ACS, Hungary (Reuters) - Hungary’s government has launched an all-out campaign against migrants, but the people who feel like they are the real targets already live there: members of the country’s Roma and Muslim minorities.
“I wish the government would think more carefully before starting campaigns like this,” said Robert Sulek, president of Hungary’s Islamic Community. “It’s our wives who get spat on and have their veils ripped off in the street.”
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has divided opinion across Europe by shutting his country’s borders to the throngs of weary refugees seeking to cross through on their way to Northern Europe.
More than 240,000 migrants have passed through Hungary this year so far, nearly all seeking sanctuary in the rich countries of western Europe from war and poverty in the Middle East.
Orban’s government has built a fence along its border with Serbia and introduced fast-track asylum procedures to prevent migrants and refugees entering the country.
But the refugees mostly pass through without staying. Meanwhile, Hungary is home to around 30,000 Muslims, most of whom arrived after World War Two, and to 800,000 Roma, or gypsies, present in this part of Europe since the Middle Ages.
Both groups say they have felt the force of a government campaign of xenophobia.
“We often experience the kind of exclusion that migrants feel,” said Gabor Varady, a taut and driven boxing trainer who heads the Roma advisory council in the northern industrial city of Miskolc, which has Hungary’s largest Roma population after the capital Budapest.
“You hear ever stronger statements about gypsies, about migrants, things you would never have heard 20 or 25 years ago,” he said.
Orban’s defenders say the government was left with no choice but to curb the flow of migrants passing through on their way to Germany and other wealthy countries further north. Hungary has been the main overland entry point into Europe’s border-free Schengen zone, and European law demands the border be protected.
But critics say the government has taken the campaign much further, seeking to outflank extreme right wing nationalists by stoking dangerous ethnic rage.
Earlier this month, the country’s only Roma town mayor resigned from Orban’s Fidesz party after the right-wing prime minister gave a speech drawing a comparison between the migrants and the Roma.
“It’s a historical fact that Hungary must live with a few hundred thousand Roma,” Orban told Hungarian ambassadors at a Budapest conference. “We can’t ask anybody else to live with a large number of Roma.”
Weeks before, the justice minister said Hungary was not in a position to take in migrants since its hands were already full dealing with its Roma population.
Bela Lakatos, the Roma mayor of Acs, a town of 7,000, said Orban’s speech made him feel like a “second-class citizen”.
“Gypsies and refugees are so closely linked in the public mind that it takes just a few moments to put the two together,” he told Reuters in an interview.
The government openly conflates immigration with terrorism, as in a leaflet sent by the government to every household in the country early this year. It contained a questionnaire soliciting citizens’ views for a “National Consultation on Immigration and Terrorism.”
Sent out weeks after staff of the French magazine Charlie Hebdo were killed in Paris by Islamist gunmen, it opened by asking: “How important is the spread of terrorism (the French massacre, ISIS’s horrifying acts) in your life?”
That was followed by a lengthy poster campaign, nominally targeted at migrants but unintelligible to almost all of them since it was written in Hungarian. “If you come to Hungary, you can’t take Hungarians’ jobs,” read one poster.
Some social scientists said the campaign appeared tailor-made to trigger negative associations in people’s minds, not only toward newcomers but toward all minorities.
“Roma and migration shouldn’t be linked in any straightforward way,” said Simon Rippon, a political scientist at Budapest’s Central European University. “No more than there’s a link between immigration and terrorism.”
Muslims and Roma say they sense the change in mood.
“I hardly dare go out on to the street in my hijab since the immigration madness started,” said a 40-year-old Muslim convert, who asked not to be identified for fear of becoming a target.
“My car tires have been slashed, and when I told the police they told me not to attract attention by wearing my black headscarf,” she said.
Despite being part of the Ottoman Empire for nearly two centuries, Hungary does not have an indigenous Muslim community. But, since World War Two, Muslims, primarily from the Arab world, have arrived in growing numbers.
From the sixties onwards, many came from across the Middle East and Africa to study. Some stayed, like Fahmi Al Maktari, a cardiologist from Yemen at a hospital in Salgotarjan, a small city in the North.
“There has been an increase in anti-Muslim sentiment,” he said, though as a well-known doctor in a small town he and his family experienced little of it directly.
The transition from Communism to a market economy brought insecurity and inequality, which has helped fuel xenophobia.
Orban’s Fidesz party is under pressure on its right flank from the far-right Jobbik party, which explicitly blames Roma for crime and insecurity. Since the start of Orban’s migration campaign, Fidesz has gained in the polls at the expense of the far right.
Hungary’s Roma suffer from higher poverty rates, lower education levels and lower life expectancies than the overall population.
In the “numbered streets”, a Roma district in the shadow of a long-shuttered steel plant in Miskolc, half the houses are empty, their roofs open to the sky and windows looking on piles of accumulated detritus.
Some of them have become migrants themselves. In 2011, 4,500 mainly Roma Hungarian citizens applied for asylum in Canada. While few had their applications accepted, returning Roma still reminisce about the quality of their life there.
“Here, I could never get a job. There, I insulated buildings and earned 4,000 Canadian dollars a month,” said Attila Horvath, a 54-year old in Miskolc who was sent home to Hungary in 2013.
Livia Jaroka, an ally of Orban who in 2004 became the first female Roma member of the European Parliament, representing his party, acknowledged that some remarks by government members were “easily misunderstood”.
But she said Hungary under Orban was facing up to the issue of combating social exclusion among minorities. Hungary’s experience dealing with its own poor, including the Roma, had helped shape Orban’s view that migration was not the answer.
“It’s not normal that people should need to leave their country to be happy,” said Jaroka, an anthropologist who left the parliament last year to focus on anti-poverty policy. “Roma and non-Roma poor shouldn’t be imposed on other countries.”
Familiarity with the challenges faced by Hungary’s Roma was one of the reasons Orban was concerned about migration, recognizing it would take time and effort to integrate new arrivals in Europe, Jaroka added.
In Budapest’s Jozsefvaros market, just a few hundred meters from the Keleti railway station that until recently thronged with thousands of migrants pausing on their journey westwards, a vibrant multicultural society is taking shape.
At thousands of stalls and shops, Chinese, Arab, Afghan and Turkish traders hawk their wares and do deals. The market is a major distribution point for budget goods destined for poorer countries to Hungary’s south and east.
Some of the market’s Muslim traders pause five times a day to pray in one of the market’s three mosques - Arab, Turkish and Afghan - and many lent a hand to starving and exhausted Syrian refugees as they passed through.
Tariq came to Hungary in the 1980s to study medicine. He stayed and now runs a mobile handset shop at the market.
“I’ve been here 20 years, and the discrimination has got better and worse at times,” he said in near-perfect Hungarian. “But I myself am from a Palestinian refugee family, and I’ve made a good life here.”
Reporting By Thomas Escritt; Editing by Peter Graff