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Hungary Votes On EU Mandatory Refugee Referendum

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Hungarians are voting today on one single question - do they want the European Union to force them to accept refugees from the more than 1 million who've flooded into Europe? It's the third referendum this year by an EU member state seeking to strike down the EU's authority on refugees and other issues. Human rights advocates say the vote could empower the growing number of people who mistreat refugees in Hungary. NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson joins us from outside a polling station in the capital city, Budapest. Good morning, Soraya.

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: Tell us what the scene is where you are.

NELSON: I'm in Budapest's main business district, and we're in a park here across from this polling station where there's been a pretty steady turnout this morning for the second-ever referendum in this country about the EU. Basically, this referendum was called by Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who spent a reported $40 million on misleading billboards, mailed leaflets and letters to voters about the impact of migrants and refugees on this country. And the polls are suggesting that an overwhelming number of those who are going to come out today and vote are going to vote no against the EU. But despite the steady turnout that we're seeing here at this particular polling station, the state is reporting that only 16 percent of eligible voters have turned out this morning. So it doesn't seem that Orban is going to be getting the 50 percent needed to make this referendum valid.

MARTIN: What's the motivation for calling the referendum? I mean, you say the prime minister has spent a lot of money on these ads. Is this just politically the right thing for him to do?

NELSON: Yes, absolutely 'cause if we're talking about a referendum that isn't valid and we're talking about a question that isn't really even valid - I mean, the European Union hasn't mandated any quotas or said that they're going to resettle people here. And in fact, most of the people, the 160,000 refugees that member states had agreed to take in last year, haven't even been moved yet.

But the thing is Prime Minister Orban says that Hungary needs to be protected from Muslims, from terrorists, and that Brussels needs to be kept in line, that they shouldn't be bossing Hungary around. But as you mentioned, this is definitely a political ploy. And when you talk to political analysts or even opponents here, they say that this is basically an informal kickoff to the Fidesz party, and that's the party that the prime minister belongs to. You know, they're a kickoff, basically, for the campaign so that they can maintain an absolute majority in the next parliamentary elections 18 months from now.

MARTIN: Just briefly, Soraya, what's been happening with asylum-seekers in Hungary compared to last summer? We all remember those pictures of those hundreds of thousands of migrants pouring across that southern border.

NELSON: Well, since then, fences have gone up along the Serbian border, and so most of these migrants and refugees are being kept out. Those that do come in illegally are hunted down. They're prosecuted. They're violently ejected in some cases. And so they're - these migrants are stuck in horribly poor conditions at the border, unable to come in. And so it's not a really good situation for them. And in fact, there is talk about building a second fence along the Serbian border because the prime minister claims it's needed not just to keep people out but to also create, like, a holding area, if you will, for the thousands of migrants who are trying to come in. And they have prisoners in one prison actually working extra shifts to prepare razor wire for the fence while the police are recruiting 3,000 new unofficial border hunters, as they're being called.

MARTIN: NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson from Budapest, Hungary. Thanks so much, Soraya.

NELSON: You're welcome, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.