Hungary’s Referendum on the European Union’s Refugee-Resettlement Quota

by Salomé Guibreteau

On the 2nd of October, 2016, Hungary will hold a referendum on the European Union’s compulsory refugee resettlement quota system. The government’s rationale behind the referendum is that the decision to welcome refugees cannot be taken away from the Parliament, the elected representatives of Hungary.1 The referendum was ordered on the 10th of May after a vote in the Parliament, mostly supported by pro-government representatives and Jobbik, the far-right party.2

The referendum will ask the following question to Hungarian voters:

“Akarja-e, hogy az Európai Unió az Országgyűlés hozzájárulása nélkül is előírhassa nem magyar állampolgárok Magyarországra történő kötelező betelepítését?”

Translated, the referendum reads as such:

“Do you want the European Union, without the consent of the Hungarian Parliament, to order a compulsory resettlement of non-Hungarian citizens into Hungary?”

The government’s position is clear. It does not want to be dictated by the EU on how to deal with migrants, and it intends to use the referendum as a means of pressure with the EU. What exactly is happening in Hungary? I will look at Hungary’s asylum policies and its position on the EU refugee resettlement quota, before examining the public opinion on this referendum.

Recent policies targeting asylum-seekers

In 2015, Hungary saw a sharp increase in the number of migrants seeking asylum, reaching over 170,000 people by September 2015.The country had become a major entry point to the EU for migrants heading to Germany, following the Balkan route through Macedonia and Serbia. Hungary then proceeded to build fences along its southern border with Serbia, as well as with Romania and Croatia, which forced migrants to cross instead through Croatia and Slovenia, to get to Austria and Germany.

Hungary also modified its asylum legislation in ways that made it difficult for asylum-seekers to receive international protection in Hungary. The government now considers Serbia to be a safe third country, in contradiction with the assessment of the UNHCR, the Hungarian Supreme Court, and civil society organizations.4  This means that the majority of asylum-seekers crossing the border will have their asylum claim rejected and will be sent back to Serbia, since Hungary assumes that they could have filed their claim there and would have received the same level of safeguards and protection. This is a clear violation of international refugee and asylum law and the principle of non-refoulement.

Moreover, asylum procedures have accelerated, on the basis of criteria such as the presentation of false documents, or illegal entry, which apply to the situation of most asylum seekers.Short deadlines and limited safeguards hamper the procedure of judicial review and appeal.At the border, asylum-seekers are let in sparingly, in a transit zone where asylum claim procedures are also accelerated and provide little safeguards.Once an asylum claim is rejected, the asylum seeker is expelled and is banned from entering the Schengen area and filing a new claim for 1 or 2 years.8

Crossing the border fence irregularly is now a criminal offence.It is now also easier to detain asylum-seekers, and this detention can last for longer times, while this measure was not followed by an extension of the country’s reception centers, leading to overcrowded facilities.10 In fact, one of the main refugee centers in Debrecen was closed. These policies have the effect of preventing asylum seekers who have a legitimate claim from receiving international protection, and are clearly in contradiction with EU asylum law and the Refugee Convention of 1951.

In December 2015, the EU started an infringement procedure against Hungary, considering that some aspects of the Hungarian asylum legislation were incompatible with EU Asylum Law.11

Hungary’s view on the resettlement quota

One of the government's campaign billboards stating: Did you know? From Lybia only, nearly one million migrants want to come to Europe. Author: Salomé Guibreteau.
Author: Salomé Guibreteau. Caption: One of the government’s campaign billboards stating: Did you know? From Lybia only, nearly one million migrants want to come to Europe.

The Hungarian government is strongly opposed to the European Union’s new policy of refugee-resettlement quotas for each EU member state.

The EU quota system was developed in 2015 and aims to ease the burden of Greece and Italy, who receive the highest number of asylum seekers. It will relocate 160,000 asylum seekers over two years, by establishing a mandatory quota of asylum seekers that each European country should receive, according to different criteria such as wealth or population. Under this system, Hungary could have been relieved of 54,000 asylum seekers,12 and would have to welcome 1,294 asylum seekers.13

The Government rejects the quota altogether, and has not taken in any asylum seekers so far,14 even launched a case to the Court of Justice of the European Union, along with its neighbor Slovakia, which also strongly opposes the quota system.

In a speech on March 15th – a day commemorating Hungary’s independence in 1848 – Hungary’s Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán, declared that the quota system would “redraw Europe’s religious and cultural makeup, restructure its ethnic composition”, and he accused the EU of “craftily swallowing newer and newer slices of national sovereignty”.15

The referendum, announced in July 2016, is thus a way to oppose the EU’s plan regarding refugees, but also aims to send a message to Brussels about Hungary’s sovereignty. After Brexit, Hungary saw an opportunity to pressure a weakened EU and launched the referendum, along with an aggressive campaign against migrants. The campaign consists of billboards with messages associating migrants with terrorists in Paris, describing the daunting number of migrants coming in, or reasserting Hungary’s sovereignty from the EU.

Public opinion about the referendum

Hungarian public opinion seems to mirror the Government’s stance on the question. Polls reveal that a majority of Hungarians will vote against the EU refugee-resettlement quota.

A poll conducted in August by the research firm Tárki-Omnibusz found that, out of those surveyed, 71% of those intending to vote will vote against the resettlement of migrants and 13% will vote for the resettlement. A further 16% either do not know or do not want to reveal their opinion.16 Another poll from Publicus Research found that 83% of the people surveyed thought there were too many migrants arriving in Europe and 78% though it was better if they did not settle in Hungary.17

While the UN has expressed concerns about the treatment of asylum seekers in Hungary,18 50% do not think that migrants should be treated more humanely.19 The numbers on the vote are similar to the other poll: 67% say they would vote against the resettlement (no) and 15% for (yes).20

Publicus Research’s poll also indicates that 57% of those surveyed think that the government is exploiting people’s fears.21 There are campaigns countering that of the government. Vastagbőr and Kétfarkú Kutya Párt have used the same method as the government, billboards, to send the opposite message and to criticize its controversial position.

What would rejecting the resettlement quota mean for Europe?

The issue of migration and refugees is divisive in Europe. Other EU member states have expressed their concern at Hungary breaking EU asylum and refugee law by refusing to accept asylum-seekers. Nordic States, including Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Iceland and Norway, have called for the EU Migration Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos to take action against Hungary. Human rights groups and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights have also denounced Hungary for its stance on immigration and its treatment of refugees.

Meanwhile, the picture looks grim for this referendum’s results, due to the country’s tense atmosphere in relation to migration issues. The stakes are high, especially for the situation and the rights of asylum seekers in Hungary but also in other parts of Europe, as well as for the existence of the EU quota system. Hungary is not the only country opposing the refugee resettlement quota system, as all the Visegrad Four countries have voiced a strong opposition to it.

Cover photo: Hungarian Parliament in National Colours.  Author: Zsolt Andrasi


[1] Magyarország Kormánya, ‘Október 2-ra Írta Ki a Népszavazást az Államfő’ (Magyarország Kormánya, July 5 2016)

[2] Október 2-ra Írta Ki a Népszavazást az Államfő

[3] Márta Pardavi, Gábor Gyulai, ‘What You Need to Know About the Refugee Crisis in Hungary’ (OSF, 30 September 2015)

[4] Building a Legal Fence – Changes to Hungarian Asylum Law Jeopardise Access to Protection in Hungary

[5] Building a Legal Fence – Changes to Hungarian Asylum Law Jeopardise Access to Protection in Hungary

[6] Hungarian Helsinki Committee, ‘No Country for Refugees – New Asylum Rules Deny Protection to Refugees and Lead to Unprecedented Human Rights Violations in Hungary’ (HHC, 18 September 2015)

[7] No Country for Refugees – New Asylum Rules Deny Protection to Refugees and Lead to Unprecedented Human Rights Violations in Hungary

[8] No Country for Refugees – New Asylum Rules Deny Protection to Refugees and Lead to Unprecedented Human Rights Violations in Hungary

[9] No Country for Refugees – New Asylum Rules Deny Protection to Refugees and Lead to Unprecedented Human Rights Violations in Hungary

[10] Hungarian Helsinki Committee (n 4) 5

[11] European Commission, Commission Opens Infringement Procedure Against Hungary Concerning its Asylum Law, Press Release IP/15/6228 (10 December 2015)

[12] Chris Morris, ‘Migrant Crisis: Hungary Challenges EU Quota Plan in Court’ (BBC Europe, 3 December 2015)

[13] European Commission, ‘Member States’ Support to Emergency Relocation Mechanism’ (9 September 2016)

[14] ‘Member States’ Support to Emergency Relocation Mechanism’

[15] The Budapest Beacon, ‘Orbán Warns of “Internationalist” Attacks on Hungary’ (The Budapest Beacon, 15 March 2016)

[16] Gábor Czene, ‘Csak az Szavaz Úgy, Ahogy Orbánnak Tetszik, Aki Rá Van Kényszerítve’ (, 8 September 2016)

[17] Publicus Research, ‘Kvótanépszavazás: Növekvő Idegenellenesség, Változatlan Részvételi Szándék’ (Publicus Research, 3 September 2016) 

[18] Zsolt Balla, ‘UNHCR Concerned Hungary Pushing Asylum Seekers Back to Serbia’(UNHCR, 15 July 2016)

[19] Publicus Research (n 17)

[20] Publicus Research (n 17)

[21] Publicus Research (n 17)


Salomé Guibreteau
Salomé is a recent Human Rights graduate from the Central European University in Budapest, Hungary. She also holds a European Studies degree from The Hague University of Applied Sciences, in the Netherlands. Salomé has spent time volunteering with ADRA Lebanon on a project for Syrian children refugees, and helping asylum seekers arriving at Hungarian train station in 2015. These experiences add a personal dimension to her interest in migration issues. Salomé is interested in international labour migration and is currently researching on the rights of migrant domestic workers.

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