Razor wire goes up in Hungarian ‘emergency’

Authorities in Hungary arrest over 150 people who tried to enter the country to claim asylum. Are Europeans reacting against their histories in their responses to the refugee crisis?

‘Open! Open! Open!’ chanted the refugees yesterday. In front of them stood a high fence with barbed wire at the top. On the edge of Serbia, facing the border with Hungary, they stood metres from the European Union.

Their protests fell on deaf ears. On Monday, the number of migrants entering Hungary had set a new record, and the Hungarian authorities had responded. Migrants trying to cross a razor-wire fence at the Serbian border could be arrested; those whose asylum applications were refused would be returned to Serbia; and a state of emergency was declared. As the day wore on, dozens of arrests were made. A hastily-placed train carriage, standing on a disused set of railway tracks, blocked a route into Europe used by tens of thousands.

Hungary has faced some furious criticism as a result of its stance. The International Organisation for Migration said that Hungary may be breaching its obligations as a member of the European Union and United Nations. The former Prime Minister, Ferenc Gyurcsany, called his country’s approach to refugees ‘disgraceful’, saying humanitarian obligations should be more significant than legal ones.

The Hungarian policy is very different from Germany’s, whose government is prepared to accept 800,000 asylum applicants this year. Chancellor Angela Merkel announced earlier this month that any Syrian refugee who reached her country would be allowed to apply for asylum there. The subsequent influx of migrants has placed strain on Germany’s capacity to cope.

The roles played by Hungary and Germany invite contrasts with attitudes displayed in the same countries in the recent past. Whereas memories of Germany in the 20th century are often defined by its vicious hostility to outsiders under Nazism, the Hungarian government was the first to defy the authoritarian Soviet Union’s restrictions on freedom of movement in 1989. Its decision to remove stretches of barbed wire and electric fencing played a crucial part in bringing down the Berlin Wall and ending the Cold War.

The past is another country

Some say that Germany has undergone a painstaking process of national introspection since the Second World War. Perhaps its collective sense of guilt explains its open response to the refugee crisis, and Hungary’s previous liberalism explains its current authoritarianism. In the pursuit of better futures, countries are destined to react against their pasts.

Others respond that such examples are exceptions to the rule. National identities are complex and long-standing, and people are likely to pass their political views on to future generations. The rapid transformations of Germany or Hungary are only remarked upon because they are extraordinary.

You Decide

  1. Who has the better approach to the crisis: Hungary or Germany?
  2. Does previous ideology explain a country’s stance?


  1. Draw a cartoon representing what is happening on the Hungarian border with Serbia.
  2. Write to Hungary’s Prime Minister, Viktor Orban, outlining some measures which he could take to alleviate the crisis. Explain the advantages and disadvantages of each idea, and finish by saying what you would do and why.

Some People Say...

“An open door is a symbol of an open heart.”

What do you think?

Q & A

I live in the UK — how does this affect me?
The crisis is testing the idea of free movement of people, a founding principle of the EU, and causing a knock-on impact in every EU member state. The UK government has said it will take 20,000 refugees from Syria over the next five years. But this has led to criticism, both from those who believe the country should do more and those who are concerned about the impact of the migration.
Am I related to a refugee?
It’s very possible. The Huguenots who fled France in the 17th century are sometimes referred to as Britain’s ‘first refugees’; many are now descended from them. Another example is within Britain’s Jewish community, many of whose ancestors fled pogroms (anti-Semitic violence) in Eastern Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Word Watch

Serbian border
The Hungarian Foreign Minister also made clear that the fence would be extended along the Romanian border if migrants try to enter there.
Apply for asylum
Merkel’s announcement represented a departure from EU rules. According to the Dublin Convention of 1990, refugees should apply for asylum in the first EU member state they reach.
13,000 migrants arrived in Munich alone on Saturday, leading the city’s authorities to warn that there were no more beds available for new arrivals. In response, controls were temporarily reinstated at the border with Austria, contradicting the Schengen agreement which allows for free movement within the European Union.
Crucial part
The Hungarian government began openly encouraging East Germans to cross its border and later changed its rules to allow free crossing of the border. The Soviet Union, which exercised control over Hungary at the time, had not allowed these decisions. But they helped to inspire others to defy Soviet rule, a sentiment which brought down communist regimes across Eastern Europe.


PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.