“Hungary is not far away from issuing orders to open fire on refugees,” said one of the European Union’s foreign ministers on Tuesday, and called for the country to be suspended or even expelled from the EU because of its “massive violation” of the EU’s fundamental values.
And it’s true that Hungary has built a 175-km razor-wire fence along its southern border to keep migrants out. It has deployed 10,000 police and soldiers along that border, and is recruiting 3,000 “border-hunters” equipped with pepper spray and loaded pistols to help them in their task. And on Oct. 2 it will hold a special referendum asking Hungarians: “Do you want the European Union to be able to mandate the obligatory resettlement of non-Hungarian citizens into Hungary even without the approval of the National Assembly?”
The answer that Prime Minister Viktor Orban wants is “no,” and he is certain to get it. He was an anti-communist student radical when I first interviewed him almost 30 years ago in the dying days of the Soviet empire. Now he is a right-wing demagogue — but he knew what Hungarians really thought about communist rule then, and he understands what they think about giving asylum to Muslim refugees now.
The EU foreign minister who made that incendiary remark about Hungarians shooting refugees was Jean Asselborn of Luxembourg, the smallest of the EU’s 28 countries, and the foreign ministers of several bigger EU countries, including Germany’s Frank-Walter Steinmeier, immediately condemned it.
Hungary’s foreign minister, Peter Szijjarto, said that Asselborn has “long left the ranks of politicians who could be taken seriously,” and has become a “frivolous character” who is “patronizing, arrogant and frustrated.” He also called Asselborn a “classic nihilist” who works tirelessly to destroy Europe’s security and culture.
Szijjarto will not be alone in his views on Friday, when 27 EU foreign ministers (the British foreign minister, Boris Johnson, was not invited) gather in Bratislava for an informal summit. The official topic is the European Union’s future post-Brexit, but they will also be debating what to do about the million-plus migrants, most of them Syrian, Iraq and Afghan refugees, who arrived in the EU in the past 18 months.
It’s not just Hungarians who want to keep Muslim refugees out of the EU. Right-wing nationalists in Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Croatia and even Austria feel the same, and they dominate the governments in most of those countries. They see the more relaxed attitude of the big Western European members to “multiculturalism” as a slow-motion form of cultural suicide (which is why Szijjarto called Asselborn a “classic nihilist”).
Most Eastern Europeans think this way because they have a different history. They experienced almost no immigration under four decades of communist rule, and it is usually the places with few or no immigrants that are most terrified of them. They also remember centuries of being attacked and invaded by a Muslim great power, the Ottoman Empire (which ruled most of Hungary for more than 150 years).
This does not excuse their extreme views about Muslim refugees — “Calling someone a moderate Muslim is like calling someone a moderate Nazi,” said Czech President Milos Zeman five years ago — but it does explain them. They think the Germans are crazy to let a million Muslim migrants in, and they have no intention of sharing that burden even if Berlin and the other big Western capitals say they should.
You can and should condemn this attitude to desperate and mostly harmless refugees — even though there will inevitably be a few “sleepers” among them who are loyal to Islamic State — but you can’t just ignore it. Global refugees are more numerous today than at any other time since 1950, but in 20 years there will probably be five or 10 times as many — and the borders will be slamming shut everywhere.
The immediate driver of this tsunami of refugees will often be wars, but what drives the wars will be climate change and runaway population growth. Africa’s population will double in the next 30 years, just as global warming cuts deeply into the continent’s food production.
The population growth rate of the greater Middle East, from Morocco to Pakistan, is lower than Africa’s but higher than any other region. Many countries can’t grow enough to feed their own people even now, and intense heat and semi-permanent drought will make the problem far worse.
There will be tens of millions of refugees, and their destination will be the relatively developed and well-fed countries of Europe (and, in the case of refugees from central and southern Africa, South Africa as well). Similar waves of climate refugees will be washing up against the southern border of the United States and the northern coast of Australia.
The Hungarians may not end up shooting refugees on their southern border this time around. It’s still a quite small problem: 1 or 2 million refugees in the European Union (population 500 million) is really only a drop in the bucket.
But with time the number of refugees will grow, and politics everywhere is vulnerable to demagogues. In 30 years’ time, and perhaps much sooner, there may be shooting along all these borders.
Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist and military historian.