By ANDREW MALONE
Bounty hunters chasing immigrants on horses … a 110-mile razor fence … and bans on new mosques.
Muslim migrants flooding into Hungary from Serbia,
en route to Northern Europe
At first glance, the video looks like a Hollywood thriller. Set to strident, aggressive music, it shows a group of muscular men using motorbikes, helicopters and even horses, racing across the countryside in pursuit of human quarry. When the targets are captured, they are wrestled to the ground and their hands bound as the patrol members, in camouflage clothing, stand menacingly over them.
But the ‘narrator’ whose voice can be heard over these chilling scenes is not a highly-paid movie star. He is, in fact, a provincial politician, and his message is unequivocal: ‘Hungary is a bad choice for migrants.’
He’s been true to his word. His team of bounty hunters have caught hundreds of immigrants trying to make it into Hungary, on the way to neighbouring Austria and beyond, on the so-called Balkan smuggling route. The man’s name is Laszlo Toroczkai, a charismatic 45-year-old mayor who has made it his life’s work to prevent what he calls the destruction of his country.
Disturbingly, his views are increasingly being echoed by his compatriots.
Mayor Toroczkai is in charge of a small Hungarian town called Asotthalom, on the border with Serbia — a nation still outside the EU — which was pitched into the centre of the refugee crisis in 2015, when thousands of immigrants started pouring across the unprotected border each day.
The crisis erupted after Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, announced to the world that Europe would welcome refugees, prompting more than one million to head to Germany alone, while hundreds of thousands of others made for Britain, France and Italy.
With locals in Asotthalom — a traditional farming town with a population of 5,000 — finding groups of immigrants sleeping in their gardens and outbuildings, and others watching aghast as thousands streamed through the centre of the village on their way through Europe, the mayor decided enough was enough.
He has introduced a zero-tolerance policy against all migrants, saying that the very future of Europe is at stake because of people he calls Muslim ‘invaders’ and ‘future terrorists’, and has vowed to stop this movement of people.
‘It is very important for the village to preserve its traditions,’ he says. ‘We can see large Muslim communities in western Europe that haven’t been able to integrate — and we don’t want to have the same experience here.’
He has announced new rules for the town he runs, and wants the rest of Hungary to follow suit, banning the building of mosques, making the Muslim call to prayer illegal, and banning the burqa and the ‘burkini’ swimsuit. He says the measures are key to preventing Muslims ‘causing fear, alarm and shock among the locals’.
There is no doubt that millions of his fellow countrymen share his distaste for migrants. The most obvious manifestation of this is the forbidding wire fence — dubbed the new ‘Iron Curtain’ by some — that now stretches 110 miles along the border with Serbia.
ZERO-TOLERANCE POLICY AGAINST ALL MIGRANTS — ‘ENOUGH IS ENOUGH!’
The fence was built by Hungarian prisoners and is topped by razor wire. It is also fitted with sophisticated monitoring devices which sound an alarm if the fence is damaged.
In addition, thousands of police and soldiers have been drafted in to patrol the fence — with instructions to forcibly return migrants to Serbia, even when they have made it past the fence and are on their way through Hungary to their final destination.
According to human rights groups and migrants I spoke to this week, the police regularly mete out extreme violence to those trying to sneak into Hungary, beating them and setting dogs on them to try to deter them from making any further attempts.
The mayor’s campaign has struck such a strong chord with local people that it has prompted the Hungarian government to follow suit and join this ‘iron fist’ crackdown against anyone illegally trying to enter the country.
Viktor Orban, the country’s prime minister, has positioned himself as the defender of Europe’s Christian tradition, saying that ‘everything which is now taking place before our eyes threatens to have explosive consequences for the whole of Europe’.
After becoming the first EU leader to endorse Donald Trump as U.S. President, Mr Orban also warned that ‘we shouldn’t forget that the people who are coming here grew up in a different religion and represent a completely different culture. Most are not Christian, but Muslim.’
On the campaign trail, Trump threatened to ban all Muslims and to build a wall along the border with Mexico, but the Hungarian government makes him seem distinctly liberal. And what is happening here should be seen in the context of a wider backlash in Europe against Muslim migrants.
In France, the Right-wing candidate Marine Le Pen is riding high in the polls ahead of the election in April. In Holland, the Right-wing, anti-Muslim Geert Wilders is leading the polls just weeks before a general election. These are disturbing, if sadly not surprising, developments in the agonised debate over the great migration of recent times.
Viktor Orban, the country’s prime minister, has positioned himself as the defender of Europe’s Christian tradition
It is a debate in which Hungary is utterly uncompromising. To understand why, one must understand how Hungary’s bitter opposition to Muslims, stretching back centuries to the invasion and occupation by Ottoman Muslim rulers for 150 years until 1699. Ever since, it has seen itself as a bulwark against Islamic inroads into Europe. The recent mass migration of people from the Middle East and beyond has now inflamed those deep-rooted cultural tensions once more.
Along with the crackdown on the border and the banning of Muslims, Hungary is also planning to hold all migrants not sent back to Serbia in detention centres until their legal claims have been assessed.
‘We are going to introduce new measures: no migrants, not even those who have already issued their request for asylum, can move freely, whether they are entitled to political asylum, refugee status or anything else,’ said Zoltán Kovács, a Hungarian government minister.
THREATENING TO THROW THEMSELVES UNDER A TRAIN
IF NOT ALLOWED TO SETTLE IN EUROPE
Predicting that Hungary’s crackdown will go down ‘like a bomb’ in Brussels, the government has vowed to defy the Schengen agreement, which allows the free movement of people in the so-called Schengen area, of which Hungary is a part.
The move to detain migrants will spark a huge battle with the European Union, which states that claimants should ‘not be held in detention for the sole reason that he or she is seeking international protection’, and can only be detained under ‘clearly defined exceptional circumstances’.
This week, Hungarian ministers laughed off such claims, saying that migrants would be free to leave Hungary after being arrested — as long as they were heading back to their home countries, which would mean they were not, technically, being detained.
In the meantime, the police and the mayor’s patrols are doing their utmost to make life as grim as possible for anyone who attempts to cross the border illegally.
The result of this implacable attitude has been that thousands of migrants, stuck in Serbia, have congregated in its capital city, Belgrade. There, as distressing pictures over recent weeks have revealed, adults and children alike are struggling to survive in the freezing depths of a Balkan winter.
However, the most intrepid young men are determined to prevail, and this week I found a large group of them sheltering in an old brick-making factory near the Hungarian border.
A new law in Hungary says that anyone caught within five miles of the border on the Hungarian side will not be allowed to claim asylum
After paying smugglers to take them from their homes in Pakistan and Afghanistan, more than 130 of them had congregated around fires to keep the bitter cold at bay and to cook food over open flames.
Like hundreds of thousands before them who have made the journey successfully, these young men — there are no women or children with them — are a determined bunch: they have their hearts set on a new life in Britain, France or Germany.
In between cooking and chatting on their smartphones to relatives back home, these men told me they were utterly convinced that, as long as they kept trying, they would soon be enjoying free housing and all the attendant benefits of Western Europe. No one I spoke to was fleeing war or imminent death.
Instead, they were simply hellbent on reaching ‘rich’ countries where they believe they will be miraculously provided with a life beyond their wildest dreams.
Most had paid fortunes to people smugglers to make the journey to the Hungarian border. The going rate from Pakistan and Afghanistan ranges from £5,000 to £8,000 — the price varies according to the laws of supply and demand — and is part of an elaborate and highly organised network that takes them to Europe.
‘I paid 10,000 U.S. dollars to a man whose name I was given by relatives, who had also made the journey,’ said another man who gave his name as Amir and said he was 25.
In one year, just 16 people have been allowed asylum in Hungary
out of more than 180,000 claims
These men are all too aware of a new law in Hungary which says that anyone caught within five miles of the border on the Hungarian side will not be allowed to claim asylum, and will instead be sent back to Serbia. Camps are being built to detain those who make it further.
Not surprisingly, such moves have prompted much controversy, with leftist groups, human rights organisations and liberal politicians all condemning the crackdown, which has seen just 16 people allowed asylum in Hungary in one year out of more than 180,000 claims.
‘Once, we were surrounded by an iron curtain that prevented people from crossing the borders,’ one pro-migrant activist told me. ‘Now we are putting up our own new walls and stopping others crossing the borders. Everyone knows migration is a huge issue, but this is not humane and is not the solution.’
Yet ordinary people I spoke to in Asotthalom appeared to be overwhelmingly supportive of their mayor’s stance, and are pleased that their government is also increasingly copying his policies.
The mayor’s own heavily fortified house sits on a plot of land directly opposite the new border fence which runs between his town and Serbia — and has a sign, beside a picture of a pistol, warning in three languages that the area is protected by guns and dogs.
His wife, Mihaela, a Romanian, told me the mayor was out of the country. I asked her what she thought of migrants. With three giant boerbull guard dogs at her side, she smiled and said: ‘You must ask my husband.’
At the town’s only cafe, people told me they did not want foreigners coming to their town and spoiling their way of life. ‘These Islamic people are no good,’ one man in overalls told me, as his friends sipped beer and nodded. ‘They should go back to where they came from.’
But there is little chance of that. Back at the brick-making factory, the migrants were determined to do all they could to get through the steel fence and security patrols.
One man said he had tried to get through the fence 21 times in recent weeks. Along with a group of fellow migrants from Pakistan, he bought boltcutters and sliced through the razor wire as recently as last week.
He was caught and, he says, beaten up by police, lifting his shirt to show me where he said his ribs had been broken. ‘I won’t give up,’ he smiled grimly. ‘There is nothing for me in Pakistan, and my life will be good in Europe.’
As others asked me for advice on how to claim asylum in Britain, a man from Afghanistan told me that his friends and family sent him cash by Western Union money transfer any time he ran short — but that all he wanted to do was get into Europe via Hungary and then on to London, where food vouchers, accommodation and free health care are provided to those seeking asylum.
‘I have people there that I know,’ he said. ‘I will wait here as long as it takes. One day, the guards will not catch me and I will be gone from here for ever. Maybe I will see you in London one day, my friend.’
I didn’t have the heart to tell him, but the truth is that he may never get anywhere near Britain. Not if Mayor Toroczkai has anything to do with it.
THE NEW EUROPE
“They should go back to where they came from!”