The Securitization of Migration in Hungary

The History and the Process of Securitization of Migration in Hungary

The European Union (EU) has experienced a migration flux that started in the year 2013 and the numbers have peaked in 2015, which led to what we call today, The European migration crisis. The Arab Spring, a social and political movement in the Middle East and the North Africa, is seen as the root cause of the migration flow since high number of people fled from violence in countries like Syria, Libya, Egypt and Yemen. The destinations of migrants that are coming from countries such as Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon are the European Union states. Hence, the Union and its member states have faced new challenges, and responses have varied greatly. There was/is no common European policy to migration crisis, thus member states have adopted different policies. Different political discourses on migration emerged in the member states, and member states have struggled to overcome the crisis and implement feasible solutions. Some members have employed more protectionist approaches and increased their security measures. Securitization of migration arguments and attempts were made by some political actors in some member states. Hungary is one of these states, both government and political actors have adopted securitizing approach against migration. This paper examines the political discourse of Hungary about migration crisis and securitization of migration, both securitizing moves of actors and reaction of the audience, namely Hungarian public. The securitization theory of the Copenhagen School (CS) is utilized to comprehend Hungarian attitude in the migration crisis by analyzing speeches and expressions of the political actors, and the public reception of the securitizing moves by examining the European Union public opinion surveys.

In this paper, firstly the literature review on the security studies, security and migration, and the securitization of migration are going to be presented. And necessary background information on migration crisis of the European Union and specifically Hungarian case are going to be presented. Secondly, in order to answer the research question, which is the process of the securitization of migration in Hungary, the securitizing moves of Hungarian political elites starting from 2015 are going to be analyzed by employing the securitization theory of the Copenhagen School. By analyzing the Hungarian political elites’ verbal practices on migration, threat perceptions on migration will be understood and the security arguments of elites are going to be classified in three security areas, namely economic, political and societal. And the other tenet of the securitization, the reception of audience, is going to be discussed by analyzing annual public opinion surveys conducted by the European Union such as Eurobarometer, European Social Survey and European Commission Public Opinion. Hence, as a difference from other studies on the issue, not only the speech acts of Hungarian political elites but also the public reception of the speech acts are going to be examined. The discourse analysis method is going to be employed to analyze the actions of Hungarian political elites. The term “migrant” is used for describing any people crossing international borders.

Security is an “essentially contested concept” meaning that there is no agreed definition of security but different people have different security understandings (Gallie, 1956 as cited in Williams, 2013). It is essential which security understanding is accepted in a certain context for deciding on security object, threats to deal with and allocation of resources.  And the subject of security studies as an academic inquiry argued to be developed by American and Western European professionals has changed in the course of the time. In the time of “golden age” of security studies, 1950s and 1960s, security emphasis was heavily on military strategy and the most popular areas were nuclear deterrence and super power confrontation as a direct result of the Cold War. Realism was considered to be dominant approach in security studies (Güler, 2019). This age of security studies is defined as traditional security studies and referent object of studies were state and threats to state was considered as security threats. The definition of security and the subjects of security studies has extended after the end of the Cold War, the traditional security approach has been challenged (Williams, 2013). New topics were discussed in the framework of referent object or security threat thus, different levels of analysis were inserted into the studies. Despite the traditional realist approach to security, issues such as society, individuals and environment were started to be considered as a level of analysis. The work of Barry Buzan “People, States and Fear” is crucial for challenging traditional understanding and introducing new security sectors, such as military security, economic security, societal security, political security and environmental security (for more detail see Buzan 1991). With the expansion of the scope of security studies, migration has also drawn attention due to the rise of global movements of people in 1980s and 1990s. Before this period, migration was considered as an economic and social phenomenon. Moreover, 9/11 attacks and American declaration of war on terror highlighted the migrant communities, especially Muslim migrant communities, in host countries. In short, after the Cold War new topics were included to security discussions and one of these topics were migration which is considered one of the security challenges of the contemporary world.

            The expansion of the security concept and the subjects of security studies can be attributed to the Copenhagen School, Barry Buzan, Ole Waever, and Jaap H. de Wilde, and its securitization theory (Miholjcic, 2017). The securitization theory which is operationalized with theoretical approach of constructivism can be explained as the construction of security through actors’ speech acts that present an issue as an existential threat to a referent object. This concept is named as “Speech Act Theory”. According to theory, in order for securitizing move to be successful, related audience of the action need to accept the act (Williams, 2013, p.63-64). With the securitizing move of political actor and the acceptance of the audience, extraordinary measures become acceptable for ensuring security of referent object. The acceptance of audience provides necessary legitimization for taking exceptional preventive actions (Barry et al., 1998). In this way, a certain issue is taken from political realm and placed in security realm to be protected by taking extraordinary measures. The Copenhagen School claims that securitization is different from politicization and securitization provides explanation for who securitizes which object and under what conditions. As explained earlier, migration has become one of the security areas with the expansion of the security perception and security studies. Global migration is considered to be one of the most vital aspects of contemporary world and it is seen as a part of global transformation.

The number of international migrants is approximately 272 million and it continues to increase (IOM World Migration Report, 2020). The Arab Spring that began in 2010 and national conflicts following this popular movement are accepted as the most crucial events for the increasing trend of international migration. In particular, the Syrian conflict has caused the displacement of millions of people since 2011 and the approximate number of Syrians fled from the country is 5.6 million, according to the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR). The most important receiving countries are Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt and European Union member states. Although the number of migrants that member states have received is less than other countries, the Union have struggled to response to crisis. Individual member states have employed different policies due to absence of a common EU policy to regulate so called migration crisis.

            The European Migration crisis and individual member states’ responses to the crisis can be examined through the perspective of the securitization theory. Hungary presents a distinctive case since it is argued to be one of the most preventive states against migrants and migration, and it is the first country that closed its borders and built fences in its borders in 2015. It is believed that anti-migration approaches and sentiments are caused by two reasons. Firstly, Hungary has very little encounter with migrants, it has the lowest percentage of migrants compared to other EU members, it was %2 of its population in 2016. Another reason is that FIDESZ, national conservative right party of Hungary, has a role to play in growing of anti-migration feelings among the Hungarian public through campaigns against migration (Boros, 2019). Starting from 2015, Hungarian government have struggled to cope with migration crisis and employed harsh policies, and anti-immigrant statements were extensively made by political actors. The prime minister Viktor Orban is seen as the most influential political figure in the country; hence his anti-immigrant statements are also influential. The securitizing actions of the Hungarian political actors are the first step of the securitization of migration in the country and these speech acts can be examined in three category, namely anti- economic arguments, political arguments and societal arguments. These three types of arguments serve the attempt of securitization and they claim different security perspectives. And all of these security arguments have been used to securitize migration and take extraordinary measures against migration by Hungarian political elites.

The socioeconomic arguments claim migration and migrants as threat to economic security, political arguments present migration and migrants as a threat to political unity of the country and societal arguments assert migration and migrants as threat to national identity and culture. In the case of Hungary, all these arguments were used in political statements to present migration as a security threat to Hungary. For instance, in 2015 Viktor Orban said that “We should not look at economic immigration as if it had use because it only brings trouble and threats to the European people. Therefore, immigration must be stopped.”[1] In these words of Orban, it can be clearly seen that he uses very strongly negative language by saying “stop”, “trouble” and “threats”. He directly targets people that have migrated for work, migrants looking for jobs and migrant workers. He also says “European people” to highlight the distinction between migrants and European people. In other words, demonstrating migrants and migration as an economic threat to state and its citizens is a way of securitizing migration and enabling harsh measures to deal with the crisis, and these socioeconomic arguments were made in Hungarian politics.

The other argument of securitization is related to political unity and internal security, claiming that migration pose threat to them. In this line of argument, migration is generally related with border security, sovereignty of state and domestic security (Ceyhan & Tsoukala 2002). After the 2001 9/11 attacks, this national security argument has been frequently raised by national governments and used to justify extraordinary measures such as identity card or passport controls and interrogation of foreigners without reasons by the Western governments (Beck, 2017). People who are not nationals or people originated from foreign states are started to be suspected as fifth columns and perceived as “criminals” that pose threat to nationals (Ceyhan & Tsoukala 2002, p.25). In the case of Hungary, this security arguments were often made by right wing populist politicians.

The third argument for securitizing migration is constructed upon ideas of national identity, cultural background and national values. From this perspective, migration is claimed to pose threat to the identity of nation and societal cohesion, and these arguments are the most dominant ones. Firstly, migrants were perceived as a threat to “European” identity, values and historical background. Since migrants originate from another country, they are not fully accepted as Europeans and therefore always remain as “others” (Huysmans, 2006). The existence of migrants challenges the idea of “Fortress of Europe” since they break the believed commons of Europe like culture, social values, historical background, language and religion (Larive, 2015, p.9). On the other hand, the member states also have their identities and migrants pose problems for these national identities, too. In the Hungarian case, migrants are perceived as a threat to Hungarian identity. Both of these identity perceptions, European and Hungarian identities, have been used by Hungarian political elites in security actions. For instance, Orban said “We do not want
to see a significant minority among ourselves that has different cultural characteristics and background. We would like to keep Hungary as Hungary.” [2] In his words, emphasis is on the cultural differences between the host nation and migrants and implying that migrants pose a threat to the culture and identity of state. It is implied that in order to preserve Hungary as Hungary, migrants shouldn’t be accepted. In another speech, Orban argued “We Hungarians would like if Europe remained for the Europeans” (EPTV 2015). In this words, European identity is presented as the object to be secured from threat migrants pose. From this perspective, Europe as a place belongs to European citizens. In other words, both European and Hungarian identity and culture are argued to be under the threat of migration and they need to be protected from this threat. Necessary measures are argued to be employed for securing the European and Hungarian identity.

The other tenet of the securitization process, reflection of the audience, need to be examined to understand the success of the securitization attempts. In the case of Hungarian migration politics, Hungarian public is the audience of the securitizing moves of political elites. In order to comprehend the public opinion of Hungary, surveys conducted by the European Union are going to be examined. These surveys are complementary and can be analyzed together. First important result that can be taken from these surveys is that migration constitutes the top concerns of the EU citizens about the Union and national states (Debomy & Tripier, 2017). Therefore, it can be said that migration issue is not only Hungarians’ but the majority of all European Union citizens’ concern. However, starting from 2016, Hungary represents one very distinct example in these surveys. The public opinion and public sentiments on the issue of migration are overall the most negative or among the most negative ones compared to other European Union member states (European Social Survey, IE Handout). And it is important to note that Hungary’s share of migration burden of the EU is relatively lower than other members (Boros, 2019). Nevertheless, it represents one of the most negative EU public opinion on migration.

In the case of Hungary, immigration has the priority as an issue regarding the EU for 65% of Hungarian citizens in 2016 public opinion surveys. It has the second place after the Estonia which has 70% (Debomy & Tiripier, 2017, p. 17). Overall, member states that have less burden have higher percentages, and the Central European members are mainly the most negative ones.  In 2016 surveys, 81 percent of Hungarian people showed “very strong opposition” towards migration and migrants (Debomy & Tiripier, 2017, p. 19). Hence, it demonstrates that a strong majority of Hungarian citizens have anti-immigrant ideas. And despite the decrease of anti-immigrant sentiments in the Western European states, these feelings have increased from 2015 to 2016 in Hungarian public with Austria and Italy. Moreover, Hungarian people have preferred national measures rather than common measures at the European Union level as opposed the other members which supported common EU stance in the field of migration. Additionally, 50 percent of Hungarian citizens have said that they have approved Hungarian governments actions and policies in 2015- 2016. Hungary was heavily criticized for its policies on migration by the EU and member states (European Social Survey). In short, Hungarian public display negative feelings towards migrants and migration. The public opinion on the issue is at the same side with the Hungarian political elites. Thus, it can be said that the Hungarian public, the audience of the securitizing moves of political actors, accepts the security arguments and the extraordinary measures become acceptable for the security of state, national identity and culture, and economic welfare of Hungarian people and state.


In conclusion, migration is perceived as one of the most crucial challenges of the contemporary world and the European Union have experienced especially from 2015 migration crisis. The Union have struggled to overcome the crisis and could not develop a common stance and hence individual member states have developed their own policies according to their national politics and perceptions. Since migration is a political and debated issue, securitization attempts on the issue were made on both the EU level and national levels. Hungary is one of the member states that experienced the securitization of migration. As explained before, there are two steps of the securitization. These are the securitizing moves of the Hungarian political actors and the reaction of the Hungarian public. In Hungary, these two tenets of the securitization concept are in the same line, meaning that the Hungarian audience has accepted the securitizing moves made by the Hungarian political actors. The Hungarian political actors have constructed three different security arguments and these arguments are mainly based on socioeconomics, national security and national identity and culture. These arguments were made by speech acts that are created by the Prime Minister of Hungary, Viktor Orban, who is the most influential figure in terms of speech acts on the securitization of migration. He continuously and clearly frames migration as a threat to Hungary and its people. And also, the Hungarian government supports its stance towards migration with policy actions, making it one of the most restrictive states in the issue of the European migration crisis. As it can be interpreted from the public opinion surveys of the European Union, these protective measures against the migrants and migration are approved by the Hungarian citizens. Since the citizens also perceive migrants as threat to their state, economy, identity and culture, they approve the measures. Understanding the Hungarian case is important because it demonstrates a successful attempt of securitization and it demonstrates a good example of how the securitization theory of the Copenhagen School works in practice.




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[1] Remarks quoted in CNN’s “Quest Means Business”, see transcript at

[2] Ibid

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