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BUDAPEST, Hungary — A makeshift camp of thousands from the Middle East, Asia and Africa has been dismantled at Budapest’s Keleti train station, and its inhabitants have left for Germany. But the loathing of them lingers in Hungary, which hopes to build a border fence strong enough to keep out future waves of asylum seekers.
“We need the fence,” said Istvan Szabo, a 43-year-old lathe operator having a beer at a bar next to the station, where hundreds seeking refuge in the European Union still line up daily to buy tickets to Western Europe.
The tent city sprang up last month when the government blocked the asylum seekers from traveling by train to Austria and Germany. Authorities finally gave in last weekend and sent buses to take them to the border with Austria.
Szabo, like many in this socially conservative land of 10 million, says he doesn’t understand why they’ve come.
“If they couldn’t solve their problems back where they live, why do they think they’re going to be able to solve them here?” Szabo said.
Such lack of sympathy is a striking feature of the massive march this summer from Turkey through southeastern Europe. Many of the trekkers interviewed by The Associated Press say their worst experiences have come in Hungary, where farmers hiss at them in disapproval and the government leaves their care mostly up to unpaid volunteers.
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A recent opinion poll sponsored by the Budapest think tank Republikon found that just 19 percent believe Hungary has a duty to take in refugees, while 66 percent deem them a threat and should not be let in. The Ipsos survey of 2,000 people, published Aug. 27 as the Keleti camp was growing, had a margin of error below 3 percentage points.
The findings reflect a country where ethnic minorities barely exist outside Budapest and right-wing beliefs dominate in small towns that strongly support the ultranationalist Jobbik party.
“Many Hungarians are racist. They lack self-confidence and see their identity under threat. And our government exploits these feelings to boost its own popularity,” said Zsuzsanna Zhohar, 36, who has helped lead volunteer efforts to give food, water, medical aid and other help to those passing through Hungary.
“It can be hard to convince Hungarians that these people don’t want to take our jobs, our homes, our women, our dogs,” she said, laughing at the absurdity of the idea.
Yet Hungary at times has become a theater of the absurd, with police expending great effort to marshal the migrants to specific spots, only to watch them walk straight out again to snarl traffic.
Government billboards warn the newcomers to respect the country’s laws and culture, but the signs all are in Hungarian, which virtually none of them can read.
Then again, it’s hard to find one intending to stay in Hungary anyway.
“The government says they don’t want immigrants here and they can’t take our jobs away,” said satirist Gergely Kovacs, a 35-year-old graphic designer.
“But the truth is that nobody wants to come here. Every immigrant would spend just three days here if we kept the borders open. There’s no need to hate them because they’re leaving as quickly as possible.”
Kovacs’ tongue-in-cheek political movement, the Two-Tailed Dog Party, has mocked Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s anti-immigrant campaign by erecting similarly designed billboards. One of them, in English, notes the hypocrisy in decrying immigration when hundreds of thousands of Hungarians have sought better-paid employment in Western Europe since the country was admitted to the EU in 2004.
“Come to Hungary,” the billboard advises asylum seekers. “We’ve got jobs in London!”
Many Hungarians struggle to get by, and that helps to sour their outlook on the foreign influx. In 2011, Orban seized the public’s private pension funds worth $13 billion to cover government debt and help the country exit an International Monetary Fund bailout. Its sales tax is 27 percent, the highest in Europe, and Hungary has one of the lowest average wages in Europe, barely $600 a month.
READ MORE: 13,000 migrants reach Austria after Hungary eases train travel
“The volunteers were throwing food and clothes at the migrants, and they wouldn’t give me a stinking sandwich. Why are they so generous with them and not with me?” said Korneliusz Lecz, a former chemical engineer who is homeless. As he sat near Keleti station, he blamed the refugees for an ailment in his left eye, saying they had brought “contagious diseases.”
Near the border with Serbia, farmers express resentment of people running through their fields of corn and sunflowers. They wonder how the migrants could afford to pay smugglers more than $3,000 for the journey.
“They are not poor. I am poor,” said Denes Csonka, 55, sitting next to his small fields of melons, cabbage and sun-scorched corn stalks near the border town of Roszke. “Yet I have seen them almost every night taking food from my fields and trampling my crops. They are taking food from my own mouth, and they do not even ask before they do it.”
Such frustrations find their grass-roots voice in Jobbik (pronounced YOB-ick), which has become the No. 2 party in opinion polls as it assails Orban’s Fidesz party for being too soft on immigrants and minorities, including Gypsies, gays and Jews. On Saturday, Jobbik activists demonstrated for sterner action, waving signs that read, “Deportation, not work permits!” and “Border closures! We don’t want immigrants!”
“Whoever is a liberal is scum,” said Levente Muranyi, a 75-year-old former Jobbik lawmaker at the rally. He called left-wing support for aiding migrants “tantamount to treason.”
He said Germany’s open door for Muslims fleeing war in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan would leave Hungary besieged by Islam from both west and east, even worse than when Hungary battled eastern invasion by Ottoman Turks from the 15th to 17th centuries.
In pictures: Hundreds of migrants leave Hungary on foot
Jobbik activists sometimes go to the Serbian border and shout abuse in the face of startled asylum seekers. On Tuesday, a camerawoman for a Jobbik-linked web TV channel took the hostility a step further. Journalists filming scuffles between police and migrants captured Petra Laszlo on video as she kicked a young man and a teenage girl in the knees and tripped a running man carrying a young boy. Her station fired her after the video appeared on social media.
Julia Lakatos, an analyst at the Center for Fair Political Analysis, a Budapest think tank, said Hungary was no more racist or xenophobic than other parts of Eastern Europe; it just has little experience with refugees.
“It’s a gut response to fear the unknown,” Lakatos said. “My personal experience is that people are really frustrated, there have been hard times in Hungary, and they are searching for a scapegoat. But anyone who came into contact with the refugees, that experience changed their minds. Personal experience overrides fears.”
Csaba Toth, strategy director of Republikon, the research institute that commissioned the opinion poll, said he didn’t think support for sheltering asylum seekers would ever rise above 30 percent. Most Hungarians “tend to agree with the government view that the migrants are potentially dangerous, they’re certainly unwelcome, and they want them to leave for Germany,” he said.
Toth noted that Orban’s quips that would be deemed racist elsewhere are well- received domestically, such as when he said Hungary’s tiny resident Muslim community could provide all the specialty foods Hungarians crave.
“We are truly glad that there are kebab shops on our avenues. We like buying lamb from Syrian butchers at Easter,” Orban said Monday. “We are going to honor this Muslim community in Hungary, but we don’t want their proportion to grow suddenly.”
Orban is determined to build the 13-foot-high (4-meter-high) fence along the 110-mile (175-kilometer) frontier. But analysts don’t see how Hungary realistically can block the flow.
Kovacs, the satirist, says he has a better idea: Build an overpass above Hungary “so immigrants could just walk right over us in the clouds. We wouldn’t have to see them, and they wouldn’t have to see us.”