Balazs Koranyi, Reuters, September 23, 2015
Built in a matter of weeks by soldiers, prison laborers and cadres of the unemployed, a vast new wall along Balkan frontiers is a monument to the ruthless efficiency with which Prime Minister Viktor Orban has mobilized Hungary against migrants.
Orban describes the arrival of hundreds of thousands of refugees and other migrants in Europe this year from Asia, Africa and the Middle East as an attack on the continent’s Christian welfare model.
While Europe dithered over a collective response, Hungary took matters into its own hands, shutting off the route with a new fence along its entire 175 km (110 mile) border with Serbia, topped with razor wire and guarded by helmeted riot police.
It was erected at a cost of 22 billion forints (about $80 million), a rare example of efficiency in a country which built its last underground metro line ten years behind schedule at triple the projected cost.
The government says it put the military in charge of the construction so that it could act more quickly. By swiftly mobilizing state resources, the authorities also managed to turn the fence into a national project, immensely popular at home even as it is denounced by European partners.
In just days since it shut the Serbian frontier, Hungary has already moved even faster to shut the border with Croatia, which is inside the European Union but outside the Schengen zone.
A 41-kilometre temporary fence was thrown up within four days. Work is already underway on a permanent barrier, with machines clearing the land, fence posts driven into the ground and razor wire rolled out.
The military initially called in private contractors, but after Orban forced out his defense minister over the slow pace of work, soldiers swiftly took over most of the project.
Parts of the fence have been made by firms using prison labor. Convicts receive a small portion of the wages paid for their work; the rest goes to cover prison costs.
Inmates from a prison on the outskirts of Dunaujvaros, Hungary’s top steelmaking town, make up about a third of the 500-strong workforce at DAK Acelszerkezeti Kft., which worked on steel fence posts. Managing Director Gabor Tarany said his company did not care about politics; an order is an order.
The state has also mobilized unemployed people who collect government benefits through a public works program.
“Public works people have an obligation to work, otherwise they could lose their benefits,” said Marta Varga, a spokeswoman for the Csongrad county government offices. They have been paid at a monthly wage of around $220 for work on the fence, around half Hungary’s minimum wage. She said no one had refused.
After the fence went up last week and Hungarian riot police used tear gas and water cannon on stone-throwing migrants, Romania’s Prime Minister Victor Ponta even evoked the continent’s darkest era–the rise of the Nazis.
“Fences, dogs, cops and guns: this looks like Europe in the 1930s. And did we solve the refugee problem with this? No, we didn’t,” Ponta said. “Erecting a fence only throws the problem into Serbia, into Croatia, into Romania.”