top of page

Fortress Hungary has a surprising answer to its population crisis: Migration

Quietly and without much fanfare, Viktor Orbán’s government is allowing more and more guest workers into the country.

By Carlo Martuscelli

June 27, 2024

Credits @FFHR.CZ

This article is part of the Hungarian presidency of the EU special report.

It was in February of this year that deep-blue billboards emblazoned with loud white lettering began to spring up across Hungary. 

“99 percent of people are against migrant ghettos,” read the signs. In smaller font at the bottom they defiantly proclaimed their opposition to diktats from Brussels. 

The placards were the result of periodic “national consultations” held by Viktor Orbán’s right-wing government. While more exercises in political messaging than genuine census-taking, they were true indications of the government line. And, even though Orbán’s ruling Fidesz party took a bruising in the European election, it’s a message that — judging by his long-term electoral record — resonates with the Hungarian people. 

The nationalist leader has fought hard against proposals to distribute asylum-seekers throughout the European Union. He has attacked leaders who opened their doors to refugees displaced by the civil war in Syria. 

“Hungary does not need a single migrant for the economy to work, or the population to sustain itself, or for the country to have a future,” Orbán said at the height of the Syrian refugee crisis back in 2016.

In his world view, populations in the West are under threat from mass migration promoted by international elites, and from declining domestic birth rates, said Zsuzsanna Szelényi, program director at the Central European University Democracy Institute, a Budapest-based nonprofit.      

“The migration and the demography issue are actually the two sides of the same thing,” said Szelényi, who was previously a lawmaker in the Hungarian parliament, first representing Fidesz and then the liberal opposition.

Hungary is about to take over the six-month rotating presidency of the Council of the EU, and it’s added demography to the agenda. It’s an issue that has long interested Budapest. In 2015 it organized the first demographic summit — a gathering of right-wing intellectuals, politicians and population scientists. Canadian conservative superstar Jordan Peterson even attended last year’s edition of the event. 

But despite the rhetoric, as well as the government’s best efforts, the Hungarian population is set to decline, with couples not having enough children to keep it stable. Emigration by Hungarians to the rest of the EU is making matters worse. And high rates of employment in the manufacturing-based economy are causing occasional labor shortages. 

The government has therefore chosen to put pragmatism above its immigration-skeptic ideology. And it’s quietly recruiting people from abroad to fill the gaps. 

Natal nationalism 

There are historical reasons that make population stability particularly resonant in Hungary. Linguistically the country is something of an oddity. Surrounded by a sea of Slavic, Germanic and Latin languages, Hungarians speak a non-European tongue, making identity particularly felt. And though hardly unique in this, Hungary itself saw its borders shrink substantially in the aftermath of World War I — an issue that still chafes

Szelényi said people were receptive to the government’s message on boosting birth rates: “This is the kind of positive side of the Orbán narrative, because family is a very positive notion in every person’s mind.” 

It’s not just empty words. After a baby bust following the 2008 financial crisis sent Hungary to the bottom of the European fertility tables, the government launched a sustained effort to encourage family formation. There are progressive tax breaks for each additional child, and mothers who have four children are totally tax exempt. There are subsidies for parents buying a home. And there are even state-run fertility clinics

It yielded results, at least initially. The total fertility rate — a measure of the number of births per woman — crept back up, reaching 1.6 in 2021 after hitting a low of  1.2 in 2011.

But fertility has since stalled. And the most recent reading, from 2023, shows a drop from the year before. 

Csaba Tóth, a demographer and economist from the HUN-REN Centre for Economic and Regional Studies, said that such interventions have a definite, statistically significant, but ultimately small, impact. 

“If a society gets used to having one or two children, it’s very difficult to increase that,” he said, adding that demography may just be something governments don’t have much control over.

There are other confounding factors that help to explain Hungary’s post-financial crisis recovery. The increase in the birth rate tracked with other countries in the region. And a shift toward women having babies later meant that there was a temporary depression in births, followed by a bump.

Ultimately, there might still be other good reasons for pro-family policies, said Tóth. Financial assistance can build cohesion, and make raising children less stressful. But as a strategy for upping birth rates it can only get you so far.

New faces 

Under its baseline forecast the HUN-REN Centre expects the Hungarian population to fall to 8.5 million by 2050 from 9.6 million now. Even in the best case, borderline possible, scenario, where the fertility rate hits 1.85, the population would fall to 8.8 million. 

Meanwhile, the economy is already dealing with a tight labor market. Even after emerging from the difficult pandemic period, the unemployment rate is only 4.5 percent.

Therefore, the government is looking abroad to make sure there are at least enough people to supply its factories. Just recently, it passed a law allowing guest workers from 15 non-EU countries to stay in the country for up to three years. These include Mongolia, Vietnam, Brazil, Kazakhstan, the Philippines, Venezuela and Colombia.

The relaxation comes as new investment from China sweeps into the country, mainly to set up electric vehicle and battery factories that will need staffing.

There are some 400,000 foreigners living in Hungary already. A little more than half of those are non-EU nationals.

“In the past, the proportion of migrants in the total population was around 2 percent,” said Vivien Vadasi, legal adviser to Menedék, an NGO that helps migrants integrate into Hungarian society. That’s doubled to about 4 percent. “It’s quite a dramatic increase,” she added.

Vadasi explained that, excluding the recent influx from Ukraine, Hungary takes in practically no refugees. The majority of migrants enter the country through employment agencies. They apply for residence in their home country and are then set up with employers in Hungary. 

Despite the recent arrivals, the government hasn’t rolled out any kind of concerted integration strategy, the legal expert added. “We see some initiatives on the municipal level, but there is no central government policy,” she explained. 

There are other ways that foreigners arrive. In 2014, Hungary launched a golden visa scheme, which was temporarily discontinued in 2017, only to be recently brought back. The all-in price is modest: a €250,000 investment in a real estate fund, or a property purchase worth at least €500,000, are enough to secure permanent residency. 

Pál Nyíri, a professor at the Corvinus University of Budapest’s Institute of Global Studies, said the previous iteration of the program had gained traction with middle class people from China. 

“They want to leave China, mostly for lifestyle reasons,” said Nyíri, who studies the mobility of Chinese elites. “They are not happy with Chinese society, the environment, the competition, the rat race, and often they don’t want to bring up their children in that environment.”

Nyíri said that he’s noticed that the complexion of Budapest has changed markedly during Orbán’s rule: “It is actually a very multicultural city, and much more so than 10 years ago.” 

On a recent visit one detail that would go unnoticed in any other Western European city caught his eye: A bank poster advertising a new financial product that featured a picture of a Hungarian-looking man with an Asian woman.

“That’s kind of revolutionary in Hungary,” he said. “The bank thinks that Hungary is now a society where this could be attractive.” 

All of this isn’t to say that the government has had a complete change of heart. 

Visas for guest workers are time limited. Only a handful of countries are eligible, none of them in Africa or the Middle East. And arrivals are restricted to 65,000 a year. There is also no possibility for family reunion: the practice that allows spouses and children to join the guest worker in the new country. 

The arrivals have, meanwhile, already started to create tensions among local residents. Local government officials in the city of Debrecen, in the east, have promised guest workers will only be housed in dormitories in industrial zones, away from residential neighborhoods.

“This is the framework of how the government is avoiding the mistakes of other countries,” said Viktor Marsai, who heads the conservative Migration Research Institute. Germany and Austria, for example, trialed migrant worker schemes in the 1960s and 1970s, bringing in Gastarbeiter from countries like Turkey. Many never went home, ending up building families in their host country.

This is something Budapest wants to avoid, explained Marsai.

But theory is one thing, and practice is another. As long as more foreigners come into Hungary, some are bound to put down roots.

“We cannot just keep tens of thousands, or hundreds of thousands of people in a completely different, separate world. And I think that is going to be a problem at some point,” said Szelényi, of the Central European University Democracy Institute.



bottom of page