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Editorial: Fear of refugees is something to fear

The following is the editorial column from the July 15 biweekly edition of Budapest Business Journal.

Refugees camping in Horgos, Serbia, near the Hungarian border, on July 16. (Photo: MTI/Edvárd Molnár)

In the face of a labor shortage, Hungary should consider bringing in qualified workers from countries outside of the European Union, according to a sensible proposal offered by the Confederation of Hungarian Employers (MGYOSZ) and endorsed by National Economy Minister Mihály Varga on July 6. But it seems this plan faces a lot of opposition, and not only from the current anti-migrant government.

The left-leaning Socialists and far-right Jobbik both have their problems with migrant workers, and the majority of the Hungarian populace seems to have qualms too. If people in this country cannot get over fear of outsiders, we run real risks of damaging the economy and throwing away the cultural and social benefits of diversity.

The idea of bringing in foreign workers is logical: Hungary has an ageing population, and many of its younger workers have left to go to other parts of the European Union, where pay is often several times as high as in Hungary. As a result, Hungary has a serious shortage of labor in key industries, including in the areas of manufacturing and information technology. One of the reasons for firms to invest in Hungary is that it is a place where workers can be sourced cheaply. If the labor supply runs out, Hungary’s attractiveness for investors will wane, and then jobs could actually start to leave.

To solve the problem, some have suggested bringing in Ukrainians, who are eager to leave a country where war has ravaged the economy. And yet there is a huge supply of non-EU workers on the border with Serbia – refugees, from places like Syria, who are desperate to enter the EU and are camped on the far side of the border fence.

Germans have already seen the logic of integrating the recent waves of refugees from Syria, and elsewhere in Asia and Africa, to rebuild their own ageing workforce. But Hungarians are apparently not very open to refugees. A referendum set for October 2 will give voters a chance to say they oppose Brussels’ plan to ask Hungary to shelter a certain quota of refugees. Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, the man behind the referendum, has explained that he does not think a Christian place like Hungary should be forced to take in Muslims. Since Orbán started saying things like this, his poll numbers have been rising, apparently because a lot of Hungarians share his sentiments.

A survey published July 11 by the Washington-based Pew Research Institute found that, out of ten European countries, a greater proportion of Hungarians – a full 76% – believe that “Refugees will increase the likelihood of terrorism in our country”. In France, where there are many more refugees and immigrants, and there have already been terror attacks, only 46% of the populace linked refugees and terror. When asked to assess the statement “Refugees in our country are more to blame for crime than other groups”, 43% of Hungarians said yes. Only Italy had a higher “yes” response, at 46%, but Italy is seeing many more refugees than Hungary.

It is possible that that fear and loathing of refugees has been increased due to constant harping on the issue by this government, but the message has apparently reached a ready audience.

As for the plan to bring in workers from outside the EU, the opposition left say they fear Hungarians will lose their jobs and the opposition right say they don’t want immigrants here. Varga quickly back-pedaled, saying he was only referring to very specific workers who are hard to source.

It seems this logical plan is already on the rocks due to fear of outsiders. Given that nothing inspires fear more than the unknown, it is not surprising that the country with the fewest outsiders is the one that is most afraid of them. But perhaps we should start to be afraid of how much our fears can really cost us.