A Hungarian mayor makes a show of "migrant-hunting"

The mayor of Ásotthalom and his militiamen. Screen capture from a video made by the mayor.
The mayor of Ásotthalom and his militiamen. Screen capture from a video made by the mayor.


In the small Hungarian town of Ásotthalom, migrants are regularly being photographed on their knees, hands on their heads, displayed like hunting trophies, with armed militiamen standing by. The mayor of the town is behind the hate-filled hunt for undocumented migrants. According to our Observer, this is just another example of the xenophobic, law-and-order policies in Hungary.

Beneath a photo published in June on the Facebook page of Toroczkai Laszlo, the mayor of Ásotthalom, a village of 5,000 on the Serbo-Hungarian border, the caption reads, "Violent invaders 0 – Citizen militia 1." The image shows three migrant men lying face-down on the ground, their hands bound behind their backs. In another photo, shared more than 300 times, a thickset man in camouflage poses in front of five young men, captured while illegally crossing the border.

Migrants on the ground, hands bound behind their backs. Photo published by the mayor on his Facebook page.

Despite a recent report by Human Rights Watch denouncing the violent atacks on migrants by police and militia in Hungary, Laszlo hasn't hesitated in broadcasting his guards' "exploits."

A rising star of the Hungarian far-right – he is vice-president of Jobbik, an openly xenophobic nationalist party –  last summer he launched an armed civilian patrol whose mission is to "capture" migrants near his village... This does not seem to bother local citizens, who are used to living behind barb wire since the Hungarian authorities decided in 2015 to erect a fence along the entire 175-kilometre border between Hungary and Serbia.

A guard poses with migrants. Photo published on Laszlo's Facebook page. Blurred by France 24.

"He compares the refugees to invaders or future terrorists, and no one is shocked – it's the ambient discourse"

Our Observer Márk Zoltán Kékesi is a professor of sociology in Szeged, just a few kilometres from Ásotthalom. With the Hungarian citizens' collective Migzsol, he helps refugees who are stuck at the Serbo-Hungarian border. He's worried about Laszlo's militia and the mayor's popularity.

Originally, this militia was supposed to be the equivalent of village policemen, responsible for protecting the fields of the farmers in this border town... But I have spoken with a local farmer who told me there'd been no problems with theft or crime from the migrants, either in homes or in the fields.

In my opinion, this militia is above all else about the mayor portraying a certain image. For instance, he never goes anywhere without his militiamen...

As you can see on Facebook, he likes showing that he's protecting his village. In his posts, the vocabulary he uses is revealing. He never speaks of 'migrants' or 'refugees.' He prefers to call them 'invaders,' and future terrorists. Of course, no one is shocked by this – it's the ambient discourse here, especially among politicians. [Editor's note: In July, for instance, the Hungarian Prime Minister, Victor Orbán, compared immigration to a "poison."]

Three migrants stopped by guards in Ásotthalom. Photo published on Laszlo's Facebook page. Blurred by France 24.


"Migrants report being attacked at the border"

What's worrying is that he's started a sort of fad. More and more groups are forming to 'hunt' migrants at the Serbian border. The idea of 'self-defence,' of taking up arms ‘against the invaders,' is spreading, even if we're still talking about a fairly small number of people.

Ásotthalom's patrol is legal with regards to Hungarian law, and the men have the right to carry guns so long as they don't fire them. The mayor is in total control of all the militia's communications, so it's hard to know too much about it – what it does with migrants after capturing them, for instance. We get reports from migrants attacked at the border, but we don't know who's behind these incidents. For the refugees, militiamen and uniformed police look alike, and this creates an even more confused atmosphere.

"There's a fascination for his personality"

For us, the humanitarian workers, it's impossible to work in this village. We're not welcome there. The inhabitants don’t seem to care. On the contrary, the mayor is very popular. I think there's a fascination for his personality. He ended up in Ásotthalom a bit randomly. Although he was born in the region, he started his political career in Budapest. Then he made this village his political showcase. He's cultivating this image of a young man, surrounded by henchmen, who's defending the border."

By last September, Laszlo had already become a subject of debate, having published a surreal YouTube video in which he warned off migrants while images of police on motorcycles and horseback, in cars and even in helicopters played in the background, accompanied by an action-movie soundtrack. "Hungary is a bad choice, Ásotthalom is the worst," he said. He's also known for having founded the HVIM, the "Sixty-Four Counties Youth Movement," a group that is nostalgic for the era of Greater Hungary – the territory of Hungary before World War I, which included parts or Romania, Croatia, and Serbia – and which marches alongside neo-Nazis.

Laszlo did not respond to FRANCE 24's requests for comment on the matter of his militia.

A video made in September 2015.

Hungary has continued to harden its policies toward migrants, which are among Europe's harshest. After raising kilometres of barb wire fence along the Serbian border, and drawing routine criticism for police violence against migrants, the country put a new law into action at the start of July, authorising border guards to summarily send asylum-seekers and migrants back into Serbia. Human Rights Watch has noted major abuses against asylum-seekers in Hungary. Of 583 asylum requests in 2015, of which a majority came from Syrians, only 16 people were granted refugee status.