In summer 2015, more than 390,000 asylum seekers, mostly Muslim, crossed the Serbian-Hungarian border and descended on the Keleti railway station in Budapest. For Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and his Fidesz party, the arrival of these asylum seekers was not a humanitarian issue but a Muslim invasion threatening the national security, social cohesion, and Christian identity of the Hungarian nation. In the four years since this episode, the fear of the “other” has resulted in a string of anti-immigrant actions and policies.
For example, barbed wire fences were constructed to deter asylum seekers from entering Hungarian territory. Transit zones on the same Serbian-Hungarian border followed, and since the end of March 2017, anyone applying for asylum in Hungary can only do so from a transit zone and is detained there for the duration of the asylum procedure. Conditions there have been grim. The Hungarian Helsinki Committee (HHC) contends rejected asylum seekers inside the transit zones are denied food, to the point of starvation.
Furthermore, the Orbán government is fighting anti-immigrant battles not just at the border, but also in Brussels. Under the EU burden-sharing scheme, Hungary was supposed to accept 1,294 refugees. However, the prime minister said that while Hungarians have “no problems” with the local Muslim community, any EU plan to relocate asylum seekers, including many Muslims, would destroy Hungary’s Christian identity and culture. In his attempt to quash admissions, Orbán signaled that his party may split with Europe’s main conservative group and join an anti-immigrant, nationalist bloc in the EU Parliament led by Italy’s Matteo Salvini. Finally, Hungary’s latest anti-immigrant law criminalizes assistance to unauthorized migrants by civil-society organizations and good Samaritans.
These anti-immigrant sentiments are relatively new. Given Hungary’s geopolitical location, immigration and emigration have been a reality since the birth of the country. At times, Hungary has been quite a multicultural society: for example, during the Habsburg Empire, Hungarians coexisted with Germans, Slavs, Italians, Romanians, and Jews originating in Germany, Poland, and Russia. Later, in the aftermath of World War II, significant population movements greatly modified the ethnic map of Eastern and Central Europe, and many ethnic Hungarians ended up in neighboring countries, some of whom would return later.
Yet, it is strange to write about multicultural Hungary in 2019. Despite population movements in the postwar and communist eras and significant refugee arrivals during the Yugoslav wars in the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s, the country has only recently been grappling with the arrival of migrants and asylum seekers from beyond Europe. Now several years out from the 2015-16 European migrant and refugee crisis, the Orbán administration continues to pursue policies to limit humanitarian and other arrivals from beyond Europe, while welcoming those of Hungarian ancestry. Hungarian civil society has attempted to provide reception services for newcomers, even as the number of asylum seekers and refugees has dwindled: just 671 asylum seekers and 68 refugees were present in Hungary in 2018, down from 177,135 and 146, respectively, in 2015.
This article examines historical and contemporary migration in Hungary, from its multicultural past to recent attempts to criminalize migration and activities of those who aim to help migrants and asylum seekers.
Immigrants and Their Reception in Historic Hungary
In the 11th century, the Carpathian Basin saw both organized settlement of certain peoples and a roaming population, which was in reaction to certain institutional changes in the medieval Hungarian kingdom. Historians note that newcomers came to historic Hungary searching for a better life: first across the entire Carpathian Basin and later in the Danube Valley. In the 12th century, Hungarian King Géza II invited Saxons to settle in Transylvania and later, when the Teutonic Knights were expelled from Burzenland (in modern-day Romania), they were welcomed in Brasov. The aftermath of the Tartar invasion in 1241 was followed by settlement of immigrants from Slovakia, Poland, and Russia. Ethnic minority groups fleeing Bulgaria settled between the Duna and Tisza rivers, while Romanians found new homes in Transylvania. King Bela IV erected new cities populated predominantly by German, Italian, and Jewish immigrants hailing from Central Europe and Germany.
The 15th century saw a large settlement of Southern Slavs. The desertification of Transdanubia (the part of Hungary west of the Danube River) was remedied with a settlement of Croats and large groups of Serbians. When the medieval Kingdom of Hungary fell to the Ottoman Empire in 1526, some of the Southern Slavs moved to the parts under the Ottoman occupation voluntarily, while those who participated in the conquest were dispatched by the Ottoman rulers. At the same time, large number of ethnic Hungarians fled north and settled in the area of contemporary Slovakia.
The next large group, of Germans, arrived in the 18th century during the Habsburg dynasty. The German settlement was part of the Habsburg population policy aimed at filling the void left by the Hungarians who perished during Ottoman rule, especially in the southern territories, around Baranya County and the Banat region. Germans also settled in Pest, Vecees, Buda, Esztergom, and the Pilis Mountains. By 1790, an estimated 70,000 ethnic Germans lived in Southern Hungary.
While German immigrants were largely welcomed in 18th century Hungary, the same cannot be said about Romanians. During the reign of Empress Maria Theresa, Hungarian nobility voiced serious concerns about the rapid increase of the Romanian population. The nobles thought Romanians would ruin Transylvania.
The Habsburg administration did not want to repeat the mistakes of the Ottomans and decided to control population movement along the Serbian border. A census conducted in the 13 villages of the Tisza region and 24 villages along the Maros river identified 8,000 border guards on duty. Despite these precautions, large-scale emigration from Serbia continued during the Habsburg era, with approximately 4,000 people crossing over to Hungary.
Jews were the largest immigrant group in Hungary in the 19th century. Some came from the western territories of the Habsburg Empire—Germany, Bohemia, and Moravia—while others fled persecution in Russia. The arrival of Jews to the Hungarian territory was viewed favorably by Emperor Franz Josef I and Hungarian liberal politicians. Well-heeled Jewish families acquired noble status and rose in the aristocratic ranks, and many became patrons of the arts. At the beginning of World War I, an estimated 1 million Jews lived within the boundaries of what is present-day Hungary. However, the early appreciation of the contributions of the Jewish people did not last. Anti-Semitic sentiments flared up, culminating in the notorious Tiszaeszlár affair, in which Jews were accused of kidnapping and murdering Christian children in order to use their blood as part of religious rituals. Later, the violent repression known as the White Terror (1919-21) victimized many Jews, who were blamed by the right-wing camp for the severe sanctions placed on Hungary under the Treaty of Trianon in the aftermath of World War I.
Refugees During and After World War II
During World War II, Hungary was well disposed towards refugees, especially from Poland. Prime Minister Pál Teleki gave refugee status to some 70,000 Polish soldiers and nearly 40,000 civilians when Hitler invaded Poland. Ninety-one refugee camps for military personnel and 88 camps for civilians were established. A joint effort by Hungarian and international aid organizations and the Red Cross resulted in the establishment of the Committee for Hungarian-Polish Refugee Affairs. As the war escalated, most Polish officers and soldiers departed Hungary to join the Polish Home Army fighting Germany alongside Britain and France. In late 1940, a group of French refugees arrived in Hungary. By 1942, there were 600 French refugees in the country.
The immediate post-WWII period—with its ensuing peace treaties, evictions, and forced settlements—resulted in considerable population movements, significantly modifying the ethnic map in Eastern and Central Europe. Some 200,000 ethnic Germans were evicted from Hungary, and 73,000 Slovaks left as part of what was described as a “population exchange.” Judit Juhász estimated that in the three years following the end of the war more than 100,000 people left Hungary. At the same time, 113,000 ethnic Hungarians were resettled in Hungary from Czechoslovakia, 125,000 from Transylvania, 45,500 from Yugoslavia, and 25,000 from the Soviet Union. Technically, ethnic Hungarians coming to Hungary were not considered migrants, but rather returning citizens.
When the communist regime took over in 1947, the borders were closed and the government prohibited migration. Illegal departure from the country and failure to return from abroad became a crime. The borders opened briefly in 1956 when nearly 200,000 people fled Hungary during the uprising against the communist government. Most went to nearby Austria, but 38,000—mainly students and scientists—were airlifted to the United States, in a mobilization sponsored by the U.S. government and National Academy of Sciences. Their integration into American society was relatively easy due to their young age and high educational attainment. The Hungarian government tried to encourage the refugees to return by offering them amnesty, but only about 147 decided to return to Hungary from the United States.
Migration in the Post-Socialist Period
Although Hungary allowed some refugees to settle in its territory—Greeks after World War II, Chileans after the fall of the Allende government, and Kurds during the Iran-Iraq war—the country did not witness a large number of asylum seekers until the late 1980s, just months before the fall of communism in Hungary in 1989. Starting in mid-1987, ethnic Hungarians, discriminated by the Ceausescu regime, fled Romania to seek refuge in Hungary. By the beginning of 1988, some 40,000 Romanian citizens, primarily of Hungarian ancestry, arrived. By the fall of the same year, the number doubled, an exodus the author witnessed firsthand.
For the most part, the central government left the responsibility for assisting refugees to private and municipal authorities. The Hungarian Red Cross opened a special information bureau in Budapest and mounted a national relief appeal called Help to Help. Twelve million forints (the equivalent of approximately US $250,000 at the time) were raised, including 1 million from foreign donations. Assistance programs were established in Budapest and in Debrecen, a town on the border with Romania, where most of the refugees came first. Local Red Cross chapters, municipal and county agencies, and local churches—especially the Hungarian Reformed Church—were also involved in the relief program. The assistance included cash grants, job placements, and Hungarian language training for ethnic Romanians. Clothing, blankets, dishes, and utensils were also provided. When the author visited Debrecen in 1988, most refugees were kept in school dormitories as housing in socialist Hungary was scarce.
At the time, there was no formal procedure to separate refugees from other migrants. Many of the service providers interviewed by the author indicated that ethnic Hungarians and Baptist Romanians were persecuted and therefore were bona fide refugees, while all others were fleeing because of deteriorating economic conditions. The majority fleeing Romania were skilled workers and professionals. Very few ethnic Hungarian peasants from Transylvania migrated to Hungary, and neither did the cultural leaders of the Hungarian community in Romania. Additionally, the sudden arrival of asylum seekers and migrants from Romania was followed by a considerable return of ethnic Hungarians and ethnic Romanians to Romania.
Refugees from the Yugoslav Wars
In the summer of 1991, war broke out on Hungary’s southern border between Croatia and Serbia. Hungarian border guards faced large groups of civilians fleeing the fighting. Most were from the Baranyi triangle, an area of Croatia near Vukovar. More than 400,000 refugees fled to countries outside the former Yugoslavia’s borders. Germany admitted the largest number, 200,000, followed by Hungary, with 60,000. However, by late 1994 the refugee population registered in Hungary had dwindled to fewer than 8,000 people. The situation changed in 1995. New ethnic cleansing and renewed combat in Bosnia sent more refugees to Hungary in the spring and summer of 1995, and the Hungarian government reopened a refugee camp that had been long closed.
The total number of refugees registered in Hungary between 1988 and 1995 reached more than 130,000 people and transformed the country from a refugee-producing country to a refugee-receiving country. However, up until the 2015-16 European refugee and migrant crisis, 75 percent of immigrants and refugees who entered the country post-1988 were ethnic Hungarians. This phenomenon has significantly influenced the development of Hungarian refugee law and policy.
Refugee and Asylum Law since 1989
The 1951 Geneva Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees constitutes the foundation of Hungarian refugee law. Hungary became a party to the Refugee Convention in early 1989—the first East bloc country to do so—and it also ratified the 1967 Protocol. Although its accession to the Refugee Convention signaled that Hungary was willing to accept the international definition of refugee, Hungary conditioned its ratification on a narrow definition of those who qualify as refugees, recognizing only those who fear persecution in Europe. According to Maryellen Fullerton, “known as the geographic reservation, this provision allows Hungary to limit its obligations under the Convention to a small (and totally European) subset of all the refugees in the world.”
Refugees who came to Hungary in the late 1980s and in the 1990s entered a country “with an undeveloped refugee policy and a patchwork of legislation and government decrees concerning refugees and migrants,” according to Fullerton. Legal scholars indicate that the government’s attempt to establish a modern refugee system was affected by a powerful preference for protecting refugees of Hungarian ancestry. This preference has permeated both existing law and the administration of the refugee system, resulting in a de facto law of return. While there is nothing intrinsically wrong with wanting to protect fellow co-ethnics—many countries, including Israel, Germany, France, and Poland, among others, have similar laws—what seems objectionable is the desire to accomplish this goal by misusing the refugee process. Ethnic Hungarians who entered Hungary seeking refuge were not only channeled into the refugee system but were also eligible for Hungarian citizenship within one year, and all the rights that citizenship accords, while others who needed refuge were mainly provided temporary protection status. They received food, shelter, and other necessities, although in recent years these too are becoming scarce, but they lacked any substantial legal protection.
Since joining the European Union in 2004, Hungary has broadly transposed the relevant EU asylum-related directives into national legislation. In June 2007, the Law on Asylum was adopted and the Office of Immigration and Nationality became responsible for asylum and statelessness determination procedures, the provision of reception services, and (very) limited integration services to asylum seekers and refugees, respectively. Three years later, in December 2010, amendments to the legislation relevant to asylum seekers and refugees were enacted. The maximum length of administrative detention from six to 12 months and the detention of up to 30 days of families with children were introduced. While the minimum standards of refugee protection were implemented—at least on paper in the early 2000s—xenophobic attitudes towards refugees, especially Muslims, are on the rise and the protection for asylum seekers and refugees is virtually nonexistent. At the same time, support for ethnic Hungarian refugees such as those from Venezuela, is flourishing.
Weaponizing Xenophobia: No to Muslim Refugees
During the 2015-16 European migrant and refugee crisis, the European Union asked Hungary to find homes for 1,294 refugees. Rather than accepting the EU decision, the Hungarian government spent approximately 28 million euros on a xenophobic anti-immigrant campaign. The government called on voters to defend Christian values and Hungarian national identity in order to stop Hungary from becoming a breeding ground for terrorism. The fear that Muslim women will bear many children and the local population will be outnumbered, somehow diluted or “discolored” by Muslims and multiculturalism was palpable in pro-government media. By the end of 2015, a total of 391,384 refugees and asylum seekers entered Hungary through its southern border, most intent on transiting the country to get elsewhere in Europe. This means that the government spent around 70 euros per refugee on a campaign of intolerance, in a country where the monthly welfare check is around the same amount. Undoubtedly this amount could have been used more effectively either to provide transitional assistance to refugees or to facilitate integration of asylum seekers who wanted to settle in Hungary. Attracting migrants to stay would been in line with Fidesz’s strategic goal to stop the long-declining Hungarian birth rate and the aging of the Hungarian society.
Instead, Hungary decided to go a step further and in September 2015 amended its Criminal Code to make unauthorized crossing of the border closure (fence), damaging the border closure, and obstruction of the construction works related to the border closure punishable by three to ten years imprisonment. The Act on Criminal Proceedings was also amended with a new fast-track provision to bring the defendant to trial within 15 days after interrogation, or within eight days if caught in flagrante. With these new provisions, the Hungarian government declared a “state of crisis due to mass migration,” during which these criminal proceedings are conducted prior to all other cases. Between September 2015 and March 2016, 2,353 people were convicted of unauthorized border crossing. These people generally remained in immigration detention pending removal to Serbia, which Hungary deemed a safe country to which asylum seekers could return. HHC argued that Serbia could not be regarded as safe third country as it recognized virtually no asylum seekers. Applications for a stay of proceedings referring to the nonpenalization principle of the 1951 Convention were systematically dismissed on the grounds that “eligibility for international protection was not a relevant issue to criminal liability.” In order to gain the public’s support for criminalizing migration and rejecting the European Union’s request to admit a few hundred refugees, the Hungarian government organized a national referendum.
On October 2, 2016, the citizens of Hungary were asked a simple question: “Do you want the European Union to prescribe the mandatory settlement of non-Hungarian citizens in Hungary without the consent of the National Assembly?”
Voter turnout was only 39 percent, far short of the 50 percent participation required to make the referendum valid under Hungarian law. Never one to let facts get in the way of politics, Orbán, whose eurosceptic Fidesz party has more support than all opposition parties combined, said in a televised speech:
“The European Union’s proposal is to let the migrants in and distribute them in mandatory fashion among the Member States and for Brussels to decide about this distribution. Hungarians today considered this proposal and they rejected it. Hungarians decided that only we Hungarians can decide with whom we want to live. The question was ‘Brussels or Budapest’ and we decided this issue is exclusively the competence of Budapest.”
Orbán decided that the 3.3 million Hungarians who voted “no” in the referendum spoke for all 10 million Hungarians. After his speech, there were fireworks over the Danube river in the colors of the Hungarian flag.
In order to prevent the European Union from sending refugees to Hungary, Orbán proposed a constitutional amendment to reflect “the will of the people.” It was presented to the Parliament on October 10, 2016, but the bill was rejected by a narrow margin. The far-right Jobbik party, which contends that some of the new arrivals pose a national security threat, sealed the bill’s rejection by boycotting the vote. However, it held out a lifeline to Orbán by indicating that it would support the ban if Orbán scrapped a separate investor visa scheme under which foreigners could effectively buy the right to live in Hungary (and move freely within the Schengen area) in exchange for buying at least 300,000 euros in government bonds with a five-year maturity. Some 10,000 Chinese utilized this scheme, at this writing, to move to Hungary, as did smaller numbers of affluent investors from Russia and the Middle East.
The Orbán government feared that the referendum alone would not deter potential asylum seekers from trying to enter Hungary. In order to ensure that the situation from the summer of 2015 would not be repeated, the government begun to further strengthen the borders and to close existing refugee camps.
In 2016, the Hungarian police started recruiting 3,000 “border hunters” to join some 10,000 police and soldiers patrolling a 100-mile-long, four-meter-high, razor-wire-topped fence erected on Hungary’s southern borders with Serbia and Croatia to keep refugees out. The recruitment posts were scattered all over Budapest, including the Keleti railway station that became a de facto refugee camp for tens of thousands of people fleeing violence in the Middle East in 2015. Today, the thousands of police and border hunters deal with fewer than 200 refugees who reach Hungary’s southern border with Serbia every day.
The border hunters must have a high school diploma and receive six months of training. They earn approximately HUF 200,000 (US $709) a month, and receive other perks: housing and clothing allowances, and discount on travel and cell phones. During a recruiting fair in early October 2016, a pack of teenagers ogled a display of machine guns, batons, and riot gear. A glossy flier included a picture of patrols in 4x4s, advanced equipment to detect body heat, night-vision goggles, and migrant-sniffing dogs.
At a swearing-in ceremony in Budapest for border hunters in spring 2017, Orbán said Hungary had to act to defend itself. The storm has not died, it has only subsided temporarily, he said. There are still millions waiting to set out on their journey in the hope of a better life (in Europe).
Refugee Camp Closures
Erecting fences and recruiting border hunters to keep refugees out is one strategy; closing existing refugee camps is another. Beginning in December 2016, Orbán moved to close most refugee camps. The camp in Bicske operated as a refugee facility for more than two decades. In the little museum established by refugees on the premises of the reception center one could see artifacts, coins, and paintings from many parts of the world: several countries in Africa, the Middle East, Bosnia, Kosovo, and Afghanistan, to name a few. However, in December 2016, the camp was shut down as part of the wave of closures. When the author visited the camp a few days before it closed, 75 individuals, hailing from Cuba, Nigeria, Cameroon, Iraq, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, lived there.
At the time of the author’s visit, Bicske, which can house as many as 460 refugees, was operating well below capacity. The number of asylum applicants also decreased dramatically. According to HHC data, in October 2016, 1,198 refugees registered for asylum in Hungary compared with 5,812 in April 2016. As of October 2016, there were 529 asylum seekers staying in Hungarian refugee reception facilities: 318 at open reception centers such as Bicske and 211 in detention centers.
The refugees who the author spoke with, including a couple from Nigeria and a young family from Cuba among others, were no terrorists. Jose and his family fled persecution in Cuba in hopes of reuniting with his elderly mother, who had received permission to stay in Budapest a couple of years earlier. Jose is a computer programmer and said he was confident that he would have no problem finding a job. In addition to his native Spanish, he speaks English, and was also learning Hungarian. The Nigerian couple fled northern Nigeria when Boko Haram killed several members of their family. They told the author mean no harm to anybody; all they want is to live in peace.
When the camp in Bicske closed, the refugees were relocated to Kiskunhalas, a remote camp in southern Hungary, some 2 ½ hours by train from Budapest. The Bicske camp’s location offered its residents opportunities to access a variety of educational and recreational activities that helped them adjust to life in Hungary. Some refugees commuted to Budapest to attend classes at the Central European University (CEU) as well as language courses provided by nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). Bicske residents often attended events and met with Hungarian mentors from groups such as Artemisszió, a multicultural foundation, and MigSzol, a migrant advocacy group. Christian refugees were bused to an American church each Sunday morning. Moving the residents to Kiskunhalas has deprived them of these opportunities. The Hungarian government offers very few resources to refugees, both to those in reception facilities awaiting decisions on their cases and those who have received asylum, so it is clear that access to the civil-society organizations helping refugees prepare for their new lives is important.
Magyar abszurd: Assistance to Venezuelan Refugees of Hungarian Ancestry
While third-country nationals—asylum seekers or labor migrants—receive virtually no assistance from the government, ethnic Hungarians from faraway places such as Venezuela continue to enjoy a warm welcome as well as financial assistance and access to programs aimed at integrating them speedily.
Recently, Hungary accepted 300 refugees from Venezuela. The Hungarian Charity Service of the Order of Malta led the resettlement effort. The refugees must prove some level of Hungarian ancestry in order to qualify for the resettlement scheme. About 5,000 Hungarians emigrated to Venezuela in the 20th century, mostly after World War II and in 1956.
By Hungarian law, everyone who can prove Hungarian ancestry is entitled to citizenship. As Edit Frenyó, a Hungarian legal scholar, said, “Of course process is key, meaning political and administrative will are needed for successful naturalization.” According to media reports, the Venezuelan refugees are receiving free airfare, residency and work permits, temporary housing, job placement, and English and Hungarian language courses.
Apparently, the refugees have been directed not to talk about their reception, perhaps in an effort to bolster the official narrative: an ethnonational story of homecoming, in which they are presented as Hungarians, not refugees or migrants. As Gergely Gulyás, Chancellor of the Republic of Hungary, declared, “We are talking about Hungarians; Hungarians are not considered migrants.” Frenyó posits that the Hungarian government must present the refugees as Hungarians seeking to come home to avert political backlash and to make sure the controversial immigration tax law is not levied on the Malta Order.
Anti-Refugee Policy and the Role of Civil Society: Views on the Ground
In contradiction to the government’s anti-refugee policies of recent years, civil-society organizations and civilians offered assistance to refugees who descended on the Keleti railway station in summer 2015. As Migration Aid volunteers recount, volunteers brought toys and sweets for the refugee children and turned the station into a playground during the afternoons. However, when Migration Aid volunteers started to use chalk to draw colorful pictures on the asphalt as a creative means to help children deal with their trauma, the Hungarian police reminded the volunteers that the children could be made liable for the “violation of public order.”
In contrast to civil society’s engagement with children, the Hungarian government tried to undermine and limit public sympathy towards refugees. Hungarian state television employees were told not to broadcast images of refugee children. Ultimately, the task of visually capturing the everyday life of refugee families and their children, as the only means to bridge the distance between the refugees and the receiving societies, was left to volunteers and Facebook activists, such as the photo blog Budapest Seen. Budapest Seen captured activities at the train station, at the Slovenian and Serbian border, and elsewhere in the country, where both NGO workers and regular citizens were providing much needed water, food, sanitary napkins for women, diapers for babies, and medical assistance.
Volunteers came in droves also in Debrecen, among them Aida el-Seaghi, half Yemeni and half Hungarian medical doctor, and Christina, a trained psychotherapist, and several dozen others who communicated and organized assistance to needy refugees through a private Facebook page, MigAid 2015.
There were many other volunteer and civil-society groups, both in Budapest and Debrecen, who came to aid refugees in 2015. Among them, MigSzol, a group of students at the Central European University (CEU), Menedék (Hungarian Association for Migrants), established in January 1995 at the height of the Balkan wars, HHC, Adventist Development and Relief Agency, and several others.
At the time of writing, many of these organizations are no longer operational as a result of the “Stop Soros” bill, passed in June 2018, which criminalizes assistance to irregular migrants, among other things. However, organizations such as the HHC continue to provide legal aid to migrants and refugees. Many volunteers who worked with refugees in 2015 continue their volunteer activities, but in the absence of refugees in Hungary focused their efforts on the Roma or the homeless. In interviews the author conducted in spring 2019, they expressed that they stand ready should another group of asylum seekers arrive in Hungary.
This article was prepared using funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 Research and Innovation Program under grant agreement No. 770330.
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