Nicole Lugosi: Hungary’s unsurprising response to the 2015 migration crisis in Europe: Right wing populism hijacks post-9/11 discourse

Since summer there has been intense spotlight on the migration crisis in Europe. The numbers of migrants fleeing poverty and conflict from Syria, North Africa, and Afghanistan are staggering. In December the International Organization for Migration estimated that approximately 909 000 migrants and refugees have crossed European borders in 2015. Many are fleeing war-torn Syria, where ISIS-led violence has reached catastrophic levels for civilians. The international community has been very critical of Hungary’s less than friendly response. Tactics used to control the flow of migrants at the southern Hungarian-Serbian border included water cannons, tear gas, and detaining people in makeshift refugee camps. Then came the fence, erected on the southern border to keep migrants out. Hungary’s position, evidenced by the harsh policies and political rhetoric, is clear: migrants and refugees are not welcome. While troubling, Hungary’s hostile response is not a surprise given the country’s political trajectory toward far right populism in recent years. Further, the response is also in line with an equally problematic global discourse about the Muslim world prevalent across industrialized democracies since the terror attacks of 9/11.

Hungary was once regarded as the model of successful democratic transition among the countries that joined the European Union in 2004. Since Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party was elected in 2010, Hungary has shifted toward right-wing populism, raising alarm bells among the European Commission, the international community, and academics. Populist messages to the public have drawn on narratives of authoritarianism, nationalism, and xenophobia to justify restrictive media laws, the erosion of minority rights, discriminatory laws against marginalized populations, and a re-drafting of the constitution that compromises the safeguards of liberal constitutionalism. In this political climate, Orbán has, unsurprisingly, taken a tough stance to deter migrants and refugees from Hungary, even those passing through to the wealthier northern EU countries as Germany or Sweden. The November 13, 2015 ISIS attacks in Paris have only thrown more fuel on the populist fire by adding the threat of terrorism to the anti-migrant debates. Currently, the EU is scrambling to craft a coherent refugee resettlement plan that Orbán has publicly rejected. At a November 20th meeting of Hungarian leaders in Budapest, Orbán surmised that 400 000 – 500 000 Syrian refugees might be brought into the EU via Turkey and pressure would be on the Visagrad countries (Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia) to take in their share of people. As the PM put it, “This nasty surprise still awaits Europeans” (Dunai, 2015). The PM further insisted that Hungary cannot and will not accept such a proposal.

Orbán’s frosty attitude toward the refugees is not out of the blue. In April, the Prime Minister’s Office announced the launch of a public survey questionnaire that would be used to gauge Hungarian citizens’ attitudes toward immigration. International organizations like the United Nations have blasted the survey as unfair and biased by not so subtly linking immigration to terrorism. The survey opens with a message from the PM noting that incompetent policies by Brussels and the European Union contributed to the five ISIS attacks across Île-de-France (including Paris) in January 2015, thereby stressing the urgency of immigration policy reform in Hungary. Four of the twelve questions explicitly mention terrorism (Government of Hungary, 2015). While the questionnaire is aimed at curtailing would-be economic migrants, the current public discourses do not adequately distinguish between economic migrants and legitimate asylum seekers (about 80% of migrants) fleeing war and conflict.

While more nuanced, Fidesz’ approach to the migration crisis sounds chillingly close the political rhetoric of Hungary’s third largest party, Jobbik, led by Gábor Vona. This is concerning because Jobbik’s extreme position is obvious and has been widely critiqued by groups like the European Commission Against Racism and Intolerance that describe the party as racist, fascist, homophobic, and hyper-nationalist (Council of Europe, 2015). Jobbik has openly engaged nationalism insisting that Hungary is for ‘real Hungarians’, that is heteronormative, Christian Magyars, and that minority groups such as the Roma or Jews, among others, do not belong and pose a threat to the nation and its values. Such attitudes clearly inform the party’s stance on the current migration crisis in Europe: Migrants compromise Hungary’s security and are not welcome. Throughout the crisis, Jobbik has positioned themselves as the protectors of the nation and in late November, called for a referendum on EU quotas. Like Orbán, Vona has been very critical of Germany and Brussels’ capacity to handle the crisis and the xenophobic mood only intensified the anti-migrant rhetoric after the November ISIS attacks in Paris. Populist elites are using the attacks as evidence for strong arguments on the dangers migrants pose to Europe. For example, similar to Orbán, Vona told a crowd at a rally in Budapest that, “Immigration and terrorism unfortunately go hand in hand” (Associated Press, 2015).

Connecting immigration and terrorism entrenches an insidious form of elite nationalism that creates problems beyond political rhetoric. A single definition of nation, nationalism, and nationality will always be contested as one group, especially a majority, will be favoured in terms of identity and policy (Calhoun, 1997: 98). That creates problems for minorities and migrants who may not fit into the dominant group, especially under oppressive conditions where status and rights may be compromised. Elite nationalism then, is always potentially controversial. What is more, nationalism provides strategic elites with the coherent narrative of protecting the nation and national values, which is especially salient in moments of insecurity (Breuilly, 1993; Waterbury, 2006, 2010).

However, the post-Paris strategy of linking immigration to terrorism is neither new nor confined to Hungary. Drawing links between migrants and the threat of ISIS brings an unsettling dimension to the debates by conflating the Muslim world with terrorism as seen in other countries, most notably the United States, after 9/11. These discourse frames imply that any and all Muslims from certain countries are a potential threat. This is a very powerful rhetorical device for opportunistic elites seeking to capitalize on the public’s very real fears following an attack like the one seen in Paris. Such framing is very problematic, following a ‘Clash of Civilizations’ style logic, made famous by Samuel Huntington’s widely cited article by the same name in Foreign Affairs that really took hold in the post-9/11 era. For Huntington, the Muslim world is fundamentally opposed to Christian values and is characterized by backwardness, inherent violence, and oppression rooted in radical religion (1993). It is important to consider how those discourses construct and reproduce the dangerous ‘Other’ and what can happen when we are constantly exposed over time to ‘us versus them’ notions of particular people from particular places. These discourses feed into an institutionalized, structural type of racism, where people are being discriminated against in nuanced ways that inform and justify policy. This is a quiet yet perilous form of racist xenophobia because such beliefs become an unquestioned part of the ‘way things are’ and that certain people, by virtue of their religion or culture, automatically pose a threat. Essentializing diverse groups into one over-simplistic category of race only fosters a culture of fear and suspicion and does not help combat terrorism in any meaningful way considering that extremists like ISIS speak loudly for people they do not really represent.

In sum, while the sheer volume of migration flows into Europe is new, the hostile response by Hungary is not, given the country’s shift to the far right in recent years. The immigration-terrorism connection heightens the debate to a security narrative reminiscent of the post-9/11 era. Following the November 13 Paris attacks, we are again witnessing a Huntington-style approach to culture, a dangerous and problematic narrative that fuels the already burning fires of nationalism, xenophobia, and racism. Even more concerning, Hungary is not alone, as other countries in Central Eastern Europe (CEE) have espoused similar sentiments. If the current climate of fear and insecurity persists, it is foreseeable that the place of right wing populism will be securely anchored in Hungary and the wider CEE region. On a final note, it is important to not lose sight of the human tragedy that triggered the migration crisis in all of these debates. After all, there are scores of men, women, and children fleeing war-torn countries, desperately seeking help from the international community.


Associated Press. (18 November, 2015). “The Latest: Hungary’s far-right Jobbik party calls for referendum on EU’s refugee quota plan.” Retrieved from: http://www.

Breuilly, John. (1993). Nationalism and the State (2nd ed.), Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Calhoun, Craig. (1997). Nationalism. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Council of Europe. (2015). European Commission Against Racism and Intolerance Report on Hungary, Adopted 19 March, 2015. Strasbourg. Retrieved from

Dunai, Marton. (2 December, 2015). “Half a million Syrian refugees could be resettled to EU: Hungary PM” Reuters. Retrieved from:

Government of Hungary. (24 April, 2015). “National consultation on immigration to begin.” Prime Minister’s Office. Retrieved from:

Huntington, Samuel P. 1993. “The Clash of Civilizations?” Foreign Affairs No. 72: 22- 49.

Waterbury, Myra. (2006). ‘Internal exclusion, external inclusion: Diaspora politics and party-building strategies in post-communist Hungary’, East European Politics and Societies, Vol. 20, No. 3: 483-515.

Waterbury, Myra. (2010). Between State and Nation: Diaspora Politics and Kin-State Nationalism in Hungary, New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Nicole Lugosi is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Political Science and a Doctoral Research Fellow at the European Union Centre of Excellence at the University of Alberta. Her research has earned several awards, including this year’s BMO Financial Group Graduate Scholarship.