BUDAPEST, Hungary (AP) — One features a tour guide from Afghanistan, another a Bangladeshi woman who runs a restaurant with her husband. The United Nations’ refugee agency is setting up billboards presenting successful refugees in Hungary, countering the government’s intense anti-migrant campaign that it calls a catalyst for xenophobia.
While fringe groups are usually behind European anti-foreigner movements, Hungary is unusual in that it’s the government that is driving the backlash. On Wednesday, Hungary’s foreign minister announced that the government is considering a 4-meter-high (13-foot-high) fence along border with Serbia to stop the flow of migrants reaching the country.
The hardening line has alarmed U.N. officials monitoring refugee rights.
“We want Hungarians to understand that refugees are people just like them caught in very extraordinary circumstances,” said Kitty McKinsey, spokeswoman for the UNHCR Regional Representation in Central Europe. “We’re not in a fight with the government. We’re here to support the government in taking care of refugees.”
The billboards went up Tuesday evening at several Budapest subway stations, showcasing refugees who settled in Hungary and found success. “We want to live here, that’s why we opened up a restaurant,” reads the billboard featuring Bangladeshi restaurateur Begum Ali.
By contrast, the government has set up billboards reading: “If you come to Hungary, you cannot take away Hungarians’ jobs” or “If you come to Hungary, you must respect out laws.”
While many Hungarians are fired up by the government campaign, there’s also a strong groundswell of support for refugees on the streets of Budapest.
“He’s cute,” student Krisztina Molnar said of a billboard of an Afghan tour guide called Dariush. “He doesn’t look threatening at all but I’ve never met any refugees. I think there is plenty of room in Hungary to take in refugees.”
Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s government has reacted to a huge number of asylum seekers entering the country from Serbia by sending out a questionnaire that links migrants with terrorism. Orban said last week that the government would consider “all options,” including building a physical barrier on the Serbian border, to stop the flow and has been advocating for the European Union to give member states more power over migration issues.
Orban’s governing Fidesz party has also presented proposals in parliament that would give the government more leeway in rejecting people it considers to be illegal migrants, not refugees.
So far this year, over 53,000 people have requested asylum in Hungary, up from under 43,000 in 2014 and just 2, 150 in 2012. Until earlier this year most of those crossing the border were from Kosovo. Now over 70 percent of asylum seekers in the past months have been from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq. After filing their asylum request, most quickly move to European Union countries further west like Austria, Germany and Sweden.
Habib Deldar, a 29-year-old who came to Hungary in 2004 from Afghanistan, said Hungary was considered a gateway by most migrants.
“Most don’t want to live here, as we usually call this place ‘a little window of Europe’ from where they can move to the EU,” said Deldar, who runs a textile store and also works as a translator for Hungarian police and migration authorities.
Government spokesman Zoltan Kovacs rejected the UNHCR’s claim of xenophobia.
“This is the usual, the most common and in many respects the cheapest argument against a political questionnaire,” Kovacs said.
He emphasized the differences between the success of a few individual refugees and the large numbers of unskilled migrants arriving daily in Hungary, around 400 a day over the past week.
“We are facing a different phenomenon here,” Kovacs said. “This year we have experienced over 50,000 people entering the Hungarian, therefore the European borders illegally. This is going to mean unprecedented pressure on Europe and on each member state. We need to handle this in a different manner.”
The government billboards — which are in Hungarian — have also spurred a cottage industry among activists vying to deface or distort the original messages. Several activists have been detained by police over the past days for vandalizing the posters.
By painting over parts of the slogans, for example, one billboard’s message was transformed from “If you come to Hungary, you must respect our culture” to “Hungary needs culture.”
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