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Refugee crisis in the country of anti-migrant sentiment stoked from above

Ukrainian refugees are welcomed at Nyugati Railway Station in Budapest on 1 March 2022. Photo by Lackó Bernáth/Mérce

Note from LeftEast editors. This article was originally published on March 25, 2022, on Mérce and was translated into English by Noémi Bíró as part of a cooperation between Eastern European leftist media platforms in ELMO (Eastern European Left Media Outlet).

“Please give me five minutes to take a shower. I don’t feel very well. It’s always like this, when I go out there,” said Tibor Jónás, whom we met through the 1 Hungary Initiative (1 Magyarország Kezdeményezés), over the phone. 

Tibor has been following the fate of the refugees arriving from Ukraine since February 24th. He reports on the events via Facebook livestream nearly every day. Together with his wife, who helps the refugees speaking English, Tibor pays regular visits not only to Záhony, but also to the towns in eastern Hungary where refugee families have been housed. The day Mérce caught him on the phone, they were visiting Barabás and Lónya. 

A representative of the National Roma Self-Government (Országos Roma Önkormányzat) has confirmed information obtained from several independent sources, namely that Roma refugees arrived to Záhony in train carriages separate from the non-Roma refugees, that they were treated differently in the temporary accommodations, and that the authorities performed constant checks on them, but not on their non-Roma counterparts. Many of them will go back to Ukraine as soon as they can, rather than stay in Hungary. “There’s bias” against the Roma refugees, Tibor tells us when we call him back. 

And this bias has a history. 

Refugees, migrants, subsistence migrants, asylum seekers

At first glance, the Hungarian government’s attitude towards refugees may seem to have changed radically since the war in Ukraine broke out. “No refugee arriving in Hungary from Ukraine will go unattended”, the Prime Minister said in Beregsurány in early March, evidencing a striking example of the changing rhetoric. It was said that the refugees would be provided for three months. Those without Hungarian contacts would be offered temporary shelter, while companies that employ refugees would receive state subsidies to cover travel and accommodation costs for the newcomers. The entrepreneurial spirit, which reduces all “things” to a common denominator in order to integrate them into production, immediately took the bait: although the arrival of refugees would not solve the “labour shortage”, the national economy was ready for the challenge. This is a different narrative from the one we heard in 2019 about “a white-skinned, Christian workforce” that did not even care to exploit the migrants. 

The government’s narrative acrobatics, however, required an important distinction between migrant and refugee to be reinforced, although the difference is not at all self-evident. This happened for the first time not in 2022, but before the general elections of 2018. The “Stop Soros” bill (which was drafted during the campaign and passed after another victory securing two-thirds majority) provided the basis for this, sanctioning organisations that were founded to help refugees. According to this legislation, a migrant is made a “subsistence immigrant”, while a refugee is a persecuted person. One of them is “illegal”, while the other is aided by the official Hungary Helps Program, “locally”. Before 2018, this distinction was not obvious enough to think about the hate campaign against the refugees vacationing at Lake Balaton. 

At the same time, the concept of the migrant/immigrant is inherently unclear, as it is not formally defined in international law. And if we look at it in terms of assistance and hospitality, the difference is negligible. It makes no difference whether somebody is fleeing from climate change or war, or changing their country because making a living has become impossible. This was not the case in the government’s dictionary. The term ‘migrant’ was inserted into the Hungarian language, and while the border was closed to those it referred to, the term itself ran an unlimited course. While the distinction was the result of a banal coincidence – a passing comment made by the Deputy Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs while talking about 1,300 refugees – differentiating between ‘subsistence migrants’ and refugees has also proved effective during the Venezuelan crisis of 2019. “Refugees are not migrants, because they knock on the door,” the Prime Minister said. As if being a refugee was a matter of etiquette. 

The same arguments are being voiced regarding the arrival of the Ukrainian refugees. The refugee has a passport, is grateful for the help. She is hungry, while the migrant pretends to be someone else, looks for the WiFi, cuts through the fence and shouts. According to the slightly more elaborate argument, in 2015, migrants were coming from afar and passed through several countries considered safe; now Poland, Slovakia and Hungary are the first safe countries for the Ukrainian refugees. This, of course, implies the assumption that the one closest to the drowning person can swim. 

However, these sweeping judgments on the behaviour of the refugees don’t really hold up. To understand this, we need to look at the events of 2015 again. Hungary was not a destination country for the most, and those who did manage to apply for asylum almost invariably continued on to Western Europe. While the discourse against Brussels, Soros and the “pro-migrant” organisations, as well as the national consultations and referendums upholding the image of “a country under siege” and “Europe’s fortress” resulted in the Hungarian population vastly overestimating the problem, these imaginaries also obscured the complete disintegration of the asylum system. 

Already by the end of 2015, the government closed the country’s largest reception centre in Debrecen, eliminated integration support for refugees, and made it more difficult to submit asylum applications. As reported in Political Capital’s 2017 summary report, after 2016, asylum applications could only be handed in at the transit zones in Röszke and Tompa. These took months to process, and the vast majority of applications were rejected (154 out of 29,400 applicants were granted refugee status in 2016, and 106 out of 3,400 in 2017). Finally, by 2020, transit zones were discontinued.

Transit zones were operating illegitimately from the start, with the European Court of Justice ruling that refugees, including minors, were being illegally detained there for up to three years. During their existence, 26 cases of the police starving the detainees were confirmed in transit zones. Because of border incidents and illegal deportations, even the otherwise not too squeamish Frontex decided to withdraw from Hungary. 

Barbed wire fence and starvation by the authorities characterised the Hungarian refugee policy after 2015, which became purely a matter of law enforcement following the police standoff in Röszke bearing the marks of the secret service. The security narrative and the rhetoric of hostility have masked the fact that fewer and fewer refugees have applied for any kind of protection in Hungary, especially since March 2016, when the European Union outsourced the refugee issue to Turkey: 671 people applied in 2018 and 500 in 2019.

The refugee question without refugees, along with the migrant crisis, have unjustifiably continued for 7 years now – all based upon the figure of the “illegal border crosser.” Yet the number of “border crossers” has continuously grown on the Serbian border, while remaining completely unchanged in Serbia since 2015.


Thus, the refugee crisis caused by the war in Ukraine, which began on 24 February 2022, found Hungary with its asylum system in ruins. Per a telling piece of data: there is only one refugee camp left in the country, in Vámosszabadi, with a capacity of 300 people. This situation is exacerbated by the disintegration of the social safety net over the past fifteen years, which negatively affects those refugees who, lacking Hungarian contacts and sufficient resources, are unable to provide for themselves and are therefore heavily dependent on the assistance of the state. Newcomers cannot rely on the healthcare system either, which, ravaged by the coronavirus pandemic, is both underfunded and overstretched. Márió Kiss, a Roma activist, told Partizán that what’s lacking most in assisting refugees is “the administration, the Hungarian state.”

The NER regime (the “System of National Cooperation” instituted in Hungary in 2010) has always been marked by duality: it has said one thing and done another. This is not just simple obfuscation. On the contrary, it is the basis of the modus operandi by which the system dominates its own counter-narrative after neutralising criticism. The current refugee crisis is no different. Although the government has provided support to the larger humanitarian organisations through the Hungary Helps Program, it is the work of the smaller organisations proving crucial. While refugees legally have access to free medicine, this is far from seamless given that more than 1,600 towns and villages in the state don’t have a pharmacy. The government helps the refugees, while the public media is engaged in doublespeak regarding the causes of the refugee crisis. 

The state still treats the arrival of the refugees as a law enforcement issue. Another sign of confusion is the fact that asylum rights for dual citizens from the Transcarpathia region of Ukraine were only recognised and granted two weeks after the start of the war. Instead of refugee status, only temporary protection for up to one year can be claimed by those arriving from Ukraine. For a long time, it was only possible to apply for asylum from Kyiv, as the draconian asylum rules also applied to Ukraine. The asylum seeker status, which has not yet been implemented, is not attracting many people, with only 4,400 of the 429,000 refugees who arrived in Hungary by 21 March having settled in the country and formally applied for asylum. On average, one out of a hundred people were resettled by the state, the rest were either accommodated as best as possible, assisted by the population, or they decided to return to their country at war. 

However, 4,400 people in the course of just one month is still three times more than the number of refugees that Hungary was supposed to accommodate in 2016. Back then, there were 1,294 refugees and a referendum decided their fate. Today, Europe is facing a refugee crisis the likes of which it has not seen for 80 years, with more people are arriving at Nyugati station every day than the number of those needing shelter back then.

Among these arrivals, there are Roma families from Transcarpathia, who face multiple difficulties. They are simultaneously affected by the racist policy against ‘migrants’, which has assigned negative attributes to skin colour, naturalised and ethnicised cultural differences, making racial and ethnic difference fundamentally immutable. Roma people are also impacted by a deep-rooted anti-Roma sentiment in the destination state. The unforgivable responsibility lies with the Hungarian government, and, increasingly since 2015, with the “pro-government media”, which has normalised and trivialised racial discrimination, and which has now effectively become a governmental body. 

Platform 10 

We grab a handbag belonging to a family of refugees, and we rush to the bus. 

We met Alex at the Nyugati railway station, where he was giving some last-minute information to a family preparing to leave. While the bus to Würtzburg pulls out of the parking lot, Alex tells us that he came to Hungary from Ukraine five years ago, he works at the Samsung factory in Göd, but he visits Nyugati whenever he can to help the refugees as a volunteer. There is plenty to do, with a train arriving from Záhony at 8am and another 300 people expected to arrive from the Ukrainian border at noon, while refugees are also arriving from the airport.

Alex is one of the interpreters helping humanitarian organisations, churches and non-affiliated activists camped out in a corridor of Nyugati station and in the open air. He mediates between the police and the refugees, the coordinators of the buses leaving for Germany and their passengers, the humanitarian organisations and the people arriving by train. 

What we see at Nyugati today would have been unimaginable even a few days before February 24. In the crowded courtyard, the protesting students of a high school in Budapest can be seen side by side with the Federation of Hungarian Jewish Communities (Mazsihisz). In a narrow corridor we can find the Faith Church, the Red Cross, members of the Hungarian Reformed Church Aid easily distinguishable by their green shirts, the Hungarian Charity Service of the Order of Malta, while the 1 Hungary Initiative, Migration Aid and 2-3 other activist groups are sharing a booth. There are also Jehovah’s Witnesses in the crowd, and opposite the train station we met some representatives of the Two Tailed Dog Party.  

Migration Aid, founded in 2015, has been at the centre of government attacks. Up to this point. Even a few months ago, the organisation, labelled “Sorosist”, had to prove that they were not a “national security threat” even though they have had a continuous relationship with the Constitution Protection Office since 2015, through which they obtained entry permits to transit zones – something even journalists have been excluded from. 

“I find it terribly difficult to come to terms with the double standard,” explained Gabriella Herczog, member of Migration Aid in 2015 and now a coordinator of a 20-person initiative. “I have always seen it as a matter of helping people, without any discrimination,” she said when asked about the differences she sees compared to the 2015 refugee crisis.

Gabi – as her colleagues call her – also reported that public assistance is scarce. This is particularly noticeable in border municipalities, where most of the work is done by volunteers. She was the first one to tell us details about how donors were making exceptions. According to her, several Roma families have returned to Transcarpathia because the conditions of their reception were not suitable for them. For example, many donors withdrew the offer of accommodation when it turned out that they would have to provide housing for Roma families, and the temporary shelters that they were offered proved unsuitable. 

“It says a lot about Hungary that after a few days, refugees are turning back to war-torn Ukraine,” she told Mérce. Presumably, a more attentive state could have avoided the problem of some donors harassing the refugees entrusted to their care. On the day we visited Nyugati station, the work of the charities seemed to be coordinated. Members of the organisations we spoke to told us that they had formed an informal forum, independent of the Charity Council comprised of six organisations, each of which had received 500 million HUF in government funding. 

Refugees arriving by train were first given access to food and refreshments at the crossing on platform 10. Tthe platform leads to open air, and outside they were given information about temporary accommodation or further travel. The walls and the door were covered with handmade information leaflets, taped over MÁV billboards. The willingness to do something is evident. The reception of the refugees went smoothly, the only interruption was caused by the Hír TV crew, who pushed everyone aside while filming a report in the makeshift “humanitarian centre”. 

Who’s pilfering here? 

Several signs indicate that this was not the case at the beginning of the refugee crisis.

Above all, the means lacking could have been most easily provided by the state. Sándor Újhelyi, founder and interpreter for Migration Aid, reported that even in the first weeks of March there were no facilities for personal hygiene and breastfeeding at Keleti railway station. It was impossible to exchange Ukrainian currency for forints or euros, and there was only one pay toilet to serve the needs of thousands of people. The emergency services transported refugees travelling onwards to temporary accommodations 100 kilometres away for only one day at a time, and did not arrange for their return journey.

The problems were only partially alleviated by the shelter on Madrid Street, which can accommodate 300 people without state involvement, or the “children’s corner” set up by volunteers, where parents with young children can spend time with their often-traumatised children. Also doing the state’s work are groups such as the City is for All (A Város Mindenkié), the Street to Homes Association (Utcáról Lakásba Egyesület), and Habitat for Humanity Hungary, which are joining forces to provide longer-term accommodation for refugees.

Volunteers and civilians had to leave Nyugati and Keleti stations by midnight on 20 March, while a state transit shelter was opened in the BOK stadium and concert hall, where the NGOs providing assistance were also invited.

The arrival of students studying in Ukraine, often from African countries, as well as Roma from Transcarpathia, was a situation that not all actors were able to cope with, especially in the first days of the refugee wave. It posed a particularly sensitive challenge for refugee organisations, border guards, and police. At least, this is what appears in the statements of the aid organisations and activists we interviewed, such as Tibor Jónás, who told Mérce that in Záhony the Roma of Transcarpathia are treated differently from non-Roma refugees; while the latter are allowed to stay at their accommodation during the day, the Roma are asked to leave the building. 

“Already on the trains arriving in Záhony, it was striking that refugees of Roma origin were accommodated in separate carriages.” This was the response of the 1 Hungary Initiative to our question about discrimination. “There were occasional cases of the police in Záhony vexing Roma mothers, for example they were repeatedly asked for their papers, while they had already presented them when crossing the border,” they wrote.

According to the 1 Hungary Initiative, whose activists arrived at the border a few days after the war in Ukraine broke out, the police’s actions caused fear in families. The activists did not always have the courage to approach the Roma arrivals. This is one of the reasons why, for example, 40 refugee families turned back from the Ukrainian border on 14 March because they did not receive adequate care. Márió Kiss, activist and politician responsible for Roma policy for the Hungary for All Movement in Szabolcs-Szatmár-Bereg County, told Mérce that day that some people had turned back from Budapest after not receiving any help at the railway stations. This has also been reported by Szabad Európa (RFE/RL) and

“Roma refugees arriving in Budapest are almost always asked for their papers, while non-Roma are not. On the other hand, some poor people in Budapest – Roma and non-Roma alike – have asked for food from aid organisations. The volunteers working there have handled this by letting the police know whose papers to check,” 1 Hungary wrote in response to our question about the “aid points” in Budapest.

Adam, who was not affiliated with any aid organisations and did relief work at Nyugati station, reported similar experiences. In a letter to our editorial office on 8 March, he wrote: “As I have experienced, many Roma people from Transcarpathia have indeed had their passports checked by aid workers and volunteers (including myself), but this was not without precedent and not in an unjustified, discriminatory manner. During the hours spent in Nyugati, it was clear that several of the large Roma families from Transcarpathia returned to the donation counter 4-5-6 times, first the whole family, then one child or parent at a time, each time asking for food, toiletries, etc., sometimes browsing through them without asking, and sometimes taking more than the amount the family was likely to need at any given moment. This was pointed out to them on several occasions: ‘a person can only take one deodorant, shampoo, etc.’, which many apparently Roma families from Transcarpathia ignored.” Like his colleagues, Adam was also uncomfortable with this practice, but considered that the “available donations are finite”. However, he stressed that there were times when it was left it up to the refugees, “and it is absurd to claim that every single Roma at Nyugati was discriminated against”. 

When we were at Nyugati and Keleti stations on March 11, we did not see any such procedure. However, one of the humanitarian activists we talked to said that when someone returns for donations repeatedly, they inform the police “going by face”. When asked about possible “misuse”, the Hungarian Reformed Church Aid, which helps refugees in 9 locations across the country, responded: “We have seen people in need, but who were not fleeing the war, queuing for donations”. But they stressed that “as a charity, they cannot ask for anyone’s documents”, so “we have conversations with them to try to get them to understand that in the current situation there are people in a more immediate need of donations”.

The news of discrimination has made its way to the international press, with the New York Times reporting that Roma refugees in Nyugati are having their papers checked and have less access to food. The news was denied by the police. The Budapest Police Department said in a statement that “the police are providing assistance to refugees from Ukraine without any bias”. 

In response to our inquiry, the Budapest Police Headquarters (BRFK) said that “the aid organisations have reported several cases of such abuse to the police” and that “action has been taken in all such cases”, but that they do not keep records of the number of identity checks, for example. In their reply, the police stressed that “they are not involved in the distribution of donations”. However, while the BRFK wrote that it was “providing an increased presence at the stations for the benefit of the refugees”, the National Police Headquarters (ORFK) stated in its response that “there is no permanent police presence at the aid points”. 

The ORFK added: “Currently, there are two temporary refugee centres in the country, in Fehérgyarmat and Cigánd. The police, emergency services and the National Directorate General for Aliens Policing are present there”, while at other locations “the number of police personnel varies depending on the task at hand”. Both the ORFK and the BRFK have sent us reports of when they have taken action “regarding abuses”. 

Two of these are particularly noteworthy. In the quoted statement, the police wrote: “Some people go to the lengths of traveling from Budapest to a rural railway station and then board the train back to the capital, in order to repeatedly pick up donations at the aid point”. This was not confirmed by the activists we interviewed, and our experience would contradict this practice: if someone wanted to “misuse” the donations, they do not need to take the train to return to Budapest from the countryside. 

However, there was a very strong “police presence” throughout. While the role of the police was to keep a tally of the number of arriving refugees in a square ruled notebook and kindly direct us on our way, the riot police were intimidating by their very presence and appearance. The latter were hard to talk to, and the riot officers at Nyugati treated even the scheduled arrival of the train from the Eastern border as an official secret. 

Záhony railway station with refugees in February 2022. Photo by Soma Ábrahám Kiss / Mérce. 

From another point of view, it is interesting to read the official communication entitled, “Donations for refugees have been pilfered”, which assumes that the donation is private property and not aid for people in need. Be that as it may, the Budapest Police Headquarters has initiated proceedings against the “pilferers” for “property offences”, which is a clear reflection of the state’s mindset. 

Overall, even if there was “misuse” of donations collected by citizens for those in need, and some aid organisations turned to the police to remedy this; discrimination cannot be measured by the same yardstick. In the case of the aid organisations, this did not seem to be a regular practice, and after Roma activists appeared in Záhony and at the Budapest railway stations, the police stopped carrying out checks. 

However, the police practice of continuously carrying out checks on Roma from Transcarpathia, as we have seen from several reports, carries more weight. Through this procedure, it is the state itself making a statement. However, it is important to highlight the reasons for this, because although discrimination manifests itself in individual acts, it points to broader bias: decades of political practices have led to a distinction being made between one refugee and another. It is undoubtedly not enough for the police to make a promotional film about how kindly they treat refugees.

From the devil to Europe’s crisis

The discrimination between refugees has only increased after 2015. But the same thing happened in the refugee wave of 2022 as in 2015: society mobilised and helped. The forces that were unleashed took the government many months to divert and reverse: the southern border was closed, barbed wire was erected, xenophobia and paranoia were systematised. 

Nor should we forget that the government’s policies have been adopted by the opposition too. The prime ministerial candidate of the United for Hungary alliance, whose policy was to flip everything back onto the government parties, took the time to contribute to the “migrant” discourse in Röszke in November. Róbert Lengyel, the opposition’s expert on interior affairs and law enforcement, did not consider the work of the Ministry of Interior led by Sándor Pintér to be “of the devil’s own doing.” He generously forgot that in 2019, by assigning the issue of “Roma inclusion” to the Ministry of Interior, “Roma policy” was degraded to a mere law enforcement and interior affairs issue.

Of course, the situation in Hungary is not unique. It is a testament to the deep crisis in Europe that the UK, as a backdrop of Boris Johnson’s rhetorical activism, has done everything it can to make it almost impossible for Ukrainians to enter the country – from not disclosing where most of the visa application centres are located to closing those that have been announced. African students studying in Ukraine have been refused entry to Poland for a long time.

Immediately after the war in Ukraine broke out, Éric Zemmour, one of the far-right candidates in the April presidential elections in France, stated that he did not support the admission of Ukrainian refugees to France because he believed it could destabilise the country. He later corrected this in the wake of public outcry by saying that he welcomed the arrival of Ukrainians but not Arabs.

The presence of Roma aid workers is key

Hopefully, this time, gestures of solidarity will go beyond the acts of assistance seen in 2015.

For this to take place, however, it is now essential that the work of Roma activists is not hindered in any of the aid centres and temporary accommodations. Benjámin Rézműves, founding member of the 1 Hungary Initiative, told Mérce that “it is important to be here because many Roma come over from Ukraine as refugees, but on the basis of their appearance these people are not treated as refugees but as gypsies, with all the negative connotations that this entails. In the first few weeks there was chaos, there was not much presence of the Hungarian state or its organisations, apart from the law enforcement. But it’s not just the law enforcement, it’s collectively all the aid organisations that have been keeping this distance.”

Of course, 1 Hungary does not deny the volunteers’ willingness to help. But also they write, “the anti-Gypsyism in Hungary also affects the volunteers. Even as war refugees, Gypsies can only be present as second-class people.”

Likewise, the 1 Hungary Initiative stressed that: “The presence of Roma aid workers is key. This will ensure that a relationship is established between both the helpers and the Roma refugees and prevent possible discriminatory phenomena and non-delivery of assistance”.

At Nyugati station, the door of one of the trains opened, and soon a crowd of children’s heads peered out. It took a long time to get off the train, with the women descending the steps themselves, then lifting the children off one by one, and finally their luggage. “Thank you!”, the oldest woman shouted to one of the traffic controllers, who raised his sign in reply.

“We are going back to Ukraine!” said several of the women as we approached them, now standing on the platform. They spent the night on the train, waiting for the next train headed east. They say that their husbands have not been allowed to pass, and that they cannot stay either. One of the children is clutching a teddy bear, asking about our work, watching as we write down what their mothers have to say. 

Not a single one of them revealed their names, although it would have been very important.

Árpád Kocsis (1988, Kishegyes, Yugoslavia), writer, translator, philosopher, journalist-editor of Mérce, the Hungarian Leftist online magazine. A former student of the University of Novi Sad, University of Belgrade, University of Vienna and University of Pécs.