Why Hungary, accused of xenophobia, has welcomed almost half a million refugees

·9-min read

This week, the number of refugees fleeing the war in Ukraine is approaching the 5 million mark. Their first port of entry are countries that border western Ukraine. From there, many people continue their arduous journey west, but not after a pitstop in refugee centres in Poland, Slovakia, Romania and Moldova. Or in the country that has a history of resentment against immigrants: Hungary.

On 24 February, the sound of explosions jolted Tanya Shymko and her family from their sleep in their flat in Kyiv. “We realised the war had started,” she told RFI.

“It was very scary, we took our children and some things, and went to my sister's house.”

Tanya thought it wouldn’t last long, maybe "a day or so" before she could go back home, but five weeks later, she’s in Budapest with her two sons, Vlad, 4, and Sasha 14.

Tanya's husband stayed behind in Kyiv “making protective gear for soldiers” and, after hiding for four days in an underground station that functioned as bomb shelter, she and her kids travelled by train.

Their first stop was Uzhhorod, on the Hungarian border, then Budapest, where they're now living with a family.

To cope with the stress caused by the war, Tanya, an artist, paints flowers in bright blue and yellow – the colors of the Ukrainian flag. She is now waiting to get a visa for the UK.

Tanya is one of close to half a million Ukrainian refugees who have come to Hungary for shelter since the war started on 24 February.

For the Hungarians, the impact was immediate.

“After the war broke out, we received a reservation under a Ukranian name saying they would like to have a place to stay for one night,” relates Gulyas Janos, the CEO of a Budapest-based communications company. He rents out a spare flat via a popular tourist site.

“We started to chat and I found out that they wanted to flee and we offered them the flat.”

But requests kept coming in. “We offered the flat, then the sofas in the living room, then a neighbor who was about to refurbish his flat, which was empty, agreed to take in refugees and we put inflatable matrasses on the floor," Gulyas says.

They got those for a discounted price from a sympathetic camping shop.

Volunteers

Hungarians from all walks of life jumped into action to help the people from Ukraine.

“I just went to the train station – where refugees arrived en masse during the first days of the war – and asked how I can help,” says Salát Gergely, an academic who works as head of Chinese studies at the Pázmány Péter Catholic University in Budapest.

“They said: ‘do you have a car?’ I said: ‘yes I do.’ They said: ‘then do this driving work for us. I'll give you a family, I'll give you an address. Take them there'.”

Since then, Salát has been chauffeuring refugees from the border to refugee centres or to improvised halfway houses such as Gulyas' flat.

“I think many people felt they should do something. I did what I could and thousands of other people did what they could,” he says.

From 21 March onwards, authorities decided to move the refugees away from Budapest’s main railway stations. Today, the first point of arrival in Budapest is the Kőbánya felső station, some five kilometres east of the city centre.

There, police ask refugees to get out of the train, and they are bussed to temporary shelters, the largest being the one in Budapest's state-run Olympic Centre.

Smaller outlets, such as the four-story building at Madridi Street in Budapest’s 13th district, are run by volunteers.

“There was an announcement that they need some people to volunteer, to get this place ready,” says Elödi Márton, a software developer. “I came here and just kind of stuck around and now I manage the place.”

The centre, nicknamed the "Madrid Road Refugee Hostel", is run by the non-profit organisation Migration Aid. It's buzzing with activity. A group of refugees with heavy bags just arrived, looking exhausted.

Two 18-year-old volunteers, Tóth Miska and Balász Fodor, who decided to volunteer after feeling "the impact of the war”, help with the luggage and assign rooms in the upper floors.

In the main room, refugees sit at long tables behind computers, some of them in concentrated conversation.

“This was one of the first things we tried to establish,” says Elödi.

“We have wifi here. Some people are in contact with their husbands and sons who are actually fighting in the war, so they are on video chat and messenger all day.”

Thanks to a partnership with one of Hungary’s telecom companies that provides free sim cards, refugees can make unlimited calls with their loved ones at home.

In one of the storage rooms upstairs, women gather together to sort out boxes filled with household supplies.

One woman, Marta, is a refugee from Zarapozhye in eastern Ukraine. She lives in the shelter with her 9-year-old son and now helps out with the volunteers who process big stacks of nappies, instant noodles, biscuits, toilet paper and other basic necessities.

They're all donations from Budapest shops and citizens.

Nuclear worries

Zarapozhye is home to Europe’s largest nuclear power plant, now under the control of Russian troops. Earlier in the month, there were reports of a fire near the reactors.

“The mayor of the town sends us daily reports about radiation levels,” says Marta, showing her cell phone with messages in Cyrillic script.

“Today levels are stable, they don’t go up.” But the war nearby her hometown still causes her worries. “Some people still can’t get out of the town” because of the bombardments nearby, she says.

But overall, she feels fine. “I’m a little nervous but ok. I think all time that my life is ok, it’s super. I am here, my son is here."

On the second floor of the building is the practice of Benny Ko, a retired doctor “from the state of Indiana, USA,” who “thought he could at least do a little something to help” alleviate the plight of the Ukrainians.

He packed his bags and flew to Hungary when he heard about their suffering.

Ko practices in a small room lined with shelves full of Covid-19 test kits, band aids and medical equipment. He sleeps in a room next door and is on standby for the best part of every day.

“We ran into a full myriad of different illnesses, “he says. “A lot of the kids being on the road for so long, they all picked up either some upper respiratory infections or gastro-intestinal flu.

"And the older people, on the other hand, would come to me with high blood pressure. A lot of them look really depressed."

Meanwhile, the ever omnipresent Covid-19 pandemic remains a threat.

“It is a grey area,” says Elödi, who runs the shelter. “We can’t possibly test everybody who comes in.”

Ko adds that he’s tested some 70 people who were about to go to countries that require a certificate. “If they test positive, they have to be isolated. And that’s beyond this little dormitory of ours,” he says.

Anti-immigration laws

But Hungary hasn’t always been this welcoming to foreigners who faced war in their country.

In 2015, when the war in Syria was reaching its zenith, some 390,000 asylum seekers crossed from Serbia into Hungary and ended up at Budapest’s Keleti railway station.

Most of them were Muslims, escaping, ironically, brutal urban bombardments that may have been carried out by Russian planes supporting Syrian strongman Bashir Al-Assad.

But then, the government of Viktor Orban – who won a record fourth term in office on 3 April – was quick to put in place harsh restrictions, refusing onward travel, closing off the border with high fences of barbed wire, and running patrols of some 3,000 “border hunters” to join 10,000 police tasked with keeping refugees out of the country.

Orban then introduced a series of anti-immigration “pushback laws”, and refused an EU request to find homes for 1,294 refugees.

He felt backed by a referendum (for which turnout was 39 percent) rejecting Brussels' power to have the final say over the matter.

According to migration specialist Elzbieta Gozdziak, writing for the Brussels-based Migration Policy Institute, Orban’s government “called on voters to defend Christian values and Hungarian national identity in order to stop Hungary from becoming a breeding ground for terrorism”.

Refugees were convicted of “illegal border crossing”, held in detention, sent back or fined. Just months later, the flow of Syrian refugees into Hungary had come to a virtual standstill.

Why the change of heart?

“The population was not very friendly because they are not used to Muslim people, Arabic people,” says Salat, the academic.

Ukrainians “look like us; they wear the same clothes; they are also Christian.”

Moreover, he says, they come from a “neighboring country”, while during the Syrian crisis EU policy dictated that refugees should "stay in the first EU country where they registered – Greece.”

The fact that they moved on to greener pastures in Germany, France or Sweden meant that "we didn’t need to see them as refugees."

Töth Miska, the 18-year-old volunteer, says Hungary and Ukraine have a "mutual history”, while Salat adds that more than 100,000 Hungarians live in Ukraine. They're “something like relatives for us; they are the same people”.

But Fölkel Róbert, an activist with the One Million for Free Ukraine Group, organisers of anti-Putin protests, plays it down.

Admitting the government did issue anti-immigratoin laws, he says that people did “help and support refugees from Syria”, recalling that he himself went to the Budapest station to help out.

“Hundreds of Hungarian people were also there to provide some help for the poor people from Syria,” he says.

But the negative press generated by Hungary’s strict immigration policies may have served as a lesson as well.

“I think both the population and the government realises that now we cannot repeat what we did in 2015 because now it is really time to help,” Salat says.

For Marta, the refugee from Zaparozhye, it means that she’s safe for now.

“The war is very close to Zaparozhe, and we are glad to be here. And there are a lot of people in Ukraine that suffer more than us. We are glad that somebody is helping them,” she says.

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