BUDAPEST: Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban does not believe immigration is a useful tool for combating population decline.
"The only solution to population decline is for the state to help families, to support family formation," the right-wing leader said at the opening of a two-day "demographic summit" in Budapest on Thursday. "In our country, migration is a question of identity."
Orban has sealed off his country from refugees and migrants with metal fences, and almost no one can apply for asylum in Hungary.
Other speakers at the conference include ex-US vice president Mike Pence, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic and the prime ministers of the Czech Republic and Slovenia, Andrej Babis and Janez Jansa.
Marion Marechal, the niece of French right-wing populist and presidential candidate Marine Le Pen, is also attending.
Also scheduled to speak were several academics who have in the past appeared to deny women's equality and the crime of marital abuse.
Women's rights groups demonstrated outside the summit venue at Buda Castle.
Central European leaders also signed a joint declaration saying immigration should not be the answer to the European Union's declining birth rate, while calling on the bloc to keep family policy under national jurisdiction.
The strong anti-immigrant stances taken by governments in central European countries such as Hungary - while popular with many domestic voters - have contrasted sharply with policies in the rest of the bloc.
These central European countries have also objected to EU criticism of their policies on social issues.
"Increasing the number of European children is essential to preserving Europe's culture and other traditions for future generations," said the statement, signed by the prime ministers of Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovenia and the president of Serbia, which is not an EU member.
"Migration should not be seen as the main tool to tackle demographic challenges."
Orban, facing the prospect of a closely-fought election next year, has grown increasingly radical on social policy to protect what he says are traditional Christian values from Western liberalism. He has also stepped up his anti-immigration campaign in recent weeks following the Taliban takeover of power in Afghanistan.
Orban, who views immigration to Europe as a threat to the continent's cultural identity, visited a steel fence on the EU's border with Serbia on Wednesday with his Czech counterpart, Andrej Babis.
Babis is also facing an election in two weeks and like Orban, he is campaigning on a strongly anti-migrant platform.
The European Union's birth rate has been decreasing since 2000, Eurostat figures show, with 1.53 live births per woman in 2019, well below the 2.1 mark considered sufficient to prevent a decline in population numbers.
"The only sustainable solution against the extinction of Europe is to increase the birth rate," Babis told the Budapest Demographic Summit, where the central European leaders issued their joint statement.
As central European economies rebound from the pandemic, companies in the region are struggling to find workers as labour markets are tightening up. -- dpa/Reuters