OCSENY, Hungary (Reuters) - Zoltan Fenyvesi’s offer to host migrants for a free holiday in his guest house set off a backlash in this southern Hungarian village. His van’s tires were slashed and angry locals railed against him. He says there was even a death threat.
The controversy also triggered the resignation of the long-time mayor of Ocseny, a quiet village nestled among swathes of farmland 160 kilometers (100 miles) south of Budapest, as well as national debate about Hungarians’ tolerance levels.
As right-wing Prime Minister Viktor Orban gears up for an election in April that he is widely expected to win, this four-bedroom guesthouse, just across the street from an elementary school and a Catholic church, has become an unlikely flash point for anti-migrant sentiment.
Orban has taken a hard line on immigration which has included a barbed-wire fence on Hungary’s southern border and tough laws criticized by human rights groups. He has also referred to the importance of maintaining “ethnic homogeneity”.
The measures have kept out migrants and shored up support for his Fidesz party since 2015 when at the peak of the crisis hundreds of thousands of migrants from the Middle East crossed Hungary on their way to western Europe.
Billboard campaigns, television ads and questionnaires sent to Hungarians to bolster Orban’s platform have contributed to a surge in anti-migrant sentiment to record levels according to a survey by Tarki, a think-tank.
Last week’s town hall meeting in Ocseny to discuss Fenyvesi’s offer, raised jointly with Migration Aid, a group set up to help migrants, descended into angry shouting and locals voicing fears of violence and robbery if migrants showed up.
“Who can guarantee that the little boys and girls will not be harmed, like we heard of in other countries?” shouted a middle-aged woman in footage taken at the scene by local media.
“Who will protect you if they sneak into your property at night and beat you to death?” she said.
At one point, as Fenyvesi tried to make his case for hosting the migrants amid a cacophony of boos and whistles, a man walked up to him and took the microphone, prompting applause from the scores of agitated locals gathered at the town hall.
“I thought I would be able to explain this (his offer of a free holiday),” said Fenyvesi, who has already hosted poor children, including Roma, at his guesthouse, which led to no such furor.
Fenyvesi told Reuters that he had wanted to set a positive example after learning that a previous attempt to host some migrants for a holiday near Lake Balaton fell through due to local opposition.
“It turned out otherwise. Very soon people started shouting and told me squarely they will have none of this,” Fenyvesi said in an interview.
Once the meeting was over, Fenyvesi said he had received a death threat in the street from a local he did not want to identify. Later that night, someone slashed the tires of his van parked outside the guesthouse. Tires on his son’s vehicle were also cut. Police have launched an investigation.
Fenyvesi abandoned the project because of the outcry.
When 54-year-old Orban, whose Fidesz party is well ahead of its main rivals in opinion polls, was asked whether his government bore any responsibility for the anti-migrant feelings expressed by villagers in Ocseny, he said:
“People have been lied to on the migrant issue so much, that they do not believe it is only children coming.”
Orban told reporters ahead of a European Council meeting:
“I fully understand them and it is very right that they have expressed their opinion so resolutely, so loudly and clearly.”
With the main opposition Socialists in disarray after the resignation of their candidate for prime minister, nationalist Jobbik is emerging as Orban’s main challenger in the 2018 vote.
Dressed in a dark blue suit, Balazs Szabo, a Jobbik council member in nearby Szekszard called on Fenyvesi at the debate in the town hall to devote his goodwill to poor Hungarians and children in need instead.
His remarks earned a big round of applause. Szabo, Jobbik’s candidate for parliament, said locals invited him to the event.
Janos Fulop, the independent mayor of Ocseny who quit because of the row, said there was no legal recourse to stop legally residing refugees coming to Ocseny, if they wanted to.
Some of his local critics deemed that stance too soft even though Fulop himself is opposed to the idea of mass immigration.
“But if there are such people here already, the country must meet its obligations under international law,” he said. Official data showed 881 migrants received some sort of state protection in Hungary, a country of about 10 million people, in 2017, including 75 granted refugee status.
“I hope that people will find calm and talk to one another, but this will take time,” Fulop said. He resigned after seeing the divisions both in the village and within the local council.
Reuters tried to interview more than 20 locals on a week-day morning near the guesthouse, to no avail. The few who spoke off-camera expressed relief that no migrants would come.
With Fidesz dominating the public discourse on migration, Orban’s government announced a campaign aimed at Hungarian-born U.S. financier George Soros for what it said was a plan to bring a stream of refugees to Europe. His spokesman has described the government’s portrayal of him as “fantasy”.
Orban has vowed to fight a ruling by the European Union’s top court that dismissed a challenge by Hungary and Slovakia against migrant quotas that reignited an east-west row that has shaken EU cohesion.
Data from Tarki shows the proportion of people deemed as xenophobic shot up to 60 percent this year, rising 19 points from two years ago when the migrant issue came to the fore and more than double the levels seen in 2010, when Orban took power.
“I do not think this is all due to the government’s behavior, but it plays a very large role nonetheless,” Tarki researcher Endre Sik said.
“Ocseny is not some sort of hell-hole from this regard,” he said. “These are average people, who have displayed non-average behavior, the groundwork of which was laid very firmly by the government.”
The government declined to comment on the Tarki findings. Orban’s chief of staff, Janos Lazar has said such feelings of distrust were inherent in Hungarians anyway.
In a rare display of solidarity, the Roma mayor of Cserdi, a poor village also in southern Hungary, told local media that he would host any refugees rejected from Ocseny.
Reporting by Gergely Szakacs, editing by Peter Millership