George Soros, the 87-year-old billionaire has lately become a hate figure on the right for his perceived plan to “flood the EU with migrants”. A Jewish financier who stands for internationalism and liberal migration policies he seems to have stepped out of central casting as the ideal hate figure for nationalists and antisemites in his native Hungary and beyond. But who is he really? And why has he attracted such vituperative attacks on him by the Hungarian government?
In 1947, at the age of 17, Soros fled communist Hungary, first for the UK, where he attended the London School of Economics, before moving to the United States where he earned his billions on Wall Street. It was during the crisis of 1992 that Soros first attracted negative headlines for speculating on the decline of the pound sterling, greatly increasing his wealth while pushing the Bank of England to the verge of bankruptcy.
But he has also made a name for himself as a leading philanthropist establishing some 20 foundations that have disbursed around $12 billion to 70 developing countries. He also recently transferred the bulk of his wealth ($18 billion) to the Open Society Foundations, a network of charities, partners, and projects working in over 100 countries on issues ranging from education to health policies, to accountable government. Some of these foundations were active in supporting former Soviet bloc countries in their transition to democracy. Among those who benefited was a young Viktor Orbán whose scholarship to study at Oxford University was paid for by the Soros foundation.
Recently he has come under fire from the Right for his involvement in politics, including his support for Hillary Clinton against Donald Trump, and for the position he has taken on the issue of migration. In September 2015, he presented his proposals for rebuilding the EU’s asylum system, a move which put him firmly in the crosshairs of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán who has taken a hardline anti-migrant stance.
Now, Soros’s face adorns billboards in Hungary accusing the Jewish billionaire of encouraging and funding the entry of millions of migrants into Europe. The government’s anti-Soros campaign began last year and was accompanied by a national consultation on immigration which involved posting a questionnaire to 8 million voters asking whether they support Soros’s plan to “to push the languages and cultures of Europe into the background so that integration of illegal immigrants happens much more quickly?
So what has George Soros had to say about all of this? In November, his Open Society Foundation hit back against the “distortions and outright lies” propagated against him by Orban’s government. Refuting some of the main allegations levelled against Soros, his foundation said that while he has proposed admitting 300,000 refugees into the EU annually (far from the 1 million “at least” claimed by Orban) he has said that this should be accompanied by the strengthening of European border controls. He also said that migrant relocations within the bloc should be voluntary, not mandatory as Budapest claims he said.
As for the other allegations made against Soros: that he wants milder criminal sentences for migrants; that he wants to push national cultures and languages into the background to facilitate easier integration of migrants; and that he wants sanctions against countries that oppose migration, the Open Society has said, “Nowhere has Soros made any such statement(s). This is a lie.
Moreover the Society has a theory as to why Budapest has invested so much time and taxpayer money into its vilifying George Soros. “With Hungary’s health care and education systems in distress and corruption rife, the current government has sought to create an outside enemy to distract citizens. The government selected George Soros for this purpose”
Indeed Hungary has seen a decline in its corruption rating, with the most recent report from Transparency International giving the country a score of 48 out of 100, down from 55 in 2012. Deeply embedded corruption in Hungary’s hospitals has contributed to the country’s healthcare system coming out near the bottom in European league tables. All the Meanwhile more than 600,000 young people have left the country in recent years, out of a population of less than 10 million, many of whom are trained doctors and hospital staff whose loss is further exacerbating the situation. With all of this in mind, Soros presents a dream opportunity to divert people’s attention from these problems. Viktor Orban has apparently strategised that the best way to deflect the electorate’s discontent was by inventing a public enemy to draw the fire away from his government’s failings. With elections due in a few months and the opposition divided, it looks like it could just be a winning strategy.