National Security & Defense

Eastern Europe’s Compassion Dilemma

Migrants face Hungarian police near the border at Roszke. (Attila Kisbenedek/AFP/Getty)

Budapest and Belgrade — It began with a warning: The authorities had been eyeing 11-year-old Gene’s father, and they would soon arrest him. So Gene’s parents dressed him, abandoning their belongings and boarding the train through Hungary to Hegyeshalom, then, to avoid the border guards, walking by night to the border town of Nickelsdorf, Austria.

Today, Gene describes memories of his family’s escape to Austria like snapshots: women and children separated from men, who would be thoroughly questioned; a gymnasium room with hay on the ground for children to sleep on; parents enduring both medical and political scrutiny before receiving final determinations; a month in a refugee camp; and then finally, blissfully, approval to continue on to America.

That, however, was more than half a century ago. Eugene Megyesy still has mischievous blue eyes and a boyish sarcasm, but his hair has whitened, and today, he serves as senior adviser to the prime minister of Hungary. As Europe wrestles with the largest inflow of foreigners seen since World War II, the administration of Viktor Orbán has taken a controversial hard line, enforcing strict border controls.

SLIDESHOW: Europe’s Migrant Crisis

Hungarians acknowledge their humanitarian obligations, Megyesy says. He himself even volunteered with refugees recently, serving them food. But Hungary’s political leaders remain keenly aware of their legal obligations and their responsibilities to their citizens at the same time, he says. “We have to deal with people with compassion, but we cannot allow emotions and compassion to override the rule of law.”

Europe is uneasily grappling with the concept that the morality of a state and the morality of its individual citizens can deeply differ.

Hungary has an obligation under European Union and Hungarian law to follow the established legal procedures once migrants enter Hungary illegally. In addition, “there’s a basic right, indeed an obligation, of sovereign states to protect their borders,” Megyesy says.

But in Europe, where World War II remains vivid, such references to state sovereignty are rhetorically loaded.

“In the European Union, ‘national interest’ is not a positive word. It does not have a positive ring,” says András Lánczi, the chairman of the Budapest-based Szazadveg Foundation, which has close ties to the Orbán government. “National interest is something suspicious. National interest is something you shouldn’t voice, shouldn’t use.”

RELATED: Media Coverage of Europe’s Migrant Crisis Ignores the Long-Term Problems It Poses

Yet this current crisis has renewed European discussion of national interest and state sovereignty, however uncomfortably, for the simple reason that the leaders of different countries deeply disagree on the best response to the hundreds of thousands of newcomers pouring across European borders.

Europe is also uneasily grappling with the concept that the morality of a state and the morality of its individual citizens can deeply differ — and may, in some instances, be directly opposite.

#share#It’s hard not to feel compassion for those crossing into Europe with little more than the clothes on their backs. This past week, I visited a park in Belgrade opposite the bus station, which my interpreter told me was long a hangout for local prostitutes and had been known by a rather vulgar epithet. But these days, it’s been overtaken by migrants, who camp out in tents awaiting transportation out of Serbia into Croatia and, eventually, through Hungary.

Now, these makeshift lodgings looked miserable. Pouring rain had turned the park grounds into a muddy mess, and volunteers told me they often ran out of coats for the men; everyone donates clothes and shoes for women and children. Dozens of foreigners, mostly from Afghanistan the day of my visit, sat in a tent run by volunteers, who handed out soup and bread.

RELATED: Europe’s Humanitarianism Is, Sadly, Not Humanitarian

They’re likely fleeing worse conditions. When I visited refugees last September in the Kurdish parts of Iraq, many lived in unfinished buildings or tents or under bridges. Flies lingered everywhere, and mothers told me they worried their little ones would fall sick.

“It’s mass migration on an unprecedented level, and some kind of law and order should be reestablished.” — Zoltán Kovács

Mighty aid organizations, including the United Nations, have seen their funding dwindle even as the number of refugees skyrockets. Conditions in many camps have deteriorated, ranging from squalorous to outright dangerous. The U.N. told National Public Radio last month that it had slashed rations distributed through the World Food Program, with many in its camps living on less than 50 cents a day.

So when countries such as Germany announce wide acceptance of asylum-seekers, those seeking a better life understandably spring into action. It’s not just Syrians, Iraqis, and Afghanis; a child’s drawing referencing Somalia hung on the walls of temporary lodgings on the outskirts of Belgrade, while volunteers mentioned passersby from Ethiopia they saw earlier the day of my visit. I’ve even heard reports of newcomers from Nepal and Bangladesh.

RELATED: Europe Rediscovers Borders

Those whom I’ve spoken to tell me almost universally that they’re bound for Germany — and they say it sometimes in reverent tones, sometimes with a toothy grin. It’s the new land of milk and honey. And with a chance like this, it’s hard to imagine anyone in their situation who wouldn’t make the journey.

Of course, many of the citizens of European nations weigh the idea of such a massive population shift with less enthusiasm, referring to the financial strain it would impose on their economies, the potential security threats, the cultural concerns. Adding to the stress, the rules governing migration haven’t been uniformly applied, sometimes leading to confusion and chaos. Top officials told me that at times they’ve struggled to get accurate numbers, much less track who’s entering their country.

RELATED: On Europe’s Migration Crisis, the Global-Governnance Crowd Dictates Wildly Unrealistic Policies

“It’s mass migration on an unprecedented level, and some kind of law and order should be reestablished,” says Zoltán Kovács, a spokesperson for the Hungarian government. “It is completely unacceptable that people come through the border without control. . . . Common sense says there’s a danger with uncontrolled migration. One or two people can do horrible things.”

Many Hungarian leaders have also repeatedly referred to the erosion of rule of law. Greece and Italy haven’t registered asylum-seekers as they are legally required to do, in part because they are overwhelmed. Hungarians count with dismay that at least four countries’ migrants have crossed before reaching their country.

#related#But once newcomers reach Hungary, they can expect rules to be enforced, explained Gergely Gulyás, deputy speaker of the House of Parliament, who describes illegal border crossings as “violence against state sovereignty and an act against the law.”

“Border protection and maintaining law and order is part of the rule of law,” Gulyás says. “If a state is not capable, it will fall into anarchy.” Those who legally merit asylum will receive it, he says, but for the rest, “there’s no such thing as a universal right to a better life.”

So Hungary has erected a fence to control the flow of population, also posting Hungarian soldiers along the border. It has strengthened the penalties for illegal border crossings, and it automatically turns away asylum-seekers from countries viewed as safe. It’s also arguing for more European money to make conditions livable in camps nearer to Turkey.

As European countries continue to be overwhelmed with fresh waves of people, their stressed citizens may be more open to reconsidering what’s in their national interest. In that case, Hungary’s now-decried policies may well become a precedent across the continent.

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