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Hungary votes on EU refugee quotas referendum

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Hungarians on Sunday began voting on a referendum over European Union plans to relocate refugees and migrants among member states.

The right-wing government of Prime Minister Viktor Orban has fiercely opposed the EU plan, which seeks to share 160,000 asylum seekers around the 28-member bloc via mandatory quotas.

Under the scheme, Hungary would receive less than 1,300 people, but it has not accepted a single person allocated so far.

In the run-up to the vote, opinion polls showed vast support for a rejection of the EU proposal among those who said they would vote. They also suggested, however, that turnout might not necessarily top the 50 percent required for the poll to be valid.

In an opinion piece published on Saturday, Orban said Hungarians had “a duty” to help his government fight the failed “liberal methods” of the “Brussels elite”.

“Mass migration without control means a real threat. It endangers the peaceful and safe European way of life,” he wrote in the Magyar Idok newspaper.

Voting begins at 04:00 GMT and closes at 17:00 GMT. Preliminary results are expected after 18:00 GMT.

The question put to Hungarians is: “Do you want the European Union to be able to mandate the obligatory resettlement of non-Hungarian citizens into Hungary even without the approval of the National Assembly?”

Al Jazeera’s Laurence Lee, reporting from the capital Budapest, said the referendum question was “designed” to elicit a “No” response.

“The whole framing of the referendum question is fairly loaded,” our correspondent said. “Clearly, if the question had been. ‘should Hungary participate in the EU quota scheme’, it would had been a straighter question and it might had got a different answer.”

Xenophobia boost

The deal in question, spearheaded by Germany and approved by most EU countries last year, is aimed at easing pressure on Greece and Italy, the main refugee entry points into the bloc for hundreds of thousands of refugees mostly fleeing war in Syria.

But some eastern and central European nations have vehemently opposed to the plan, with Hungary joining Slovakia in filing a legal challenge against it.

About 400,000 migrants and refugees passed through Hungary in 2015 before the government sealed off the southern borders with razor wire and fences in the autumn.

The announcement of the referendum in July by Orban’s government has been followed by an increase in xenophobic feelings, according to polls.

In the run-up to the vote, the government led a huge media offensive urging the eight-million-strong electorate to reject the EU plan, drawing a direct link between migration and attacks in EU countries.

“They’ve tried very hard and spent many millions promoting the campaign,” Al Jazeera’s Lee said.

“There are billboards all over Budapest and elsewhere which read, ‘Take No Chances, Vote No’ to the quota system, and that itself has a heavy implication because ‘Take No Chances’ implies that any refugee could be a terrorist, and that’s certainly the view that Orban has.”

A survey conducted in August by the Publicus Institute for the Vasarnapi Hirek newspaper found 35 percent of the 1,000 people asked said it was obligatory to help refugees, down from 64 percent in September 2015.

Government critics say Hungary has been heavy-handed in its answer to the refugee crisis. Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn said Hungary should be expelled from the bloc for breaching European values, including erecting a razor-wire fence along its border with Serbia.

[Source: Al Jazeera]
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