infrastructure of third-country nationals in the Hungarian higher education system. These arrival infrastructures do not emerge in a vacuum but in a specific atmosphere of Hungary’s migration scene. This blog will present the different interests of two major political areas setting this scene, e.g. 1) the area of ‘migration’ power politics and 2) the area of migration realpolitik.
It might be confusing that one will not find two opposing entities behind the duality of seemingly controversial areas. Instead, it is the same united political power, FIDESZ, the governing party.
The media and political decision-makers often interpret Hungary’s migration atmosphere incompletely. In most cases, the statements are driven by morality, political agendas, and ideologies. For instance, voices that criticise the Hungarian government often use expressions like “anti-migration regime,” “evilness,” “political schizophrenia,” or “cognitive dissonance” – just as if we were dealing with a “lunatic.” Pro-government supporters comment on the same acts with words such as “braveness,” “defence,” “patriotism,” and “nationalism.”
Nevertheless, from our perspective, there is no cognitive dissonance within this unity. Rather, we witness the – in terms of their interests – logical behavioural patterns of the government.
Area of power politics – thematisation of public opinion
This consists of the tireless and continuous one-way political campaign (since 2015) that is aimed at the public. It refuses and stigmatises “migration” and discusses it in a framework of fear, national sovereignty, and conflict (or even war) of civilisations.
The propaganda tools and resources used by the government in the last eight years are countless. Here we show only two of these examples (one of the earliest and one of the latest) to illustrate the intensity and rhetoric of Orbán’s power politics.
In the spring of 2015, under the umbrella of National Consultation, the government sent a questionnaire to Hungarian households with the eloquent title Immigration and Terrorism. One example from the twelve questions: Did you know that subsistence immigrants cross the Hungarian borders illegally, and in the recent past, the number of immigrants in Hungary increased twentyfold?
And the results were: 72,63% marked the answer Yes, 23,45% I have heard about it, and 3.91% marked I did not know.
In July 2022, at the youth-political-cultural summer fest in Tusványos (Romania), Orbán gave a one-hour speech to the public. He mentioned migration among the most pressing challenges that the country is currently facing. And he went further.
“The internationalist left has a trick: they claim that nations living in Europe are originally mixed race. This is a deception because it bonds different issues. Because there are places where the European nations are mixing with those who arrive from outside Europe. Well, this is the mixed-race world. And we are here where European nations are mixing with each other. This is why, for example, in the Carpathian Basin, we are not mixed-race, only a mix of nations living in their own European home. (…) We are willing to mix with each other, but we do not want to become a mixed race; this is why we stopped the Turkish in Wien, and if I am right, this is why the French back in the old times stopped the Arabs at Pointers.”
These question-shaped, contextless statements, Orbán’s speeches and all the other propagandistic elements applied by the government are logical and play well in the power politics, from at least two angles. First, a mass of citizens, supporters, and potential voters resonate with it. And second, it is suitable to overshadow pressing and uncomfortable political and socioeconomically questions.
The message is that “migration is bad. Therefore, we must prevent and stop migration and not support or manage it.” This political discourse (in this case, the one-way delivery of messages) dominates Hungary’s public opinion.
Power politics use “migrant” or “migration” arbitrarily. It links them with concepts of illegal border crossing, non-Christian, non-European, non-white intruders, potential criminals, and essential threats.
The strategy proved to be successful. In 2018 and 2022, FIDESZ won the parliamentary elections by an overwhelming margin. Using “migration” helps them to create an ongoing conflict (a ground where they communicate power and success) with the EU authorities, civil society, and other Hungarian political parties. They successfully keep alive the concept that Hungary is under constant attack, and only the current regime can repel it. Illusion, perception, reality, lie? Not relevant. The only relevance is its extreme success.
This strategy defined the last years with such power that government could not stay only in the fields of symbolic propaganda and noise-making. The messages appeared in the legislation as well, matching the atmosphere created by these symbolic messages. For example, in 2016 Orbán initiated a constitutional amendment. The draft included such lines as Alien nations cannot settle in Hungary. In the end, the proposal did not receive the needed parliamentary support. Therefore, in 2018 the “Stop Soros Amendments” took place, which have three major elements: “(a) The law on the social responsibility of organisations support illegal migration; (b) The law on the immigration funding levy; (c) The law on immigration detention.”
The same year the government blocked civil society organisations and other service providers access to the EU’s Asylum, Migration, and Integration Funds.
It is hence not surprising that the number of refugees has dramatically declined. Since 2000 the authorities have recognised the international protection need for approximately 10 000 people. According to the last (2022) statistics, 2 500 remained in Hungary. At the same time, however, the appearance of propaganda symbols in legislation did not curb the number of newly arriving foreigners. There are no less veiled Muslim women taking their children to the playgrounds in Budapest or no less Sub-Saharan African men walking in countryside towns. There are no fewer Iranian tenants in Budapest’s rental sector, and the Georgian, Vietnamese or Mongolian workers have not disappeared from the construction sites of the priority industrial investments—instead, the contrary.
The Central Statistical Office says that in 2015, 145 000 foreign citizens were living in Hungary, and by 2022 their number was 202 000. The increasing arrival of third-country nationals primarily causes the 40% growth.
The second competitor: the area of realpolitik – interests, needs, and solutions
The area of realpolitik concerns political actions, responses, and solutions that are based on economic needs, demographical trends, and diplomatic challenges. Whereas in the area of powerpolitics the government successfully uses (abuses) the word “migration” when engaging with its potential voters. In other segments, realpolitik uses, encourages, and organises migration to respond to demography-related economic challenges. First of all, Hungarian society is ageing. During the last forty years, the population decrease has been permanent. Secondly, according to the estimation of the Statistical Office, 350 000 Hungarian citizens left the country during the last ten years. The UN International Migration Stock estimates a higher ratio. And lastly, approximately 15 000 Hungarian youths are enrolled in foreign higher education. As a result, state investments, industry, service sector, agriculture, and food industries face labour shortages. Therefore, it is unsurprising that inbound labour migration has grown parallel to emigration. In 2015 the authorities registered 39 000 foreign workers. In 2022 under the same legal framework 74 000 people were registered. During the same period, the number of international students increased by 50%, from 20 000 to 32 000. Behind this significant growth is the state that stepped up as the primary recruiter.
For example, in 2013 the Hungarian government announced a large-scale scholarship system called Stipendium Hungaricum that offers education programs in local universities to third-country nationals. Currently, 12 300 scholarship-holder students (primarily from the Middle East, North Africa, Post-Soviet countries, and South East Asia) study in universities in Budapest and rural towns.
Stipendium Hungaricum is neither initiated nor led by the universities or representatives of education politics. Instead, it is driven and implemented under the control of the Foreign Ministry and the umbrella of the “Opening to the East” policy in the form of bilateral interstate agreements.
Whereas power politics symbolically and physically blocked the asylum channel from Syrians, Yemenis, Iraqis, Kosovars, Pakistanis, Nigerians, Myanmarese, Iranians, etc, the student mobility channel has been opened to young citizens, often from the mentioned countries at the same time.
Stipendium Hungaricum beneficiaries receive tuition-free education at undergraduate, master’s, and PhD levels. The language of study is English, and monthly financial support is also part of the package.
Meanwhile, foreign relations within the EU are worsening, and diplomatic links are strengthening outside the EU. Although the quality of higher education (with few exceptions) is not in competition with Western institutions, the spread of English-based education resulted in organic development. It attracts more and more fee-paying international students. International students as a whole (Stipendium Hungaricum, Erasmus+, fee-paying) create financial profit for the national economy.
From the perspective of many applicants, the advantage of the Hungarian offer is the English curriculum, the stipend, and that “Hungary is Europe.” Although Hungary is an arrival country towards a Western European context, more students try to prolong their stay here by continuing studies at a higher level or searching for employment. This phenomenon may contradict the original concept of the scholarship. When launching the program, the Foreign Ministry made the objectives clear: students return to their home countries after graduation, help to develop bilateral diplomatic relations, engage in transnational economic or academic activities, and in general, spread the good image of Hungary. The long-term integration of foreign students was not on the agenda.
In conclusion, power politics dressed in an ideological costume and realpolitik compete. The slogans used in Orbán’s rhetoric – like “mixed race” and “If you come to Hungary, you cannot take the job of Hungarians” – echo in other fields of migration. At the same time, realpolitik is working behind the scenes and, for example, introducing changes in the immigration policy that make the students’ transition easier towards the labour market (however, still tricky).
The Hungarian government supports and organises the arrival of third-country nationals in some areas, for example, in higher education and the labour market. It is a benefit-oriented, highly controlled form of migration that keeps people in a state of temporality. Created by realpolitik, several entry points and migration channels led to Hungary. At the same time, an anti-integration ideology is in place (painfully visible in the public rhetoric). Both of these areas are blocking the settlement, permanence, integration, and “mixing”.