Fear and loathing in Kömlő

How did Hungary become a country where it is considered normal to notify the mayor and the police if a foreigner shows up? Via the government's anti-immigration campaign which successfully planted the seeds of fear.

Ivett Körösi
Ivett Körösi Nepszava, Hungary
Source: Nepszava
Fear and loathing in Kömlő - NewsMavens
Migrants on the Macedonian border. Image from Wikimedia Commons

Why this story matters:

He had a goatee. He had a beard. He did not speak Hungarian. He spoke a little bit of Hungarian. He was alone. There were three of them. He was from Uzbekistan. This is how the people of Kömlő, a small town in the east of the country, described The Migrant.

The town of some 2000 inhabitants had recently made headlines after one local rang the alarm bells: she saw a migrant. She warned the mayor who called the police. As the hours went by, the gossip took on a life of its own. More and more people came forward: they all saw The Migrant.

Their testimonies were somewhat conflicting, to say the least. Some said he was alone, others that there were several of them. Some claimed he broke into a house and stole a meatball. Others were sure he broke in and spent the night there. Few suggested that people confused a local man with a migrant.

There is only one thing to be taken for granted in this bizarre and absurd story: no one knows what they witnessed. The least plausible scenario is that the locals saw an actual migrant.

But what if they had seen an actual migrant? Would their reactions be justified? How did Hungary become a country where it is considered normal to notify the mayor and police if a foreigner shows up?

There is a clear answer to this question. When the rightwing Fidesz government started its anti-immigration campaign in 2015, it planted the seeds of fear. The billboards, the tv and radio spots and the various statements issued by the government all suggested that migrants are extremely dangerous, harmful „creatures” who have nothing in common with Hungarian society. This narrative is painfully familiar yet few people recognize that it echoes Hungarian people's own experiences from the past.

Details from the story:

  • The mayor of Kömlő, Tamás Turó, claims that locals are welcoming. „We had an Arab G.P. for years and there are some 20 Belgian families who own summer houses in the town,” he said.
  • Endre Sik, a sociologist, suggests that it is quite easy to activate xenophobia and fear in a society because these feelings have been encoded in people since ancient times.
  • What happened in Kölmő is not an isolated incident. There was a similar case in a small village called Őcsény. A local hotel owner wanted to help refugees and offered to host a small group of them in his B'n'B for a free vacation. When locals learned about his plan, they rebelled against the idea and threatened the businessman. Endre Sik suggests that what happened in Őcsény and Kömlő indicate the effectiveness of the government's „hate propaganda”.
  • The experts point out that Hungarians have looked at foreigners with suspicion and fear for decades.
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