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ÁSOTTHALOM, Hungary — A far-right mayor is hailing the success of a new border fence, saying it has protected Hungary from mass immigration.
“It saved my town,” said László Toroczkai, whose community on the border with Serbia was at the center of a wave of migrants in 2015 seeking better lives in the West. “Calmness has returned.”
He was one of the loudest voices in a campaign that convinced Hungary’s government to build two parallel 10-foot-high razor-wire electric fences at the border, which also doubles as a frontier for the European Union.
The result is a modern-day iron curtain that stretches for 100 miles and is monitored by soldiers, dogs, thermal cameras and 3,000 newly recruited border police officers.
Hungarian authorities say it has effectively shut off the main migrant route from the Middle East to Western Europe; police arrested only five undocumented immigrants last month, compared with 3,528 before the fence existed in March 2016.
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Toroczkai believes President Donald Trump, who is choosing designs for a wall along the southern border aimed at sealing off Mexico, should be encouraged by the success. “I hope it inspires the Americans,” he said.
It certainly inspired Hungarians, who voted overwhelmingly for anti-migrant parties in elections earlier this month. Toroczkai is also in the running to take over as leader of the ultra-nationalist Jobbik movement, which won 20 percent of the vote.
For thousands of migrants who passed through Ásotthalom in 2015, the rural town provided the first taste of life in the European Union.
Many E.U. nations have light or nonexistent internal border checks. Crossing into Hungary from Serbia, which is not a member of the 28-member bloc, represents the last major hurdle on the way to prosperous countries such as Germany.
Until this time last year, much of the boundary was protected by a single layer of razor wire, which was easily cut. As the migrant trickle turned into a flood, Hungary closed its border, leading to violent clashes with police.
“This was not normal migration — this was like an attack,” said Toroczkai, who accused migrants of starting fires in empty homes. “People moved here for a calm life and they destroyed this calmness.”
His demands for a Trump-style border wall were at first rejected by Hungary’s government, led by nationalist Viktor Orban.
But with anti-immigration sentiment on the rise and elections looming, Orban eventually ordered the construction of the $476 million fence. He tried to make the E.U. pay for it, but Brussels refused.
Trump believes real border walls are "truly the first line of defense,” and Toroczkai agrees.
“It worked,” said the mayor, who enjoys a folk-hero status among Hungary’s resurgent far-right. His reputation was further boosted when he produced and starred in an action movie-style video message to migrants. "Hungary is a bad choice," he warns in it. "Ásotthalom is the worst."
A 40-year-old divorced father-of-three, Toroczkai styles himself as a defender not only of Ásotthalom but also of “European culture and European values.”
Asked to cite an example of these values he replied, “Listen to classical music, from Russia to Ireland, then you will know.”
Toroczkai was less enigmatic when he banned LGBT rights messages and Islamic religious practices last year in a bylaw that was later overturned by a Hungarian court.
“If we invite thousands and thousands of migrants from other countries, other cultures, other religions it will lead to a bloody conflict,” Toroczkai said.
'We are good people'
On the other side of the fence, the grass is greener — at least, in comparison to the height of the crisis.
Of the hundreds of tents that once filled fields on the Serbian side of the Horgoš-Röszke checkpoint, only a handful remain.
Last week, the site was occupied by a solitary migrant chosen by aid groups to record any “push-backs” of illegal migrants by Hungarian police and to coordinate food and shelter.
Rohollah Mohammadi and his family fled to Europe after facing deportation from Iran to their native Afghanistan.
After a long journey through Turkey and Greece, they are stuck in Serbia. While his siblings and parents stay at an official shelter farther south, Mohammadi, 19, spends long, lonely days by the fence. By helping official aid groups, he hopes he can push his family up the waiting list for asylum in Hungary.
“It is boring, I just sit here look at the fence,” he shrugged. “Last night they pushed back 16 men from Pakistan. Sometimes people come here and sleep, but they will never cross so they must go a different way.”
The math student hopes to settle in France, but said he would no longer recommend the European journey to would-be migrants.
“I tell them ‘No, stay where you are’ because they will never cross this wall,” Mohammadi shouts over the buzz of a low-flying Hungarian patrol helicopter. “I have been on the road for two-and-a-half years and look where I am.”
Mohammadi's tent has a solar-powered outlet and a supply of emergency food for other migrants who turn up. “If they come, I call the aid group and they take them away,” he said.
More than 400 people, mostly families, are waiting at 11 reception shelters run by Serbia's official Commissariat for Refugees, including one near a swamp on the outskirts of the border city of Subotica.
Osman Orya, 30, has been there for two months with his wife and their children Ifad, 3, and Imad, 8 months. He says they left Afghanistan after his work as a translator for the U.S.-led NATO forces there made them a target for retaliatory killings by the Taliban. “We lost everything that we had,” he said.
They are barely one mile from the European Union — and the realization of their dream of a new life in Germany.
“I cannot think about this wall,” he said. “If you think about it too much you will go crazy. It is part of life. Too many people went to Europe and so they built it, I understand that. Here we have the chance to show we are good people, not fundamentalists.”
An estimated 3,600 others across Serbia are less fortunate, sleeping in forests or abandoned buildings and trying to cross into Hungary illegally in trucks or train wagons. The border’s position on the vast plains of the Pannonian Basin means migrants there endure a Midwest-style climate of long, freezing winters and blisteringly hot summers.
“Effectively the Hungarian authorities are supporting smuggling by pretending that they have stopped migration whereas they have just pushed it to other countries.”
A dozen men, mostly from Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan, were sitting last week in the shade of a disused farmhouse near Horos. Inside, several more cooked fresh flatbreads over a makeshift fire.
“We have been in Hungary many times but the police there beat us and throw us back,” said Ali Asan, a 33-year-old policeman from Lahore, Pakistan. “The fence has electricity so if we touch it it hurts our arms and burns our eyes.”
He said the group would seek alternative routes into western Europe, such as through Bosnia. Others try to use smugglers, who charge several thousand dollars per person, but illegal entry carries the risk of capture and being pushed back to Serbia to start again.
“It is too dangerous,” Asan says. “And anyway we have no money.”
Rados Djurovic, executive director of the Belgrade-based Asylum Protection Center, said human smuggling had risen since the construction of the fence.
“It’s a logical consequence,” he said. “Effectively the Hungarian authorities are supporting smuggling by pretending that they have stopped migration whereas they have just pushed it to other countries.”
Recent prices demanded by smugglers in Serbia range from $3,000 to reach Austria, $3,600 for Germany and $14,600 for Britain, Djurovic said. “If you keep people in this migratory purgatory they will look for other ways. In a wider sense, the wall is not impenetrable.”
Hungary’s handling of migrants was heavily criticized Friday in a report by the Council of Europe, the continent’s main watchdog for democracy and human rights.
It said “collective expulsions” or push-backs of migrants over the border “negatively affect the detection of victims of human trafficking” and raise concerns over Hungary’s compliance with the European Convention on Human Rights.
Lessons of history
Hungary’s success in reducing the numbers of migrants on its streets may have buoyed the far-right in this month’s elections, but public opinion about the Trump-style barrier is more varied.
In Szeged, only a few miles from the border, workers mingle with university students in the shade of trees in Szechenyi Square, famous for its Art Nouveau architecture dating to the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
The city — Hungary’s third-largest — is peaceful now, but three summers ago it was thronged by thousands of migrants camping in its railway station and public squares on their way toward Western Europe.
“They were not good people,” said Hamar Kinga, a 34-year-old office worker. “I heard that there were robberies, it was a dangerous time. The wall gave us back our security.”
Dominika Kiss, 28, described feeling intimidated when using the station and said the border fence was an essential measure. “I thought they might attack me,” she said.
But others were unconvinced. “There was a problem but I don’t know that this was the solution,” said agricultural researcher Agnes Fekete, 27. “We are all people and this barrier is just horrible to refugees. It has just pushed the problem to other places like the border with Romania where there is no fence. I see more soldiers than refugees around here."
Theresa Gielissen, 28, a language instructor at the University of Szeged who is originally from Wisconsin, said electrified border fences were “unconscionable.”
She added: “Every time you build a wall like that, you create an enemy. The arguments about preserving culture from immigration are just xenophobia.”
Daniel Nyikos, 33, an assistant professor at the university, said the lessons of history 30 years ago, when the collapse of Communism led to the fall of the Berlin Wall, appeared to have been forgotten.
“1989 was a moment of hope as walls were torn down in this part of the world,” he said. “Now we are making huge fences again, here and in Mexico, and it seems we have not learned anything.”