The Hungarian government has introduced a referendum on the migration relocation scheme, which will be held on October 2, 2016. Citizens will vote on the following question: “Do you want the European Union to be entitled to prescribe the mandatory settlement of non-Hungarian citizens in Hungary without the consent of parliament?” Although the mandatory relocation mechanism, pushed through via a qualified majority vote at the JHA Council last September, is also opposed by other Visegrad countries, a national referendum on this issue has only been proposed in Hungary.

The following report outlines migration trends and the political dynamics on this issue in Hungary, particularly in light of the outbreak of the migration crisis in the summer of 2015. This article is part of the Visegrad Migration Series. 


From the start of 2015, through a number of different campaigns, the Orbán government has created the impression that Hungary’s place in the world has fundamentally shifted in the context of global migration. The terms used in government communication, ‘immigrant’ and ‘migrant’, have conveyed the message that Hungary, as a destination country, must cope with a wave of migrants coming from outside Europe. Contrary to this government framing though, Hungary has, in fact, not yet become a destination country for migrants coming from the outside. It has merely served as the first entry point into the EU for many migrants on their way to Germany, a fact which has rendered the country responsible for judging their asylum claims under the Dublin regulations. This is confirmed by immigration data made available by the Hungarian Asylum Office, which was only able to complete asylum procedures in two per cent of cases due to most asylum-seekers leaving the country before decisions were reached on their claims.

The government’s official position on migration was influenced in part by an unfavorable domestic political situation that they confronted at the end of 2014. By exploiting the fears of the population, the Orbán government managed to regain its popularity and divide the population between “nationals” and “aliens” once more. The government’s anti-refugee campaign deepened xenophobic attitudes in the country, a trend expected to continue as the referendum on binding quotas approaches. The Orbán government has altered the legal environment for refugees in such a way that they have close to zero chance of attaining asylum rights. And even those who are provided these rights will only receive a very limited benefit package. There were also some positive effects from the refugee wave though, including namely the emergence of new NGOs and the mobilization of people who had not volunteered previously. Hungary is in a special situation, where it is being affected by immigration even though it has no immigrant presence on its territory.

I. Migration in numbers

Hungary has never experienced a refugee influx on the scale seen in 2015.

Figure 1: The number of asylum applicants in Hungary, 1989-2015 (source of data: KSH)

The number of migrants arriving to the country peaked during the third quarter of 2015, when more than 100,000 asylum seekers crossed into Hungary. After the closing of the Southern borders of Hungary, the migration inflow dropped to nearly zero. In the first three months of 2016, the number of asylum applicants crawled up ever so slightly again. As of early May 2016, the average number of daily illegal border crossings in Hungary is around 130.

Figure 2: The number of asylum applicants in Hungary (Source of data: Eurostat)

However, it is also true that these asylum seekers submitted applications in Hungary only for formal reasons and, almost without exception, they all moved on to Western Europe later, Germany being their primary destination. In the early 1990s, during the Balkan Wars, there were more genuine asylum seekers in Hungary (tens of thousands of people) who stayed for an extended period of time. In 2015, meanwhile, only a few thousand asylum seekers remained in Hungary despite the fact that almost 180,000 of refugees registered with authorities.

Between 1 January 2015 and 31 March 2016, 186,260 decisions were made by the Office of Immigration and Nationality. Of these, 98 per cent were terminated because the asylum seekers left the country immediately after registering. Out of the 4,423 valid decisions, only 660 (15%) were approved.

Table 1: Number of decisions made by the Hungarian Asylum Authority, 2015/01/01 – 2016/03/31

Throughout 2015, there were major shifts with respect to asylum seekers’ countries of origin. In the first two months of the year, migrants were mostly from Kosovo but beginning in the spring, the number of migrants arriving from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan increased dramatically. In the period between 1 January 2015 and 31 March 2016, the top four source countries were Syria (36%), Afghanistan (26%), Kosovo (13%) and Pakistan (9%).

II. Migration politics

There has been a sudden and significant shift in terms of perceptions of immigration as a political issue. In 2013, only three per cent of Hungarians said that immigration was among the top three challenges facing Europe, but today that share is around 65 per cent. According to Eurobarometer figures published in May 2015[1], in the spring, respondents considered unemployment to be the most urgent problem facing Hungary. Immigration, meanwhile, was identified as one of the three most pressing problems by only 13 per cent of those polled. However, by the fall of 2015, that number had already jumped to 65 percent. There was a similar shift with respect to terrorism, which experienced an increase in prioritization from 5 percent to 29 percent. No similar changes occurred regarding traditionally important economic and social issues.

Concerning social integration, the most significant shortcoming is that the government has up to this point failed to work out a planned integration strategy that could equip refugees with the skills and competences required to facilitate the process. Furthermore, the vast majority of those settling in the country since regime change are ethnic Hungarians.

II. 1. Official government position

At the end of September 2015, public support for binding quotas was measured at 47 per cent in Hungary, the ninth-lowest figure in the EU,[2] according to the European Parliament Eurobarometer EB/EP 84.1. Of the 53 per cent opposed to binding quotas, only 45 per cent of all respondents could be considered firmly opposed, while around 8 per cent were less resolute in this position. This shows that the majority of the Hungarian public is rather divided on the issue and is not categorically opposed to the quota system (at least this was the case at the end of September). According to TÁRKI’s research, the level of xenophobia among the Hungarian population had remained constant prior to 2002. However, it began to rise in the subsequent time frame[3], providing a solid foundation for the government’s anti-immigration rhetoric.

According to public opinion surveys in Hungary, as a consequence of the government’s anti-quota campaign, more and more people have become averse to the quota-system, with more than two-thirds of the Hungarian public currently being against the proposed European quota-system. The government has initiated a referendum on the topic and, as a result, it is expected that the anti-quota attitudes will further solidify by the fall of 2016 (2 October) – when the referendum is expected to be held.

Another conclusion that can be drawn based on the experiences of 2015 is that the migrant crisis has been framed and presented to the domestic public in a manner that has emphasized its connections with terrorism and its significant costs owing to the sheer number of migrants and the associated expenses related to the provision of accommodation arrangements. The case of migration has been simplified to the point where it is now strictly a debate between pro-migrant and anti-migrant camps. The referendum initiative of the government is likely to further exacerbate the situation in the upcoming months.

Current Hungarian asylum law enables authorities to keep asylum-seekers together with illegal migrants at detention centers for as long as twelve months while the asylum claimants’ cases are pending in court[4]. Detention centers were originally designed for criminals or people who illegally entered or exited the country. But many asylum seekers do not have valid visas and documents upon their arrival in Hungary because they have had to flee in duress or in a hurry. Furthermore, they may not have been legally permitted to leave their countries in the first place. Despite this, the overwhelming majority of asylum-seekers in Hungary are placed into prison-like detention centers due to the fact that the country does not invest sufficiently in the refurbishment and expansion of reception centers, facilities that have conventionally been used for asylum-seekers.

The governing party Fidesz asked the government in January to tighten laws on refugees. Consequently, the law regarding refugees (Act LXXX of 2007 on Asylum) was amended by the Hungarian Parliament in the first half of 2015. According to the modified legal code, the government is entitled to issue a decree related to the safety of the countries of origin of refugees or passage. Those asylum seekers who, on their way to Hungary, cross a country considered safe by Hungarian authorities would be obliged to prove that they did not have the possibility to apply for asylum in the respective transit country. Further measures tightening asylum laws included the detention of “illegal immigrants” and the requirement that asylum seekers cover their own living expenses. In 2015, the legal framework for the construction of a fence on the country’s southern border was also developed.

The Hungarian Helsinki Committee’s evaluation concluded that refugee rights ceased to exist in Hungary after 15 September 2015. The primary reason for this finding was that Hungary not only began to refuse to provide asylum to those who applied for it and needed protection, but the country also refused to allow the entry of asylum seekers in its territory. Moreover, those who have managed to enter Hungary have had their asylum applications rejected and been convicted under martial law. This conclusion is further supported by the fact that the European Commission in October first communicated its own concerns to the Hungarian government about the new immigration laws introduced in August and September and then sent the Hungarian government a letter in December indicating that the measures were contradictory to EU legislation. This contradiction was namely related to the restrictions placed on the rights of refugees to appeal courts’ decisions and because in cases connected to illegal border crossings the suspects do not receive documentation in their native language. The European Commission will most likely launch infringement procedures if the Hungarian government proves unwilling to change the law.

Asylum-seekers are entitled to accommodation, three meals a day (or a financial contribution to cover these costs), kitchen utensils and toiletries (or a financial contribution to cover these costs), preferential prices with state-owned transportation agencies, and clothes, if needed. Every asylum-seeker over three years of age is entitled to access to kindergarten, public education, or a language course that prepares them for participation in the public education system, a program that is financed by the Immigration Office. Asylum seekers can also accept financial or in-kind contributions from any natural or legal persons. Upon request by an asylum-seeker, the Immigration Office also covers the cost of their return journey home.[5]

The Immigration Office seeks to facilitate the integration of those granted refugee or subsidiary protection status in cooperation with family protection services and NGOs. People under international protection receive support and benefits based on the value of their property and income. They are eligible for assistance if they have no property in Hungary or if their income is insufficient to guarantee a satisfactory livelihood. Disadvantaged refugees and protected persons are eligible for reception and statutory benefits for no more than 60 days. The protected person or disadvantaged refugee may enter into an integration agreement with the asylum authority upon their request. The contract is aimed at facilitating the successful social integration of the person in question. Under the agreement, the protected person may only change his residence in Hungary if there are sound grounds for doing so. Any provision or support given to the refugee may be suspended if they fail to meet their obligations (e.g. if he makes a false statement on his income). Support may be cancelled only if this does not endanger the situation of the family members of the person under protection. After moving out of the reception center, the refugee (if considered to be disadvantaged) is entitled to receive monthly financial support (equal to the amount of employment replacement support) for up to six months’ time or until the conclusion of the integration agreement.[6]

Currently the government is working on developing additional restrictions to immigration laws. The new proposals on amendments to these laws are generally oriented toward curbing social benefits received by asylum-seekers and people under international protection.

  • There would be a more stringent system of regulations governing the application for a permit to stay in Hungary.
  • The contract signed by a person granted refugee/subsidiary protection status and the Asylum Office would be abolished and those under international protection (e.g. refugees, beneficiaries of temporary protection) would not be eligible for benefits that Hungarian citizens are not entitled to. (According to the proposed amendment to the governmental decrees, they would repeal the accommodation benefit and the support provided to facilitate attending school. Additionally, neither asylum-seekers nor those under international protection would be eligible to receive pocket-money.)
  • After being awarded refugee or beneficiary of temporary protection status, such individuals would only be permitted to stay in refugee camps for one month (instead of the current two), during which they would have to obtain the basic necessities of their stay in Hungary.
  • The immigration authority would routinely re-examine the fulfilment of the requirements for eligibility of refugee status every three years. The implications would be that in a case in which an individual becomes ineligible for international protection at the time of the review, the country could revoke the prior legal status granted to the individual.

The Hungarian government has been firmly opposed to the notion of relocation schemes. The country has not offered any contribution to the temporary refugee-relocation scheme[7] and even challenged the EU in court over the measure. The Orbán government has also launched a referendum campaign to oppose the introduction of any possible quota-schemes in the future. Hungary has sent police to the Macedonian and Bulgarian borders to help protect the EU from migration. Furthermore, the government, together with the rest of the V4, promised to send 75 experts to both Frontex and EASO. [8] Hungary also sent police to help their Greek colleagues in May, 2016.[9] Hungarian police were assigned to Frontex, and they performed law enforcement and administrational duties on the island of Chios. The government has emphasised their belief that conflicts need to be addressed locally,[10] and consequently the country has contributed to EU trust funds set up to assist unstable regions. The Hungarian government pledged EUR 700 000[11] to the EU Emergency Trust Fund for Africa and an additional 3 million[12] to the Regional Trust Fund in Response to the Syrian Crisis. Furthermore, Hungary provided in-kind humanitarian aid to Syria through the EU’s Emergency Response Coordination Centre.[13]


II.2. Party politics

The experience in Europe over the past 40 to 50 years has shown that national governments have had minimal influence on migration patterns, be they driven by waves of refugees or labour migration. Problems caused by international migration can only be addressed by long-term solutions, whose development is often undermined by politicians’ desire to exploit the issue for potential short-term political gains. Since the 1970s, a family of parties opposing all forms of immigration has emerged across Europe. While much of their agenda has been adopted by mainstream political forces, the problems have not dissipated by any appreciable measure. Decades of ever more stringent immigration regulations have proved to be ineffective and there is no evidence that European nation states have any hope of regulating global migration patterns on their own. Nevertheless, the political opening for anti-migration parties has demanded ever stricter and more visible controls. Governments also tend to pass the buck to the EU. Instead of management of the problem at hand, the short-term objective has been to pursue populist positions within the context of domestic politics.

The Hungarian ruling party is well-aware of this and, not oblivious to its political interests, launched a communication campaign using the migration pressures on Hungary as a political ploy. Fidesz, forced on the defensive in the fall of 2014, employed this method in an effort to regain the political upper hand, recapture the political initiative, and eliminate all other issues from the public discourse that could harm party interests. However, with regards to party politics, the current developments extend beyond the competition with Jobbik and involve a broader objective.

Viktor Orbán and his party have pursued the well-tested strategy of dividing the political arena into national and anti-national fields, and insisted on treating all issues along this fault line. Anyone questioning a position taken by Fidesz is automatically and without argument relegated to the anti-national camp and becomes an agent of foreign interests. By the end of 2014, maintaining this division that had earlier proved convenient for Fidesz was no longer tenable within the domestic political environment. It had become less and less credible that the Orbán government was the only representative of national interest. It was in this context that the governing parties seized the opportunity provided by the refugee crisis. With a campaign built on this topic, the entire opposition on the left, as well as civilians and rights activists critical of the government, could be framed as “pro-foreigner”. Fidesz’ effort was a success in that it managed to increase its support base by five to six per cent, while its major challenger from the right – Jobbik – was prevented from exploiting the migration issue and, in fact, lost some of its support. The fragmented opposition of the left was forced into an unpopular reactive role and its popularity has essentially stagnated.

With the exception of Jobbik, all opposition parties condemned the government’s anti-refugee rhetoric. During the parliamentary debate on “subsistence immigration” on 20 February, speakers for the social democratic party MSZP (Hungarian Socialist Party, Magyar Szocialista Párt), co-chairs of the green party LMP (Politics Can be Different, Lehet más a politika) and the small green-leftist party PM (Discussion for Hungary, Párbeszéd Magyarországért) criticized the government’s rhetoric. Jobbik’s position has been similar to Fidesz’s: instead of asylum seekers, the far-right party has highlighted the threat of economic immigrants that risk the survival of Christian Europe. The party has furthermore sought to tie refugees with the label of criminals and terrorists. Jobbik has also insisted on a stringent policy stance against refugees involving closing the borders, deploying the army, creating border patrol units, converting open refugee camps into closed facilities, and speeding up asylum procedures.


III. Other relevant actors

Grassroots organisations[14]

Several grassroots organisations were established to assist migrants staying temporarily in Hungary. The groups primarily used Facebook for recruiting activists and organizing their activities. The main organisations are based in Budapest, but there are also some groups in other large cities. The organizations, which are based on volunteer members and donations (initially only from Hungarian citizens and companies but later also from foreign sources), played a major role in the refugee crisis. They expanded rapidly from their position in early summer. This, however, resulted in some logistical challenges. The professionalism of these citizen initiatives was in particular often questioned, while other NGOs, including some of the largest charities, encountered criticism for their lacklustre involvement in aid work, especially during the first half of the crisis.

Many NGOs whose missions already included a direct or indirect focus on migrants were active, while in some cases, they became even more involved than their capacities initially allowed. Participating NGOs that had long been involved in helping immigrants included the Hungarian Helsinki Committee and Menedék Egyesület. There was also an emergence of new organizations though such as Migration Aid. The aid work of citizens’ initiatives was based solely on the solidarity of volunteers and many of them are continuing the relief work both at the domestic and international levels with a focus on asylum seekers and other local vulnerable groups as well. The number of activists has decreased significantly but the core teams are still at the frontline where relief work is needed. The bulk of the contributions involved the provision of food, clothing and transportation assistance. Contributions related to the integration of refugees were not particularly demanded owing to the fact that most asylum-seekers would later leave the country. Although the Church mostly took an anti-migrant stance, some religious organisations, such as the Hungarian Charity Service of the Order of Malta, offered aid to refugees.

According to TÁRKI’s research, most of the volunteers working in the field had no prior experience as volunteers. The crisis consequently may have had a strong mobilizing effect on parts of society. Three main motivational factors have been identified in sparking this interest: pure altruism, a feeling of outrage about the political situation, and empathy from the perspective of first or second generation immigrants and their relatives. Research has found that volunteers tended to downplay the political factors as a reason for mobilization, with the volunteers instead highlighting the aid work as the most important aspect of their activity. Regarding the possibility for continued mobilization in the future, the newly formed volunteer identities of the activists and the social networks that have been created may have the greatest long-lasting effect. The allocation of available resources can also be expected to have a significant effect on future participation in the volunteer schemes.

IV. Societal attitudes towards asylum seekers and refugees

According to all domestic[15] and international[16] studies, there is an increasing inclination among the Hungarian population toward strong prejudices against minority groups. One major lesson from the systematic studies conducted since regime change is that Hungarians are very intolerant[17] (in line with other Central and Eastern European countries). This is closely tied to a strong sense of existential threat[18]. In general, societies do not tolerate groups perceived as threats. Accordingly, it was a foregone conclusion that a campaign built on anti-immigrant sentiment would gain relatively wide support in Hungary.

The refugee crisis has transformed the nature of xenophobia in Hungary as follows:

  • General fear and distrust of the unknown has been replaced by a specific image of the enemy: the asylum seeker.
  • This tangible enemy image has become associated with even more specific fears (e.g. the threat of terrorism and crime).
  • In the past, distrust was aimed at future potential arrivals, but now xenophobia has a present and tangible focus.
  • Xenophobia and prejudice, shaped by fear, are socially understandable phenomena, especially in Hungary, where the population has scant experience with immigration. Citizens can hardly be blamed for having developed negative social attitudes on this issue; responsibility rests primarily with politicians exploiting the current situation.[19]

Figure 4: Feelings evoked by the immigration of people from outside the EU – changes from November 2014 to November 2015 (source of data: Eurobarometer)



With respect to the refugee crisis, particularly compared to other European Union countries, Hungary occupies a unique place. While the country was largely involved as a transit country in the 2015 refugee wave, the crisis did not significantly alter historical migration trends in the country. Amidst the flood of migrants, Hungary became a central country involved in the crisis, but nonetheless a country without immigrants. Hungary’s exposure to migration was comparable to Greece and Italy. However, with respect to all other migration indicators, it remained similar to East-European member states that were not affected by the flow of refugees. This unique and intermediate situation has had a number of important implications.

  1. The wave of refugees did not correspond to migration patterns earlier experienced by the Hungarian public. Presumably, one can tie the political hysteria whipped up by the refugee crisis, including its larger-than-expected impact, to xenophobic government campaigns appealing to public apprehension.
  2. With respect to global migration patterns, various European countries are attached to distinct subsystems that have evolved over time. Within these subsystems, in the destination countries there are migration networks that have developed, enabling arriving immigrants to join particular communities. In some places these networks are based on the country’s colonial past (e.g., France), while in others on a well-established guest worker system (e.g., Germany). In some cases, sea-born refugee routes are used when they are better established than land routes. However, as none of this applies to Hungary, the Orbán government could come up with measures (e.g., border closing) that might have worked less effectively in other places.
  3. However, despite its preferential status, due to its unique position, the Hungarian government rejected the quota system. In a country where 98 per cent of immigration applications are dropped on account of the fact that the applicants leave the country, the easing of burdens provided by the quota system offers few lasting benefits. This also explains why Hungary, along with the other East-European countries not significantly affected by the migration wave, rejected the quota system. Hungary can be expected to continue to adhere to this position – especially in light of the referendum – in the foreseeable future as well.

Over the upcoming months, the government is expected to continue using anti-immigrant rhetoric as a political tool for domestic purposes. The government may even further augment the harsh tone in the months leading up to the quota-referendum. Fidesz lawmakers will take every available opportunity (such as the massacre in Orlando) to put a spotlight on the perceived dangers of immigration. The Hungarian government is unlikely to cooperate with the EU in the introduction of any kind of quota-system, and they are expected to criticise any union-initiated plan to regulate immigration at the community level that is not in full compliance with Orbán’s Schengen 2.0 plan. On the other hand, the governing parties will be eager to support schemes that are intended to provide for the protection of external borders and solve the crisis at its root, as these contributions can be framed as examples of Hungary playing an active and integral role in efforts to bring mass migration to a halt.



Table: Asylum seekers arrived in Hungary by citizenship, Top 5 countries of origin, 2000-2015[20]


Attila Juhász is chief analyst at Political Capital.


[2] Slovakia expressed the lowest level of support with 16 per cent of respondents supporting binding quotas. The Czech Republic, meanwhile, recorded the second lowest figure at 18 per cent. The data for Poland put it at the seventh lowest level of support at 40 per cent.

[3] ’Attitudes Towards Refugees, Asylum Seekers, and Migrants. First Results. October 2015.’ Tárki Social Research institute.

[4] Act CXXXV of 2010 on the Legal Harmonisation of Certain Migration Related Laws was adopted by Parliament on 22 November 2010 and was supplemented by Government Decree 290/2010 (XII.21.).

[14] The Social Aspects of the 2015 Migration Crisis in Hungary, March 2016, Tárki. Available online:

[15] Atilla Juhász, Csaba Molnár, and Péter Krekó. ’Szélsőjobboldaliság Európában és Magyarországon.’

[16] Felicita Medved (ed.) ’Proliferation of Migration Transition. Selected New EU Member States.’ 2014.

[17] ’Attitudes Towards Refugees, Asylum Seekers, and Migrants. First Results. October 2015.’ Tárki Social Research institute.

[18] Attila Juhász, Bulcsú Hunyadi, and Edit Zgut. ’Focus on Hungary: Refugees, Asylum and Migration.’ Heinrich Böll Stiftung. 2015,…

[19] Ildikó Barna and Bulcsú Hunyadi, ‘Report on Xenophobia and Radical Nationalism in Hungary (January–June 2015)’, 2015,

[20] Own calculations based on data from KSH. Available online at Accessed on 26 May, 2016.