Prison awaits Hungarians who help refugees

We have been here before. Fidesz crosses what appears to be that proverbial line in the sand. Hungarian civil society protests. Hungarian columnists express outrage. A handful of European Union politicians demand a firm response from the EU and, in particular, disciplinary action from the European People’s Party, of which Fidesz is a member. And then the voices of protest and calls for action subside, most everything moves ahead as Mr. Orbán planned, as he sets his eyes on the next line in the sand to be crossed. And then we go through this same cycle again, and again and again.

On Tuesday, Fidesz submitted to Parliament a bill ridiculously titled “Stop Soros.” As György Balavány writes in one of the best opinion pieces on the subject: this bill has nothing to do with George Soros and it has absolutely nothing to do with human trafficking. The bill is about incarcerating Hungarians who are deemed to have assisted illegal migration in any way whatsoever. Hungarians who simply see a man, woman or child in need and give him or her food, clothing or temporary lodging could face prison, if the person they helped turns out to have entered Hungary illegally. When someone is in crisis, civilized people in a civilized society step up to help. They do not first ask the individual to produce paperwork as to his or her legal status. The Orbán government’s most odious trespass was never its attack against independent media, its insipid corruption or its deconstruction of checks and balances, but rather the way that it has worked to strip Hungarian society of its humanity.

As Mr. Balavány writes, “this law not only contravenes the spirit of the Geneva Convention, which even grants rights to refugees who are in the country without a permit, but it also contravenes all that western civilization, based on Judeo-Christian traditions, considers to be normal and decent.”

Having an enemy that Hungarians can despise with cult-like fury, someone to serve as a target for the most lurid vitriol and occasionally physical violence, serves as the underpinning of the Orbán regime. In stark contrast to communist ruler János Kádár, Mr. Orbán is unable to usher in a period of “peaceful”  consolidation–even after more than eight consecutive years in power and with the security of a two-thirds majority, not to mention the thoroughly decimated opposition.

Mr. Soros and migrants can only be used a boogeymen for so long. Mr. Orbán needs new enemies–and these will now be fellow Hungarians. As Mr. Balavány notes: “If you hide, feed or care for refugees in any way, or if you are “pro-migrant,” you are an enemy of the homeland and the full force of the law will be used against you. If you demonstrate humanity, if you help the persecuted, the henchmen of the regime will come for you. Such a horrid law has never before been born in 21st century Hungary, but there were examples of this in 20th century Hungarian history.”

Hungarian volunteers provider aid to migrants near Röszke. This photo is from 2015.

That said, Fidesz did remove a few of the most problematic elements from the original proposal. For instance, the original bill would have required any NGO working with refugees first receive approval from the Interior Ministry. This has been scrapped. But other elements of the legislation are equally draconian. For example, offering the most basic level of aid to an illegal migrant can land you in jail for between 50 day to 90 days. Aiding migrants within an 8 km zone of the international border can lead to imprisonment for a full year. Fidesz added that even producing pamphlets or other printed material and providing these to refugees or migrants can result in a jail or prison sentence.

The Hungarian opposition parties have no ability to halt the Stop Soros bill before parliament. Fidesz has a two-thirds majority in the legislature. At this point, only the European People’s Party has the ability to apply pressure. Thus far, they have been mostly unwilling to do so.

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