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Eastern Europe Needs a New Immigration Narrative

Central and Eastern European political leaders have long taken a “tough on migration” stance. But because the region needs more foreign workers, they must now make a positive case for immigration – publicly and repeatedly – to convince their voters that all will gain from the economic benefits newcomers generate.

BRATISLAVA – Central and Eastern European (CEE) governments have long prided themselves on their tough migration policies. Over the past decades, many of the region’s political leaders have focused their efforts on curbing the flow of migrants and asylum seekers, contending that an influx of third-country nationals would undermine social stability, threaten cultural cohesion, and even pose a security risk.

For example, in 2015, at the height of the European Union’s migration crisis, the four Visegrád (V4) countries (the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia) vehemently opposed the bloc’s refugee-quota system, which aimed to share the burden by allocating a certain number of asylum seekers to each EU country based on population, GDP, and other factors. Hungary and Slovakia were among the most vocal critics of the plan, arguing that mandatory quotas were an attack on national sovereignty.

To be sure, CEE countries – most notably, Poland and the Czech Republic – welcomed millions of Ukrainians driven out of their homes by the Russian invasion in 2022. But despite this generosity, V4 leaders have continued to take a tough line on migration. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán – a self-declared champion of Europe’s Christian values – promotes a vision of a homogeneous Hungarian society. Hungary granted refugee status to only ten individuals in 2022, earning a rebuke from the EU’s top court. In Slovakia, Prime Minister Robert Fico’s left-populist Smer-Social Democracy party won last year’s election by exploiting resentment against Ukrainian refugees. And the region recently stepped up efforts to stop illegal immigration through the Balkans by introducing stricter controls and deploying security forces to patrol borders.