ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
As we've been hearing, Hungary is now a major gateway for asylum-seekers headed to northern Europe, with thousands crossing the Hungarian border every week. The Hungarian prime minister is coming under increasing criticism from other EU leaders and migrant advocates who accuse him of trying to use the crisis to bolster his nationalist credentials. NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson was recently in Budapest, and she filed this report.
SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: In most European Union countries, it's fringe groups that drive anti-migrant sentiment. Not so in Hungary, where the government is busy stoking xenophobia. In a late July speech, Prime Minister Viktor Orban warned that the flood of newcomers is a danger to European citizens.
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VIKTOR ORBAN: (Foreign language spoken).
NELSON: The populist leader asked, "will what we call Europe exist at all?"
His ruling Fidesz Party has taken controversial steps against the rising number of migrants, including erecting a razor wire fence along Hungary's 110-mile border with Serbia to keep them out. Government spokesman Zoltan Kovacs denies they are xenophobic. He claims the Hungarian position against illegal immigrants is similar to that of other EU countries including Germany and France although with some, quote, "philosophical differences as to the role migrants can play on the continent where the population is rapidly aging."
ZOLTAN KOVACS: Hungary wouldn't like to solve population issues by bringing in migrants. We believe that inciting birth and providing families with benefits and inciting more kids in Hungary and in Europe is the solution rather than bringing in migrants.
NELSON: Hungary's far-right Jobbik Party accuses the Orban government of trying to steal its platform. Members of the increasingly powerful Jobbik have long preached against Hungarian minorities and immigrants.
Daniel Karpat is a member of the Jobbik bloc in the Hungarian Parliament.
DANIEL KARPAT: (Foreign language spoken).
NELSON: He says he believes any political gains Orban and his Fidesz Party are making by playing by the refugee card are temporary. Karpat says that even if the government were to come up with a more comprehensive solution to immigration, it won't be enough to woo back voters, who are fed up with Orban's attacks on personal liberties and his failure to address the country's economic problems.
Zoltan Miklosi teaches political theory at Central European University in Budapest.
ZOLTAN MIKLOSI: The Hungarian government has not been shy about appropriating issues that have been originating from the far-right.
NELSON: But he says he's surprised by how the anti-migrant message appears to resonate with many Hungarians considering almost all of the newcomers only use Hungary as a transit point. That certainly wasn't the case with refugees from the Balkan wars in the 1990s, Miklosi says.
MIKLOSI: At that time, a large number of immigrants arrived to Hungary, and a substantial portion of them stayed for a significant period of time, unlike now when most immigrants are leaving the country in a few days or weeks. And there was no organized campaign, anything on a comparable scale today.
NELSON: Miklosi says he doesn't think Orban's approach makes political sense in the long run because the fence and other anti-migrant measures haven't had much impact. Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News.
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