Hungary’s parliament has passed a series of laws that criminalise any individual or group that offers to help an illegal immigrant claim asylum.
The legislation restricts the ability of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to act in asylum cases and was passed in defiance of the European Union and human rights groups.
Under the law, officially called “Stop Soros”, individuals or groups that help illegal migrants gain status to stay in Hungary will be liable to prison terms.
Why is Hungary going after George Soros?
The Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Orbán, has used scaremongering tactics about migrants and refugees as the cornerstone of his politics in the past few years, but in classic populist style he has also required a shadowy, nefarious overlord to target. In Orbán’s case, that figure has been George Soros, who perfectly fits the bill as both insider and outsider in Hungary.
Soros was born György Schwartz to a family of Hungarian Jews in 1930, but his father changed their surname to make it more Hungarian. His family split up and lived under assumed identities to escape the Holocaust, and Soros left Hungary in 1947 to study in London. He later emigrated to the US, making billions as an investor and hedge fund manager. His Open Society foundations have donated billions to promoting civil society and human rights, particularly in the former Communist countries of central and eastern Europe.
Soros is a favoured target of rightwing governments worldwide, including in Israel. Hungarian officials have used criticism of Soros by Benjamin Netanyahu’s government to deflect allegations of antisemitism around their own anti-Soros campaign.
However, at times, the rhetoric appears to borrow heavily from antisemitic tropes. In a March speech in which he accused the political opposition of being “Soros candidates”, Orbán referred to his enemies as “not straightforward but crafty; not honest but base; not national but international; does not believe in working but speculates with money”.
Photograph: Sean Gallup/Getty Images Europe
Parliament also passed a constitutional amendment stating that an “alien population” cannot be settled in Hungary – a swipe at Brussels over its migrant quota plan. The prime minister Viktor Orbán’s right-wing Fidesz party has a two-thirds majority in the chamber.
“The Hungarian people rightfully expects the government to use all means necessary to combat illegal immigration and the activities that aid it,” Interior Minister Sandor Pinter wrote in a justification attached to the draft legislation.
“The STOP Soros package of bills serves that goal, making the organisation of illegal immigration a criminal offence. We want to use the bills to stop Hungary from becoming a country of immigrants,” he said.
Fidesz was re-elected by a landslide in April after a campaign attacking the US billionaire George Soros and the liberal NGOs he supports. Orbán believes Soros has encouraged mass immigration in order to undermine Europe.
Orbán has led eastern European opposition to European Union quotas to distribute migrants around the bloc.
Two leading European rights bodies, the Council of Europe and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), have criticised Hungary’s new law as “arbitrary” and vague and said it contravenes European law.
The Venice Commission, an expert body at the Council of Europe, had asked Hungary not to approve the new law until a report it co-authored with the OSCE was published.
Immigration has become a major concern for voters across the European Union, helping to propel anti-migrant populists to power in Italy and Austria and threatening to fracture Merkel’s three-month-old coalition in Germany.
Orban has drummed up support for his tough measures by exploiting Hungarians’ memories of the large numbers of mostly Muslim migrants fleeing conflicts in the Middle East who surged into the country in the summer of 2015.
The vast majority of them moved on to wealthier western European countries, but Orban has branded the migrants a threat to Europe’s Christian civilisation and built a border fence along Hungary’s southern borders to deter more from coming.
Hungarian statistics show 3,555 refugees living in Hungary, a country of 10 million, as of April. Only 342 people were registered as asylum seekers in the first four months of this year, mostly from the Middle East, and 279 were approved.